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Opera: relevant or outdated? This week on The Green Room

Librettist Scott Diel (left) and composer Eugene Birman (right) pictured during their two-week residency on Rabbit Island just off the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Andrew Ranville

Throughout the 19th century, operas were written to address the social issues of their day. Some people think those operas and their traditional format don’t have much context or relevance in today’s world.

Meet composer Eugene Birman and librettist Scott Diel. They believe opera should be made to reflect the current times and shed some of the formalities that characterize traditional opera.

That’s why they’re creating “State of the Union,” a neo-opera that challenges how humans view their urban environment, the world and each other. 

The piece will feature 12 voices. It doesn’t have any instruments, but it will have a megaphone.

Birman says ignoring some of the operatic conventions allows the message of the piece to be unfiltered.

“Part of the sort of innovation about this piece and why I think it’s what opera needs is new ways of looking at how to present it,” says Birman. “The sort of really tired format of there being an orchestra in the pit, and these people come out in costumes and nobody understands what’s going on at all ... I mean it’s so formulaic.”

Nostra Culpa

It’s not the first time Birman and librettist Scott Diel have teamed up for a unique musical project. 

In 2013, they created an opera entitled “NostraCulpa,” which is Latin for “Our fault!” It’s about the Twitter feud that took place between the president of Estonia and a New York Times reporter over Estonia’s austerity measures. 

The piece garnered media attention from all over the world.

Rabbit Island

It’s early evening and Scott Diel huddles over some kindling. He’s trying to start a fire with a piece of flint. The wind coming off Lake Superior is just too much. After several minutes, he gives in and uses a lighter.

Composer Eugene Birman works on his score on Rabbit Island.
Credit Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc
Composer Eugene Birman works on his score on Rabbit Island.

Earlier this summer, Eugene Birman and Scott Diel spent two weeks on Rabbit Island, working on the opera as part of an artist-in-residency program.

Rabbit Island is 91 acres of undeveloped forest, just off the Keweenaw Peninsula. The island is a wilderness, except for two lean-to shelters for the artist’s to stay in.

Diel says the isolation has allowed for more meaningful collaboration. 

“The island really served to demonstrate that, wow this human contact, this sincere discussion between two people, that’s something to be valued,” he says.

The two artists came away from the island with a completed libretto and a partially written score. The finished piece will debut next September. 

Someone once asked what “State of the Union” was about. Scott Diel replied saying it was about everything wrong with the planet. But, then corrected himself.  “When you think about it, there’s really nothing wrong with the planet, it’s more about what’s wrong with us,” says Diel.

That may sound discouraging, but for Eugene Birman and Scott Diel, it’s hopeful. They believe it’s when we realize there’s a problem, that we can begin to focus on a solution.

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water

Opera expert Fred Plotkin.
Opera expert Fred Plotkin.

Some people might disagree with Birman and Diel's current take on the state of opera. 

Fred Plotkin is one of them. He’s an expert who writes about and teaches opera. While he says we should be making way for new, innovative operas, we also shouldn’t be done with the “masterpieces” of the past.

“It’s not that we are using a checklist,” says Plotkin. “If works of art affect us, we make them part of our lives and we live with them forever.” 

He says the classics have stood the test of time because they are still relevant today. 

Let's hear from you

What’s your opinion about opera? Are you with Birman or do you love the classic masterpieces? Let us know on our Facebookpage. You might enjoy reading a very interesting piece on the current state of opera here.

If you’re into the idea of alternative opera or works based on current events, here are some of Kate Botello’s recommendations:

“Nixon in China” by John Adams

“Doctor Atomic” by John Adams

“Satyagraha” by Philip Glass

“Man on the Moon” by Jonathan Dove

“The Nose” by DmitriShostakovich

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Dan Wanschura is the Host and Executive Producer of Points North.