New operas highlight a longstanding divide

"Cold Mountain," from Jennifer Higdon and the Santa Fe Opera, is grounded in a more traditional composing landscape suited to cities far away from the Big Apple. Some in the opera world say it lacks tonal depth. (KEN HOWARD)

If music is the universal language it's often proclaimed to be, why has nothing close to a consensus emerged on the two high-profile opera openings of the summer?

Whether Written on Skin at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival or Cold Mountain at the Santa Fe Opera, reviews have been so polarized that one side is often baffled by the viewpoint of the other. Add to that two 2014 operas that have come out on CD and DVD - Brokeback Mountain and 27 - and the current opera world would seem to be one of infinite languages, some more universal than others.

People whose opinions I greatly respect think George Benjamin's British-imported Written on Skin is one of the great pieces of recent decades. I appreciate the music's craftsmanship and the opera's stagecraft in a medieval tale about a woman whose husband forces her to eat the heart of her lover.

Yet it never reached me: Full of high-style framing devices (angels commenting from the beyond and characters referring to themselves in the third person), the piece kept me at a distance and seemed much more horrified with its climax than I was. Cold Mountain, Jennifer Higdon's more traditionally operatic Civil War retelling of Homer's Odyssey, did indeed reach me (even if it took a while), though others seem to wonder why it was written at all.

The division is emblematic of a continuing split between composers who draw from such past tonal composers as Samuel Barber and those arising from a more recent modernist past; Cold Mountain belongs to the former and Written on Skin the latter.

Were preferences so simple, however, I would've loved the polytonal Written on Skin (since Elliott Carter is my idea of a good time), with its constant collages of simultaneous elements, while Higdon's opera would have felt like a summer rerun.

Truth is, Higdon's neo-tonal generation has delivered the most popular operas of our time - Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick and Kevin Puts' Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night - though their works are rarely if ever produced in (onetime Modernist Central) New York City. Though his lush, Straussian opera Il Postino made Mexican composer Daniel Catán beloved on the West Coast, he was barely known on the East Coast when he died in 2011. No big deal - opera careers are now made in Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and San Francisco, among other cities.

Philadelphia's place in this operatic landscape has evolved into a crossroads: Vulcan Lyric (formerly Center City Opera Theatre) is committed to producing all of Catán's works. Opera Philadelphia imported Silent Night from Minneapolis and Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt from Houston; it also presents post-minimal works that are loved and respected in New York, such as Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters. The also fashionable Julia Wolfe (Anthracite Fields) and David Lang (Battle Hymns) have unveiled major hybrid works here.

The view from this crossroads is that all these composers share one challenge: Inventing the right sonic ecosystem for their stories - past centuries had it easier with musical formulas for every dramatic problem. Though Higdon's Cold Mountain bears a family resemblance to her other music, its Blue Ridge setting prompted Appalachian inflections in music that is lyrical but too wedded to the characters and their dynamic narratives to have typical melodic symmetry.

This is where perceptions diverge: If every opera is reinventing the form to one extent or another, how do you know the composer hasn't created a convincing ecosystem and you just don't understand it yet? Many scoffed, for example, when unrepentant modernist Charles Wuorinen took on Brokeback Mountain, a love story about closeted gay cowboys that would seem to cry out for Puccini.

No doubt some are repelled by Wuorinen's anti-consonant language. To me, it captures the harsh world of undereducated men scratching out a living herding sheep and riding in rodeos. Western musical atmosphere wasn't high among Wuorinen's aesthetic priorities, so his score probably didn't give the story optimum treatment. But it's a chunky, late-period work by a major composer (now available on BelAir DVD). There's no scoffing at that.

This doesn't mean less current stories with more backward-looking musical language don't have an equal place in 21st-century opera; the medium has long been about creating dialogue with one's national mythology. Gordon, having written an operatic Grapes of Wrath, turned to 27, whose title refers to the Paris salon address of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas visited by many great artists in the first half of the 20th century. (The Opera Theatre of St. Louis cast with Stephanie Blythe was released by the Albany label.)

Obviously, the musical collisions of Written on Skin wouldn't be appropriate for Stein's breezy, free-associating literary style. Gordon's mostly congenial music has periodic storms, for the volatile artistic temperaments at hand - and when Stein's paintings come alive and sing. In its own way, the opera's time has come, partly because Stein is now more than just a cultural curiosity, allowing audiences to arrive at 27 with extra good will.

Yet Gordon and other neo-tonalists present the greatest perceptual challenges for audiences. With more radical music, you know when you're on new ground, in over your head. With something that sounds like what you've heard before, you don't immediately get beyond the antecedents to what's really there.

What perhaps allowed me to hear past the surface of Cold Mountain was access to a piano-reduction score while the piece was still being written - a copy I discovered in a Dumpster near Higdon's Philadelphia apartment, discarded only because it was misformatted. The vocal lines seemed packed with information about who and what the characters were. So, in Santa Fe, while one listener observed that the opening scene seemed threadbare, I heard something direct and penetrating. The ecology felt right. Still, work was required.

The language had to be learned. With Written on Skin I wasn't so lucky.