Academic journal article Chicago Review

Sense and Sensibility: Music on Stage in What Next?

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Sense and Sensibility: Music on Stage in What Next?

Article excerpt

What Next?, a comic opera in one act with a libretto by Paul Griffiths and music by Elliott Carter, has had a mixed reception since its premiere in 1999 at the Deutsche Staatsoper Linter den Linden in Berlin. Reviews of the early productions tended to praise Carter's music but were hard on Griffiths's libretto. "It celebrates nonsense poetry predicated on profound gibberish," was Martin Bemheimer's conclusion in his December 11, 2007, review for the Financial Times, and less dismissive critics expressed bafflement as often as enthusiasm. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from Daniel Barenboim, who had arranged the commission for What Next? and conducted the premiere. Asked in 2008 what he hoped Carter would write next, Barenboim replied "A big, evening-long opera with a captivating libretto." (1) It was widely reported that the scenario of What Next? is based on Jacques Tati's 1971 film Trafic, but Carter repeatedly downplayed the film's influence on the opera, and the lack of a significant connection between the two quickly became conventional wisdom. Compounding the confusion was that, in spite of nearly universal acknowledgment of the libretto's debt to a half-century-old tradition of Absurdist theater, most critics measured the opera's characters by a standard of theatrical naturalism descended from Mozart and Verdi. To be sure, What Next? makes playful reference to a host of musical and theatrical conventions, but the "skewed fit of libretto and music" that David Schiff has noted is a product of the opera's reception history that has obscured its estimable achievements. (2)

There is no question that Carter got the libretto he wanted. He chose Griffiths for the project himself and the two remained in frequent contact, each making essential contributions as the scenario and libretto took shape. The idea of using a scene from Trafic as the opera's point of departure was Carter's. In the film, Tati--playing his perennial alter ego Mr. Hulot--works as an automobile designer for the fictitious Altra car company. Mr. Hulot and his team are responsible for transporting the prototype of a new camper from the company's base in France to an automobile exposition in Amsterdam, and the film chronicles their exploits on the ultimately fruitless journey. The episode that Carter remembered begins with an elaborately choreographed, multicar pileup. After a long sequence of cars careening out of control and auto parts flying, the energy finally dissipates and the scene becomes dramatically still and silent. Tati treats the occupants of the cars like sleepers waking up in the morning: they slowly emerge from their vehicles as though from their beds, stretch their arms and legs, test their neck muscles, and seem not too terribly aware of one another.

This episode provides the basic scenario of the opera. As the curtain rises, six characters lie amid the wreckage of an accident, then gradually disentangle themselves and begin to sing. There is the lyric soprano Rose--a professional singer and a diva who, throughout the opera, sings half-remembered snatches of songs and arias from her earlier performances. Dressed as a bride, she seems to have been on her way to wed Harry or Larry (he says he'll answer to either name)--a baritone, bridegroom, and clown. The older generation is represented by the aging hippie and would-be guru Zen (a tenor), and Mama (a dramatic soprano), who may or may not be Zen's ex-wife and Harry or Larry's mother. Finally, there is the low contralto Stella--an astronomer of indeterminate age whom Mama thinks is Zen's current girlfriend--and a boy alto, Kid, who no one seems to recognize but everyone wants to reassure.

Equally significant for the opera, though Carter does not say so explicitly, is the long sequence in Trafic that precedes the accident. When Mr. Hulot and company fail to stop at the Dutch border crossing they are chased down and (with their camper) taken to a detention garage, where they become ensnared in the processing of bureaucratic paperwork with a dozen or so customs officers. …

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