By Thomas May
There’s an entire category of landmark operas that originally met with resistance from their own composers. Take Ariadne auf Naxos. In its first version, the work posed so many problems that a frustrated Richard Strauss shelved the project for several years. And when he was approached by director Peter Sellars with the concept for his first opera—a venture tentatively titled Nixon in China—John Adams initially kept a skeptical distance.
The inception of The Ghosts of Versailles couldn’t have offered a more encouraging set of circumstances. Desiring to present a brand-new work to celebrate its upcoming centenary season, the Metropolitan Opera was determined to pull out all the stops. What composer would not leap at the chance—especially given such a spectacular context for his debut opera?
“When James Levine [the Metropolitan Opera’s music director] first asked me at a dinner party, ‘Don’t you want to write an opera?’ I answered, ‘No,’” Corigliano recalls. “Aaron Copland once warned me never to bother with writing opera. He pointed out that in the amount of time it would take to put it all together I could have written three symphonies.”
In this case, Copland’s prediction that Corigliano would need to set aside a few years to create an opera turned out to be a wildly optimistic underestimate. “It took me 12 years!” Measured, that is, from that original dinner party conversation in 1979 to Ghosts’ belated world premiere at the Met in December 1991—eight years past the centennial season for which it had first been envisioned.
A reduced version introduced at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has been done at the Wexford Festival and has been making the rounds since then at a handful of music festivals. But over the opera’s nearly quarter-century history—and despite its notable success when first presented to the public—performances of the full-scale version of Ghosts have remained a rarity. Following a reprise at the Met in the 1990s (with a smaller cast allowed by some doubling of roles), another planned revival was dropped from the schedule there in recent years in the wake of the Great Recession.
“Any producer who saw how the performers filled the stage at the Met would have said, ‘No way am I going to do this!’ The problem is, of course, the casting and expense,” Corigliano points out. Adds William M. Hoffman, the librettist of Ghosts, “We were actually encouraged to do that,” referring to the large cast and extravagant orchestral forces made available for the centennial commission.
That was a unique occasion, of course. Yet quite aside from that specific context, Hoffman and Corigliano jointly conceived of Ghosts as a work of music theater that celebrates and even takes as one of its principal themes the artistic power of opera. The grandeur of the full-scale version is not merely festive display: it deploys lavish operatic resources precisely so as to allow grand opera to weave its spell over a contemporary audience. And through its links to the other two operas inspired by the Figaro trilogy of plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799), Ghosts is also rooted in the comic opera buffa tradition—hence Corigliano’s reference to the work as a “grand opera buffa.” The composer remarks: “Once I decided to take on the commission, I wanted to write a buffa opera because that forces you to write beautiful ensembles from beginning to end.”
But the Beaumarchais connection took an unexpected turn early in the opera’s genesis. Thanks to his experience as a seasoned playwright, Hoffman quickly realized that simply adapting the third (and most obscure) of the Figaro plays—La mère coupable (The Guilty Mother)—wouldn’t provide an effective libretto for what they sought to create. “It’s quite a weird tragedy, in fact,” explains Hoffman. “But what the play gave us was a way to bring the [fictional characters] into the French Revolution. And it introduces new characters, like the villain Bégearss, who become part of our story.” Eventually they arrived at the intricate interweaving of fiction, fantasy (with elements of interactive “fan fiction”), historical reality and allegorical implication that comprises the story’s narrative.
Both Hoffman and Corigliano are native New Yorkers (just a year apart in age) and have been friends throughout their careers; their first collaboration dates back to 1965 (The Cloisters, a song cycle to the poetry of Hoffman). “Billy is exactly what I need in a librettist, because he’s both a poet and a playwright,” says Corigliano. “It was essential to have the dramatic instincts of a playwright but also instincts of a poet. Ghosts is not merely about facts or events from the past: this is a fantasy and deals with poetry as fantasy does.”
They collaborated closely to break the back of the libretto but had to operate from different perspectives. “I could read his words and understand them,” the composer says, “but he couldn't hear the music associated with the ghosts [in the Prologue, for example] because I couldn't play it at the keyboard”—to which Hoffman adds: “It drove me nuts!”
This mysterious music—the eerie sound world that most clearly evokes a “modernist” sensibility and that Corigliano describes as “a world of smoke”—became the starting point for the fantasy of a limbo-like zone for the ghosts “in which there is no time,” he explains. The challenge was to write in a way that could “sustain a kind of unsubstantial sound that was always in flux. I knew from the start that I didn’t want to write ‘neo-classical’—I’d done that in some of my earlier concert works, and besides, The Rake’s Progress had already accomplished that for opera. Instead, my strategy became to really drift into a different world of Classicism and to overlay that with the world of the ghosts.”
For his part, Hoffman singles out several models who helped him navigate the challenges of such a complex libretto: Monteverdi’s operas; the multi-layered narrative of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos libretto for Strauss; and Beaumarchais himself—not just for the Figaro characters but for his larger sensibility and imaginative reclamation of the farcical commedia dell’arte patterns from theatrical tradition.
In The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte deliberately press the absurd complications of the plot and the zaniness of the stock characters to a point where that very absurdity becomes the point. “You’re not meant to disentangle all these threads,” Hoffman says. “You are meant to ride along with the wave of crazy twists and no longer be able to keep track. It’s liberating.” The music is then in a position to restore a moving sense of harmony. In The Barber of Seville and even other comic operas not derived from Beaumarchais, Rossini’s classic ensemble finales whip up the characters’ reactions into a gloriously frenzied state, a collective hysteria.
“That kind of Rossinian madness offers something healing to our psyches,” according to Hoffman. “Rossini asks you to follow this insane logic of his operas so that by the time you reach the finale you’re filled with joy simply because your cares are gone.” Corigliano insisted on including just such a Rossinian finale when they began by mapping out the larger architecture of the opera. “One of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had in the opera house was with L’Italiana in Algeri, when you see the whole audience bobbing up and down with joy. There’s a wonderful chaos and wildness about it that served as the model for the ending of Act One,” the madcap scene in the Turkish Embassy.
Yet Ghosts encompasses a profoundly dark, disturbing side as well. “That’s only Act One,” says Corigliano. “In Act Two, we burst into a third kind of world, after the world of the ghosts and the buffa characters—and that’s the reality of the horrors of the French Revolution.” The second act focuses on what happens when Beaumarchais crosses over and interacts with his fictional characters from A Figaro for Antonia—the “opera within the opera”—and confronts historical reality as represented by the plight of Marie Antoinette.
“Of course the Revolution changed fundamental things about the modern world,” Corigliano remarks, “but its history was written by the victors, which is always the case. For sheer brutality, the French Revolution is in a class by itself.” As their work on the opera extended over the 1980s, the bicentennial of the French Revolution occasioned a deeper awareness of that brutal side—and of its legacy in the violent cataclysms of the 20th century. “The more I researched,” declares Hoffman, “the more the Revolution reminded me of the Russian and Nazi Revolutions.” The logic of the hypocritical schemer Bégearss, for example, turns out to be “pure Himmler”; for his chilling aria with chorus “Women of Paris!” in the second act, Hoffman actually quotes from one of Himmler’s propaganda speeches.
Meanwhile, the AIDS crisis had reached terrifying proportions within just a few years. As a direct response to the deaths of numerous friends, Corigliano would go on to compose his award-winning First Symphony in the late 1980s, while Hoffman’s seminal, Tony-nominated play As Is became the first major theatrical work to tackle the subject of AIDS on Broadway when it opened at the Lyceum in 1985.
All of these influences—abstract, historical reflections and visceral personal experiences of loss—left their mark on the creation of Ghosts. Alongside his reference to Strauss’s Ariadne, Der Rosenkavalier comes readily to mind: like Ghosts, Rosenkavalier involves a complex tribute to Mozartean inspiration that is anything but “pastiche” but that instead creates a unique sensibility; and what for Strauss and Hofmannsthal began in a spirit of comedy came to embrace a more serious meditation on the effects of time.
“Ultimately, despite the comedy, this is a serious piece about change,” says Corigliano. “The whole point is about different ways in which change happens: either through the violence and tragedy of revolution—the idea that you get to a new place by destroying and building on the rubble—or the evolutionary way of change where you can embrace the past, live in the present, and look to the future. The message of the entire opera is that these can all coexist without the destructive path.”
To elucidate how these ideas play out in terms of actual musical choices and strategy in Ghosts, Corigliano emphasizes the central role of counterpoint, of the simultaneity of multiple independent layers. “That’s what counterpoint is all about: two things existing at the same time.” He adds that this can happen in spoken theater as well: In As Is, Billy has single characters intermingle and you can hear each one’s logic—in a kind of musical counterpoint to each other.”
In the idyllic Garden Scene in Act One, for example—as Beaumarchais conjures a flashback of the love between Rosina and Cherubino (which resulted in the birth of Léon)—the memory of that love intersects with the playwright’s rapturous present-moment exchange with Marie Antoinette. In the resulting quartet, the dramatic situation creates an opportunity for a complex evocation of the Classical world “as many different ostinatos: I pictured them as clouds going at different speeds,” explains the composer.
Drawing on superficial first impressions, many of Ghosts’ first critics were content to tag the score according to whichever element they had focused on—as if the allusions, say, to Mozart (merely one thread of this luxuriant fabric) were characteristic of its entire sound world. Yet one of Ghosts’ essential features is precisely to avoid tracing a simple one-to-one correspondence between types of music and its distinctive theatrical levels (the timeless ghost-limbo, the buffa characters, and the historical personalities).
It’s a strategy that has newfound resonance for our polyglot, stylistically boundary-less new century. The mistake is to try to reduce the operatic feast that is The Ghosts of Versailles to a single dish. “I like to think of the story of the elephant and the blind men,” says Corigliano. “Depending on wherever they touch, it’s a different animal. I couldn’t play you any one moment of Ghosts and say: this is what the opera is. You have to hear the whole piece, how it flows from one thing to another and superimposes one thing on top of another.”
Thomas May is a regular contributor to LA Opera’s program books and blogs about the arts at memeteria.com.