Too soon for a 9/11 opera? Or about right?

“Is it too soon for an opera about 9/11?” asked Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM programme on Friday, previewing an item about Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, which receives its premiere at ENO this week. A silly question: for one thing, it was redundant – Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier, the (true) story of a Vietnam veteran and security chief within the Twin Towers who led 2,700 people to safety on 11th September 2001, was staged by San Francisco Opera four and a half years ago.

Sillier too because it – and the feature that followed – rested on the double fallacy that opera (and, by extension, all the arts) is a place only for entertainment, where real-world tragedy has no place. I haven’t heard a note of Davies’s opera yet, so I can’t comment on its individual success or otherwise, but the two assumptions made by the PM feature (which can be heard until early May, from about 47:25) are the sort of thing that spell death for opera as a serious art form, and for the arts as worthy of support as a society. For that reason alone I’m right behind Davies and her librettist Nick Drake on this one. As Drake pointed out in interview (ambushed somewhat by the questions of an understandably distressed mother of someone who died in the North Tower), “We have to look at what happened, we have to remember what happened, we have to think about what happened, because it illuminates things about human beings which are very important.”

Of course, Between Worlds belongs in what is now a long line – a sub-genre, even – of “9/11 music”, of works with greater or lesser credibility. Among the better pieces we might include John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park, and Mohammed Fairouz’s In the Shadow of No Towers, although for my money few quite match Art Spiegelman’s comic In the Shadow of No Towers (which inspired Fairouz’s piece), or Gerhard Richter’s painting September. Indeed two of the most moving sound works in the 9/11 canon, as it were, were made before the attacks took place: Stephen Vitiello’s World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd, field recordings made at the WTC in 1999, which managed to sound both portentous and as a memorial for the architecture itself; and William Basinski’s famous Disintegration Loops, which through an accident of timing served to soundtrack the composer’s own 11th September, viewed from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment, and became folded into the mythology of that day.

One thing that connects pieces by Adams, Gordon and others (including Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, several pieces by Kevin Malone, Mark Bains’ audification of seismic vibrations recorded on the East Coast during the 9/11 attacks, and many more) is their emphasis on documentation as a way of confronting the horror and grief of the events being commemorated. It was interesting in this respect that the conversation about Between Worlds was premised on how the “sounds of 9/11” might be represented on stage, rather than any sense in which factual realities might be transmuted through their conversion into art.

As Robert Fink has argued (in Repeating Ourselves and elsewhere), contemporary minimalism/postminimalism – styles with which several of the works mentioned above may be aligned – keys well with the rhythms and expressive modes of the news media. This may go some way towards explaining the prevalence of recordings of voices, lists of names, and so on that appear in works by Reich, Adams, Gordon and others. There is also the possibility that documentary commemoration, an aural equivalent to a monument carved with names, is a simpler and more respectful approach to take. It is certainly simpler, but respect for the dead involves more than mere veneration if anything is to be achieved in their name. Davies and Drake’s opera is taking a leap into the fictional, but to do so is not the same as to create entertainment; it may be the better way to ask the sorts of questions that tragedy on the scale of 9/11 demands.

Between Worlds will be performed at the Barbican Centre, London, from 11th to 25th April. Tickets are available here. Image above from Davies’ sketches for the piece.


5 thoughts on “Too soon for a 9/11 opera? Or about right?

  1. Isn’t the more interesting — and difficult — question not about 9/11 operas in general but rather about the hypothetical 9/11 opera that takes a larger historical and dramatic approach, with a more nuanced and — when appropriate — ambiguous, even heterodox, view of the event, including both its background and consequences? We have already seen how The Death of Klinghoffer (in which the antagonists are not portrayed sympathetically but are allowed to argue motivation for their actions), although only tangentially related in terms of immediate topic, became, in a certain sense, a different opera after 9/11, and that nuanced approaches to it and to any related conflicts became even more difficult to present in large institutional venues. I suspect that there is at least the duration of one generation before we can expect the institutionally acceptable musical response to great tragedy to move from ritualized observance (i.e. requiems and other memorials, both meditative and jeremiadic) to problematic or conflict-driven dramatic narrative.

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