As a respected playwright who has worked in movies, your work occupies both "high" and popular culture. Where does opera fit into contemporary culture today?
Trevor Nunn is going to turn Porgy and Bess from an opera into a musical comedy. It's one of the most baffling things I've ever heard. But I think he's addressing [the fact] that opera still has that elitist tag, that musical comedy is much more user-friendly and much more populist.
Is the elitist tag unfair? Or is there some truth to it?
I took my students from Yale to see Fidelio at the Met last spring and they were blown away by it. They had never seen anything on that scale. Well, the minute you're talking about something of that scale, you're talking economics, and the minute you're talking about that degree of economics, it's by necessity elite. Of course, Jersey Boys is selling $280 tickets and nobody calls that elite. The issue of elitism is something left over from the Gilded Age that we've never dealt with.
Why had your students never been to the opera?
They could never afford to go. They didn't know about standing room. Or second act-ing. Also, I have to say that these students — graduate students at Yale! — had never read Madame Bovary, and they had never seen a Marx Brothers movie.
Would you say, then, that opera is in a kind of crisis?
I think the crisis is that new operas like, say, Previn's Streetcar Named Desire or Bolcom's A Wedding, don't have a chance to work themselves out. The good luck of John Harbison to have had a second season of Great Gatsby, and to improve it, was remarkable. It's the same thing with plays — everybody wants to do the premiere but nobody wants to do the second production.
How did you become an opera fan?
When I was a freshman in college in New York City, I got a seat in the balcony at the old Met and saw La Bohme with Victoria de los Angeles and Carlo Bergonzi. I was overwhelmed. Some of the greatest theater experiences I've had have been at the Met, namely in John Dexter's productions. Dialogues of the Carmelites and Billy Budd and Lulu. Graham Vick's take on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Those productions were landmarks of what the theater can make you feel.
Those works are known for being very strong dramatically. Is that how your taste in opera runs?
Not necessarily. Opera, like theater, is an amalgam, a patchwork of so many intangibles. I had hated Don Pasquale, I had seen only dreary productions of it, and I just thought, Ai-yi-yi — dead form. Then I went to see it at the Met with Anna Netrebko in Otto Schenk's production, and it was so funny and enchanting, and it came together theatrically.
You've said that Puccini was a great dramatist because he makes you lean forward in your seat.
Yes! There is not a moment that Puccini, Verdi, or Wagner are not manipulating you while giving you the ride of your life. Like Hitchcock. Too many modern composers do not have enough respect for the story. But the music is there to serve a dramatic purpose. And understanding that purpose is what makes a great opera composer, whether it's Mozart or Britten or Monteverdi. Opera to me works as the highest form of theater when everybody involved — the composer, set designer, cast, director — are all telling the same story.
With so many elements involved, it's easier to fail.
That's right. But the failure of it is what keeps sending you back! You get to say, Why didn't Rosenkavalier work this time? You go back, like a shot of heroin, to say, "Is it going to get me this time? Is it going to work?" Because when it does — oh, boy.