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Smashing Opera

Posted at 8:07 PM on January 11, 2007 by Alison Young

The other day I was asked a question that I've been asked at least a couple dozen times in the last few years. And no, it was not is it flutist or flautist (it's flutist!) The question was is classical music on its death march?

The question was part of a live interview and I was without any notes, so I pointed to two things off the top of my head, two performances that have stirred up an almost rock-concert hysteria and both of dreaded NEW classical music. One was the concert by nine emerging American composers, part of the annual Composer Institute at the Minnesota Orchestra last November, mentioned in this blog. The other is the Met's new opera by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Tan Dun about the emperor who unified China and began building the Great Wall. The First Emperor is the final installment in a three-opera commission begun a decade ago. An epic of power and yearning, with an all-star cast, including Placido Domingo and Raise the Red Lantern's director Zhang Yimou, the opera melds West with East; in fact the opera begins with the classic smashing percussion sound of traditional Peking Opera. In spite of some mixed reviews, (the AP's reviewer called it "Fascinating but Flawed") the opera is sold out for the rest of its run. And it has earned a place with five other operas to be shown in High Def on the big screen this season; Emperor will play in two locations in the Twin Cities this weekend. I'll miss the theater presentation as I have the privilege of working the buttons that broadcast the Met to Minnesota, so I’ll be listening in without benefit of sets and costumes, but trust me, I’ll be listening.

So is classical music dying? I think people are not only hungry for classical music, but also hungry for NEW classical music. Tan Dun said "This subject - the first emperor trying to find a piece of music - it's a kind of a metaphor, spiritual metaphor, for him to find a destiny, find a spirit of the nation.”

And maybe for us, we’re finding the destiny of classical music through projects like these.