A mixed year so far for new opera. A few really dismal things have appeared from people who should know better. Did the world really need an operatic treatment of Dante’s Divine Comedy for orchestra and chorus? Louis Andriessen thought so; his La Commedia (2004–8) luckily only reared its drab head for one night at the Barbican. If you’re going to splurge as much money as opera often has to splurge, you have to ask yourself why. If you don’t, you create a situation in which operas come about merely because they can, often just to continue the tradition in the most inoffensive way possible.
‘Don’t mind me!’ says this kind of zombie opera. ‘I’m just trying to be as comfortingly familiar as I can be without it being too obvious that I’m bereft of ambition, originality or life.’ Joining the living dead is a strange aim for an artist. But it seems to be the aim nonetheless of several composers, including Stuart MacRae.
His opera The Devil Inside (2016) alights on a moral conundrum you might have come across before — perhaps in a school play. Two scruffy Scots chance upon an imp in a bottle who will grant them anything they desire. ‘Fame and fortune, please.’ Cut to a New York apartment and the scruffs are now suited and booted and flashing the cash. The imp’s not done, though; there are terms and conditions — the kind that could sustain a whole series of Money Box. Prosperity comes, but at a price.
Leaving aside gripes with the moral thrust (why exactly is it so dreadful to want money and success, and why — beyond bitterness — does art always feel the need to wag its finger at such striving?), we barely left am-dram in terms of narrative sophistication.