Ever wondered why it seems like opera composers all lived in previous centuries? Why most performed classics seem to be by men who wore white, powdered wigs and had names like Ludwig or Wolfgang. Here at Welsh National Opera we love exploring the new ideas and fresh music that come from the living as well as the dead. Below we take a look at composers who were born in the 20th century; they are bold, curious and most definitely alive.
And they are not all men as Elena Langer demonstrates beautifully having established a career following studying at Moscow Conservatoire, Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. She composed Figaro Gets a Divorce, Rhondda Rips It Up! and using the surviving vocal score, re-orchestrated César Cui's 1913 opera Puss in Boots. Exploring themes as wide and varying as the suffragette movement, Alzheimer's disease and fairy tales. In an interview on writing Rhondda she said, ‘I’m bored with depressing things. I wanted to write something with humour…’ which is how WNO produced her wonderfully funny, 5-star Rhondda Rips It Up! with The Times review saying, ‘I defy anyone not to be swept away by this rule-breaking production. It’s bursting with irreverent joy.’
Another composer who uses his voice to commemorate historic world movements is Iain Bell; in 2018 New York City Opera commissioned him to write the opera Stonewall to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. He says, ‘It is always a privilege as a composer to give something or someone a voice.’ It is not the only thing he has given a voice to, in 2016 he wrote In Parenthesis based on David Jones’ eponymous World War One epic poem, The Independent’s 5-star review called the work a ‘powerful act of remembrance.’ The poignant thing about contemporary composers is that they can bring opera into the forefront of current culture by composing works based on recent public memory and thus create a more relatable experience.
Another great of modern composers is Judith Weir, awarded the CBE in 2005 and the first female Master of the Queen's Music. Tim Ashley from the Guardian says, ‘You don't so much interview Judith Weir as marvel as her beautiful mind roves from subject to subject.’ Her first stage work The Black Spider was due to be performed by WNO Youth Opera this Spring but we hope it will be back at some date in the future. She keeps everyone up-to-date with her life and work on her blog including her lockdown playlists (Radio 3’s New Music Show and Beethoven) and what she’s up to gardening, fighting the fight against climate change and mixing them altogether in the Beethoven Pastoral Project.
The fantastic thing with the composers above is that instead of wondering what they thought about something or how they did something, they are hugely accessible. Scholars in the future may be scrambling around trying to find what made them tick, as they do today for the likes of Mozart, so we must appreciate how lucky we are to have them in the here and now.