Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rent revisited

A friend is visiting and she hadn’t seen it, so we rented Rent. I consider this the best new opera of the last 15 years. Let’s discuss its relevance.

Rent is based loosely on La Boheme, an opera about the plague of tuberculosis in the artists’ Mecca of fin de ciecle Paris. Rent is about the plague of AIDS in New York City in the 1990's. Rent is about love.

The film comes with an excellent documentary on how Rent became first a musical and then a movie, and includes a wonderful biography of its creator, Jonathan Larson who died of a burst aorta between the dress rehearsal and the opening of the musical. The documentary discusses the arguments between Jonathan and his producers who forced him to rewrite the material until the characters all achieved personalities, identities that we the audience could feel sympathy for, to make this good idea into great theater. Rent is now in its 10th year on Broadway.

I can’t help thinking how much more we would appreciate the career of John Adams if someone would take him similarly in hand. John, it needs to work as theater. It doesn’t. We need people we can care about. There aren’t any.

Nixon in China is his best work. I have always enjoyed its theatrical qualities—the halo of translators that surround Mao’s speech, the coloratura aria “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung," the toasting ceremony, the play within a play—but it is the personal scenes between Richard and Pat that give it meaning.

Next came Death of Klinghoffer which I saw in San Francisco. Is there even a prayer of making this live? The Klinghoffers would have to come alive for us, and they don’t. How can they? He was killed because he was Jewish and existed only as a symbol to the people who killed him. The symbol must become a person. Theater cannot be a newsreel—it cannot acquire its significance from outside sources. Because it meant something to us when we watched it on television doesn’t mean it will mean something as an opera. All the meaning must come from inside the work. Did I say that clearly enough? All the meaning must come from inside the work.

For the opera to work as theater the terrorists must also live. Terrorists who come alive for the audience would not be acceptable politically. Why pick this as the subject for an opera when to succeed can only result in disgust?

El Niño is a nativity, a familiar story with its own emotional associations. It may work as an opera, I don’t know. I tried to watch it on video. I simply couldn’t stand the fragmentation of narrative.

John Adams sets himself impossible tasks. He wants to dramatize stories that don’t revolve around character and personality. For me he has no theatrical sense at all.

Where is the human interest in the creation of the atom bomb? In Doctor Atomic where are the human stories that make me care about this? What does Oppenheimer’s interest in John Donne tell me about his reasons for heading the bomb project, or was this just an ego trip for him, an opportunity to have his name go down in history? Do I cry because a bomb hangs in the air and people dance around under it?

Rent is a far better opera than anything conceived by John Adams. After a lot of prodding Jonathan Larson created characters that live for us. Creating a marvelously comic Henry Kissinger has its appeal, but this is as far as John Adams has come.

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