Mice And Men: The Opera

This past Saturday I saw the Sarasota Opera production of Mice and Men. This is the third modern American opera performed by the company in as many years. It follows The Crucible and Vanessa performed respectively in 2011 and last year. The applause that followed the performance and continued for around five minutes is a testimonial to the skill of the performers and the quality of the composition. The company has a true artistic success in its hands with this production. Yet it may not be a financial success at the end of its run. Susan Danis, the previous executive director of the Sarasota Opera used to remark that only war is more costly to produce than opera.

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The work is the famous John Steinbeck tragic novel that most high school students read set to music. The composer and librettist is Carlisle Floyd who attended the opening night performance.

I often hear objections to modern operas by people that otherwise regard themselves as opera lovers. Generally the objection is that modern opera is not "melodic". I agree that one is not going to leave the theater humming an aria from Mice and Men. But most people that attended the opera have left with an appreciation for the music and the operatic rendition of a novel that is difficult to reproduce for its pathos and depth of characters.

I have a set theory about modern opera music. There is a small and finite set of notes a composer can use. And there is a large but still finite set of arrangements and beats those notes can be put together to create a composition. Older composers have already used what in many cases are easier groups of notes to compose. What is left is the material modern composers use. It takes even greater creativity to create such music.

Moreover most traditional operas are in fact soap operas with shallow characters and melodramatic plots. Modern operas, as those performed by the Sarasota Opera company, are psychological dramas that portrait complex characters, emotions, and real life. They are more difficult to write and put to music, there is no question about it.

Are some modern operas more atonal than others? Of course, just like some traditional operas are more popular than others. But such fact should not be used to disqualify the entire genre. Being narrow minded is never a good thing, no matter the subject. The production of modern operas is an indication that this form of art is alive and does not only look at its past for survival.

To find out more about the Sarasota Opera and its productions go to http://www.sarasotaopera.org/