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‘As Living as Opera Can Get’: John Cage’s Anarchic Anti-Canon

‘As Living as Opera Can Get’: John Cage’s Anarchic Anti-Canon

The start was typical: Oper Frankfurt in Germany asked John Cage to write an opera.

But the premiere, in 1987, was unlike anything in opera up to that point. Cage, an American maverick whose philosophical, socially conscious works at the time were based on chance, mapped out an elaborate scheme for a show that would bring the entirety of European opera onto the same stage — at the same time.

It was called “Europeras 1 & 2,” an enormous undertaking of controlled chaos, engineered with an eye toward history and populist reclamation, hence the title that implies both “Euro operas” and “your operas.” Each element, its rollout determined by the I Ching, unfolded independently from all others: Singers performed arias unrelated to the instrumental accompaniment, which was unrelated to the scenic and lighting design, as well as stage directions. (Audience members also received varied plot synopses that read like opera Mad Libs.)

The public wasn’t exactly equipped to receive what Cage had served them. Laura Kuhn, who runs the John Cage Trust and worked with him as he prepared “Europeras 1 & 2,” wrote in her dissertation on the piece that the reception in Frankfurt varied from “overt enthusiasm to no less overt bewilderment or disdain.”

But Cage kept going. At the Almeida Festival in 1990, he premiered “Europeras 3 & 4,” which will receive a rare revival this week at Detroit Opera, in a production directed by Yuval Sharon. In Cage’s series of works, which concluded with “Europera 5” in 1991, the whole became greater than its parts, with affection alongside the anarchy, and the feeling, Sharon said, that “this is as living as opera can get.”

In Cage’s time, there were those who appreciated what Cage was doing. As “Europeras 1 & 2” was arriving in the United States, the artist and critic Richard Kostelanetz wrote that “by running innocently amok in European culture, Cage has come as close as anyone to writing the Great American Opera, which is to say, a great opera that only an American could make.”

Those who come to the “Europeras” devoted to the operatic canon may struggle with it. The experience of them is slippery: The more connoisseurs try to recognize fleeting melodies, the harder it is to see the bigger picture.

The “Europeras,” Sharon said, are really a “forest of impressions and sounds,” assembled from the scraps of opera history. (The original production featured 64 arias, stripped of their original context and set against a collage of other materials in ways that could be harmonious or not; no two performances are the same.) And navigating that forest can be a challenge.

“We’re not necessarily trained to appreciate that freedom,” Sharon said. Reception, he added, is often determined by an artist’s intent, which informs how audiences think about what they see and hear. “But Cage isn’t trying to say anything. It’s a liberating perspective, but it’s really foreign to how we think of the performing arts.”

Each installment opens up those possibilities, but in different ways. “Europeras 1 & 2” was conceived on a grand scale, because it was written for a grand opera house. But successive commissions were smaller: The cast of 19 singers became six in “Europera 3,” then just two in “4” and “5.” An orchestral ensemble later became two pianos, then a Victrola and a piano.

Kuhn said Cage hadn’t planned a trajectory for the works. But Sharon said that in the progressive reduction of forces, “it very clearly feels like there is a gradual stripping away of artifice.” It also feels, he added, that Cage wanted “to get to the singing human at the core of opera.”

Important to Cage, Kuhn said, was that the “Europeras” be recycled, in the sense that they require no new materials. They are meant to be performed using sets and costumes from an opera house’s archive; when Sharon staged “1 & 2” with his company, the Industry, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Sony Pictures Studios in 2018, he mined the studio’s collection of golden age costumes and backdrops.

“The power of the locality is a huge part of what Cage is doing,” Sharon said. “‘Your’ operas — there’s a sense of where you are located.” In Detroit, he will be using archive pieces that may be familiar, but will be seen “in an entirely new context.” A familiar costume from a work by Wagner, for example, might accompany an aria by Mozart.

Also in a new context will be some of the performers. “Europera 4” is an intimate recital for two singers. In Detroit they will be singers new to the work: the bass-baritone Davóne Tines and the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

The show is a step outside the comfort zone of Graham, a star more accustomed to stages like the Metropolitan Opera. There will be no orchestra supporting her, so she will be responsible for the pitch with which she starts each aria. (She chose her excerpts, but their order and relationship to other elements are left to chance.) “To make it as easy on myself as possible, I picked things that were in my DNA,” she said, like Didon’s farewell in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” and music by Handel and Mahler. “I’m singing four pieces that I can sing in my sleep.”

Tonally, rhythmically, even physically, singers have nothing to lean on in Cage’s operas. “He told them to practice with all sorts of things going on around them,” Kuhn said, “whether it was balloons or plastic knives, and see if you can do your aria without making mistakes. If you can do that, while also carrying out your actions, that’s the biggest part of it.”

Achieving that requires dismantling much of how singers are taught to approach opera. “We often use our critical faculties to weigh whether something is good or beautiful, or whether the lighting is strong or atmospheric enough,” Sharon said. “But the exercise in the ‘Europeras’ is to silence that voice of judgment. Anything is potentially beautiful, and you have to embrace what you cannot control.”

His job, in preparing “Europeras 3 & 4,” has been to help artists get to that point, behaving like a coach as much as a director to cultivate a Cagean ethos of trusting in the experience, and in one another.

“This piece is all about process,” Sharon said. “The normal way that we think about any opera is so teleological. It’s all about the finish line. But with Cage, the process is more important, and opening night will just be part of that. There will be no such thing as perfection; there will just be paying attention to everything that happens along the way.”

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