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5 Operas that challenge the traditional format

BY Helen Epega

7th May 2023 Music

5 Operas that challenge the traditional format

Opera, a revered art form for centuries, has largely maintained a traditional and fairly rigid format since its inception, but that doesn’t have to be the case 

These five composers have challenged the expectations of audiences and pushed the genre's boundaries. They showcase how opera can evolve and incorporate innovative techniques and unconventional elements while still maintaining its core essence. 

  Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach


This is a seminal work that has gone on to influence many other works. Photo credit: Esther Westerveld

Not only is this piece known for its minimalist score and non-narrative structure but also for its experimental staging and choreography, making it a ground-breaking work of art. The opera premiered in 1976 and was a joint collaboration between composer Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, a librettist and and avant-garde theatre director.

"The opera has influenced generations of composers and directors, not only in the world of opera but also in other forms of art such as film, theatre, and dance"

The four-hour-long opera is divided into four acts and features a series of abstract scenes that explore the themes of time, space, and human consciousness. The opera's musical score is repetitive and builds upon a series of rhythmic and melodic patterns that become hypnotic and mesmerizing. The opera has influenced generations of composers and directors, not only in the world of opera but also in other forms of art such as film, theatre, and dance. 

Thomas Ades, Powder Her Face


A non-linear narrattive structure and electronic music make this opera rebelliously modern. Photo credit: Lorenzo Gaudenzi

A modern opera that showcases the composer's avant-garde approach to storytelling. Ades blends traditional operatic elements with a non-linear narrative structure and electronic music to create a multidimensional portrait of the infamous Duchess of Argyll. The libretto, penned by novelist Philip Hensher, features four scenes that weave back and forth in time, exposing the Duchess's shocking scandals and salacious exploits. The electronic score, incorporating both live performers and sampled sounds, immerses the audience in the decadent and hedonistic world of the aristocracy. 'Powder Her Face' stands out as a daring and innovative work that redefines the boundaries of modern opera, captivating audiences and earning critical acclaim for its bold approach to storytelling. 

 Helen Epega, Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera 


This is the world's first pidgin opera

A ground-breaking work that broke down linguistic barriers by using Pidgin English as its primary language. The opera's story follows the mythical Menemeh tribe, whose songs bring peace to the universe. However, their connection with Earth and its inhabitants causes envy among the Vrugos, the world of the stars, who then attempt to disrupt the peaceful balance.

"The opera's libretto has since evolved to include other languages and dialects, such as Patois, Creole, Cockney, Multicultural London Slang, and Ebonics"

Kenate, the rising queen of the Menemeh, battles through trials and tribulations to discover 'The Peace Song' and restore equilibrium. The opera's libretto has since evolved to include other languages and dialects, such as Patois, Creole, Cockney, Multicultural London Slang, and Ebonics, in addition to English. The musical arrangement is equally diverse, incorporating African percussion, steelpans, electric guitar, Western Classical instruments, and the hang drum, creating a unique and dynamic soundscape. 

 George Benjamin, Written on Skin


Contemporary language and a medieval setting combine to make this opera truly unique. Photo credit: Feast of Music

This is a brilliant example of how contemporary opera can incorporate elements of both modernity and antiquity. The libretto uses contemporary English, which makes the story more accessible to modern audiences, yet the plot still has a medieval setting. This combination of old and new creates a unique atmosphere that distinguishes the opera from others. Additionally, the non-linear narrative, which jumps back and forth in time, adds to the opera's distinctiveness. It allows the audience to piece together the story from different perspectives and creates a sense of suspense and intrigue. It is a superb example of pushing the boundaries of what opera can achieve. 

 Du Yun, Angel's Bone


The melodrama of traditional opera combines with timely and controversial topics. Photo credit: Longafermata

This is a striking opera that explores sensitive and controversial topics such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The libretto tells the story of two angels who fall to earth and are taken in by a suburban couple who exploit them for their own gain. The opera features a score that blends rock and electronic music, which adds to the modern, edgy feel of the production.

"The libretto tells the story of two angels who fall to earth and are taken in by a suburban couple who exploit them for their own gain"

Through its challenging subject matter and unconventional style, Angel's Bone expands the dotted lines that house expectations of what opera can be and shows that it can be a powerful tool for addressing contemporary social issues.

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