Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Dissertation Digest: Portraying the Anti-Heroine in Contemporary Opera

By Nicholas Stevens

In September 2017, I pasted a link to an interview into an email, and sent it to my former doctoral advisor with the subject line “!!!!!!!!” In the interview, the film director Darren Aronofsky had hinted that he might pursue an adaptation of his surrealist horror hit Mother!: an opera, to be scored by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson. Two men, coming together to depict the abuse and murder of a woman in an operatic allegory of the misdeeds of humanity – I had seen this movie before, so to speak. Just as the concluding minutes of Mother! imply unending repetition of the film’s grisly scenario, so did Aronofsky’s statement suggest, in light of my recently completed research, that the trend I had been examining might renew itself for years to come. To put it plainly: expect opera’s undoing of women, named as such by Catherine Clément in the context of the historical operatic canon, to continue and even intensify in new works by living composers.<1> Expect these new works to reproduce familiar musical and dramatic contours, no matter how subversive the intent.

In my dissertation, Lulu’s Daughters: Portraying the Anti-Heroine in Contemporary Opera, 1993-2013, new opera serves as both a focal point and a gateway to history. Over the course of the dissertation’s introduction and four case study chapters, I argue that opera’s anti-heroine archetype – one of the most familiar in the genre’s traditional repertoire – returned to prominence at the turn of the twenty-first century, along with many of its associated tropes and plot trajectories. However, I also document the cultural changes and shifting media landscapes that informed the creation of several pieces: Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face (1995), Louis Andriessen’s Anaïs Nin (2009-10), Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2011), and Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu (2012). The project implicates reality television as well as experimental theatre, the history of cinema as well as that of the operatic voice, and urgent concerns of real-world violence as well as aesthetic debates amid European art music circles.

Between 1993 and 2013, these and other leading composers chose to update and adapt the basic scenario of a transgressive heroine who rises within her society, only to fall silent in the end. Each of the creative teams behind these works advances a novel way to modernize, transform, disrupt, or critique opera’s long tradition of doomed anti-heroines, yet each also draws upon a common, historically rooted set of musical and dramatic devices in characterizing their compromised protagonists. Like Alban Berg’s landmark Lulu of 1935, these operas include gestures toward American popular music in otherwise late-modernist scores. They also foreground and thematize forms of audiovisual media, such as film, photography, and recorded sound – a tendency that has assumed even more importance since I completed my research.

In the introduction, I trace the phenomenon of opera’s anti-heroine type back to its historical heyday: the decades between 1875 (Georges Bizet, Carmen) and 1935 (Berg, Lulu) in which many male artists, writers, and psychoanalysts took up misogyny itself as the bedrock on which their aesthetic theories, narratives, and treatises would rest. The first two case studies cover new opera’s depictions of two real women who came of age between the wars. Margaret, Duchess of Argyll becomes a complex concatenation of archetypes in Adès and Philip Hensher’s Powder Her Face, and Anaïs Nin, the posthumous librettist and sole physical character of Andriessen’s eponymous monodrama, becomes an insatiable femme fatale in the Dutch composer’s tightly edited biographical sketch. The second pair of case studies, devoted to operas about protagonists enmeshed in U.S. culture and history, opens with a look at a third quasi-biographical account of a female celebrity’s demise: Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole. A satire influenced by the tabloid culture of the 1990s and 2000s, the piece lifts the velvet rope between opera and pop musical theatre in service of ripped-from-the-headlines tragicomedy. In the final chapter, I turn to a work that eschews the depiction of a real woman, instead featuring a new version of a pre-existing character: Berg’s Lulu, reimagined as a New Orleans native and Josephine Baker-like dancer in Neuwirth’s experimental American Lulu.

The project emerged at the intersection of my earliest academic interest – the work of the Second Viennese School composers – and the topic of a seminar I took early in my graduate career, “Opera since Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.” Fascinated with Lulu and its entanglements with jazz and film, I entered the seminar thinking that composers had, at midcentury, simply left such opera scenarios behind, and that the works of our putatively more enlightened age would bear little resemblance to the shockers of yore. Pieces by Glass, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, and others initially bore out this expectation. Adès, whose third opera The Exterminating Angel had its stateside premiere in October of 2017, had by then become best known for his 2004 adaptation, with librettist Meredith Oakes, of Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Yet something familiar growled in the bass saxophone lines of Adès’s earlier Powder Her Face – an undertow of fate, pulling the protagonist toward a dark denouement. Something familiar glimmered in the eyes of Cristina Zavalloni, the mezzo-soprano and jazz musician who created the title role of Andriessen’s Anaïs Nin, based on especially sordid episodes from that literary luminary’s diaries. Something familiar lay just behind the rhetoric that Thomas, the librettist of Anna Nicole, advanced as he assured many an interviewer that his and Turnage’s satirical romp would underscore the tragedy of the title character’s demise. Neuwirth, opting for a more direct approach, had gone back to the source, crafting an elaborate audiovisual palimpsest over and around Berg’s score for Lulu. As I looked more deeply into Powder Her Face, I realized that Adès had done something similar, folding the anti-heroine archetype into a sort of meta-opera: an allusive late-modernist masterpiece as history of the form. Yet even in Neuwirth’s bracing, subversive treatment of the Lulu tale, a stubborn truth remained: somehow, over the two decades around the turn of the century, the set of musical, visual, and theatrical ideas that suffuse pieces like Berg’s had become not just newly viable, but intensely appealing to living artists.

In writing the dissertation, I aimed to expand the small but growing literature on contemporary opera.<2> However, I also hoped to issue a wake-up call to creators and practitioners. As the librettist, producer, and performer Aiden Kim Feltkamp has recently pointed out, contemporary operas tend to celebrate fondly remembered male characters while clinging to age-old negative depictions of women. With figures like Saariaho, Chin, Chaya Czernowin, and Tania León increasingly recognized for their operatic innovations, and relative newcomers such as Du Yun, Missy Mazzoli, and Ashley Fure winning some of contemporary art music’s highest honors, the needed change may come soon, without much help from the academy. However, my dissertation asks a simple question, still in want of an easy answer: why must opera lovers, like the titular mothers of Aronofsky’s film, keep waking to find the same horrific scenario laid out before them?


<1>Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
<2>Writers who have examined these pieces include Emma Gallon [“Narrativities in the Music of Thomas Adès” (PhD diss., Lancaster University, 2011)]; Drew Massey [“Thomas Adès and the Dilemmas of Musical Surrealism” (paper presented at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society, Milwaukee, November 5-9, 2014]; Heidi Hart [“Silent Opera: Visual Recycling in Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu,” Ekphrasis 2 (2013): 126-7]; Clara Latham [“What Makes American Lulu American?” (paper presented at the 42nd annual conference of the Society for American Music, Boston, MA, March 9-13, 2016)]; and Jennifer Tullmann [“Confronting the Composer: Operatic Innovations in Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu” (paper presented at the 80th annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Milwaukee, WI, November 6-9, 2014)].


Nicholas Stevens studies art and popular music after 1920, and lectures in music history and methodology at Case Western Reserve University. His recently completed dissertation considers the aesthetics and ethics of contemporary operas that aim to depict archetypal fallen women, with emphasis on their gestures toward popular music, film and broadcast media, and historical convention. His current projects include a monograph on new opera as medium, and a journal piece on the music of Thomas Adès. He was a fellow at the Library of Congress in 2015, and an Affiliate at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities in 2016. He also writes concert reviews and program notes, tweets about new music and musicology @sufjan_wallace, and maintains a personal website and blog at

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