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On the Aisle



Berlin Staatsoper: Elliott Carter's What Next?

By Philip Anson / September 16, 1999
On the Aisle

The dapper, Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Elliott Carter is 89 years old and still at work. He couldn’t have chosen a better location than Berlin for the world premiere of his new opera What Next? - a title that could also serve as this unfortunate city’s motto. Reduced to rubble in World War II, split for a generation by the infamous Wall, now once again the capitol of a united Germany, Berlin’s future remains something of a question mark. But having learned to reinvented itself politically and sociologically, Berlin is also uniquely receptive to creative artistic experiments such as this perplexing new opera.

The opening night of What Next? at the Berlin Staatsoper (on a double bill with Schoenberg’s Von Heute auf Morgen) was a media event as much as an artistic one. Television cameras played across the audience. European music industry nomenclatura, including Glyndebourne Opera general director Nicholas Snowman and BBC Proms controller Nicholas Kenyon, rubbed elbows with society types unfazed by ticket prices topping $200. After all, its not every day that a nonagerian composer writes his first opera, even a relatively modest 40-minute, one-acter.

Advance word of the opera’s plot sounded promising. Six people regain consciousness after a car crash and try to recall who they are and where they were going. It is a simple situation, but one with great potential for philosophical reflection, psychological analysis, reworking of relationships, and humourous revelations. Alas, this golden opportunity for a meaningful millenial opera missed the mark.

The fault lies partly with the libretto, which is devoid of linear narrative, value judgement, or even intelligible sentences. Instead, librettist Paul Griffiths, who has also collaborated with composer Tan Dun, gave us fractured phrases (""), word associations ("serious...Sirius", etc) and Gertrude Steinian stream of consciousness ("We were going to wedding. Were we going to a wedding? Who was going to a wedding?" etc.). To an American, this style recalled the work of ee cummings and John Cage. The German audience, who were lucky to have German surtitles, seemed to love the patter. Yet the conceit became tiresome. In the absence of any human interest, it was hard not to agree with the character Harry/Larry, who replies to the general babble with a crisp, “Who cares?”

Carter has admitted his music sounds like confusion, yet the musical score of What Next? made more sense than the book. Carter’s instrumentation leaned heavily on double basses, high wind instruments, and exotic percussion. The orchestra pit bristled with gongs, xylophones, bells, drums, sheet metal and even a trash can. The spasmodic, eventful structure was vintage Carter: complex, unpredictable, and often witty. Carter’s much-imitated brand of string and wind instrument wailing punctuated by cacophonous rattling and clanging retains its power to stimulate and disturb.

The set, by Gisbert Jakel making his Staatsoper debut, consisted of an enlarged stylized 1950s-era car wreck with exploded parts like wheels and bumpers hanging in mid-air. At one point the car roof opens like a flower. Later another car descends from the flies.

Direction by Nicolas Brieger consisted in keeping the characters moving, striding, bopping, and fidgeting in their own post-traumatic worlds. Ultimately the sets and direction were both superfluous, since there is no plot and nothing happens. Cast members Simone Nold (Rose), Lynne Dawson (Mama), Hilary Summers (Stella), William Joyner (Zen), and Hanno Muller Brachmann (Harry/Larry) seemed almost embarassed to be in this show. The American premiere of What Next?, scheduled for Chicago on Feb. 24, 2000, would lose nothing by being presented in a concert version.

Before the intermission we relished a beautifully staged, brilliantly acted production of Schoenberg’s Von Heute auf Morgen. Baritone Sten Byriel was an excellent leading man and soprano Cynthia Lawrence in her Staatsoper debut proved herself much more than Pavarotti’s buxom protegé.

The Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, who commissioned Carter’s new opera, played with admirable professionalism and vigor. Carter himself was obviously radiant as he tottered out to accept the standing ovation. It would be churlish to deny him his triumph.

What Next? plays at the Berlin Staatsoper Sept. 22, 25, 1999. Barenboim conducts the American premiere of What Next? in Chicago on Feb. 24, 2000, and at New York's Carnegie Hall March 5, 2000. The current issue of Opera magazine reprints a diary Paul Griffiths kept while collaborating with Elliott Carter.


(c) La Scena Musicale 2001 and Philip Anson