An American master premieres at City Opera
An interview with Charles Wuorinen
The world premiere of Haroun and the Sea of Stories features an inspired cross-section of artists among the most respected in their disciplines: Salman Rushdie, one of the most original and controversial authors writing today; poet James Fenton, who adapted Rushdie’s book for the opera’s libretto; and stage director Mark Lamos, the director of City Opera’s celebrated Madama Butterfly production, among others.
At the head of the team is Charles Wuorinen, the innovative and accomplished American composer Vogue Magazine calls “a master of lushly orchestrated modernism.” His enormous range of fascinations and musical ideas is reflected in his 235 compositions: from Natural Fantasy, his work for organ inspired by fractal geometry, to his setting of a W.H. Auden poem for tenor and piano entitled September 11, 2001. With his 1970 electronic composition Time’s Encomium, Wuorinen became the youngest composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize in music.
In this interview, Wuorinen discusses the genesis of the opera from Rushdie’s original to its long-awaited premiere performance—this Sunday at City Opera.
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[Click here for a synopsis of the opera.]
A long time coming
By Stacey Kors [Financial Times]
Published: October 29 2004 17:17 | Last updated: October 29 2004 17:17
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an opera by American modernist composer Charles Wuorinen and based on the children’s book by Salman Rushdie, was due to premiere at New York City Opera in the autumn of 2001. But following the terrorist attacks on September 11, US arts organisations went into freefall as ticket sales plummeted. The opera, like many new projects, was shelved. A decade after Rushdie created his fanciful fable about freedom of speech and imagination in defiance of one form of Islamic fundamentalism, the opera it inspired had been silenced by another.
Few had imagined that western freedoms could be so brutally attacked on western soil. Rushdie was the exception. In 1988, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini forced Rushdie underground by placing a fatwa on him following the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie says he tried to make the point. “Nobody wanted to look at that,” he says. “Now everybody wants to look at that. Clearly what happened on 9/11 was on a scale so much larger than what happened to me that it almost seems improper to compare them. But I do think that I was the prologue. I was the overture; this is the symphony.”
Tomorrow night, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an opera for children and adults, will finally be heard - NYCO’s music director George Manahan will conduct. “In a weird way,” says Wuorinen, “this piece has a very strong relevance coming up a little bit after the third anniversary of September 11. Salman was the only one who knew it back then,” he adds solemnly. “Now we all know it.”
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The Fatwa That Begat an Opera
October 31, 2004
By JOHANNA KELLER [NY Times]
EVER since 9/11, I feel as if we are all in the same boat that used to be occupied only by Salman Rushdie,” said the composer Charles Wuorinen. Mr. Wuorinen’s opera “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” based on Mr. Rushdie’s 1990 novel of that name, will receive its premiere today at the New York City Opera.
“He used to just be someone living under a threat,” Mr. Wuorinen said of Mr. Rushdie. “But now we all are, because of this Islamic fascism that doesn’t want to negotiate but instead wants to kill us all. People who don’t see that are just whistling in the dark.”
The novel’s intricate plot and memorable characters attracted Mr. Wuorinen, but he was as much moved, he says, by the circumstances of the novel’s composition. Mr. Rushdie wrote it while under the shadow of a 1989 fatwa that called for his assassination as punishment for writing the novel “The Satanic Verses.” (The fatwa was officially rescinded in 1998.)
“Given Rushdie’s circumstances during that terrible time,” Mr. Wuorinen said recently at his home on the Upper West Side, “there is an admirable absence of self-pity and bitterness in ‘Haroun.’ The book goes under the guise of a lighthearted tale written for children, but there is a social and political message against people who want to shut everyone up and strangle the imagination.”
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Giving a Complex Voice to a Fable About Free Expression
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times]
Published: November 1, 2004
The composer Charles Wuorinen has long spoken with dismay about the populist push he sees shaping the world of serious music, a trend he wants no part of. He made similar comments recently in anticipation of the premiere of his opera “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.”
“Haroun” had its much-awaited premiere yesterday afternoon in a vibrant, colorful and well-received production at the New York City Opera, and Mr. Wuorinen, it can be reported, has stayed true to his sober aesthetic convictions.
There are impressive and entertaining aspects to the new opera, starting with its elegant and economical libretto by the poet James Fenton, based on Salman Rushdie’s fantastical 1990 novel for children. Still, Mr. Wuorinen has long been a formidably complex composer and an uncompromising advocate of 12-tone techniques, and his score for “Haroun” never lets you forget this. There are brilliant, even ingenious, qualities in the music. But where the words and story would seem to call for simplicity, lyricism, warmth, whimsy, some space to breathe and ruminate, Mr. Wuorinen holds back. An undercurrent of rigorous complexity never lets up.
It’s not easy for me to write this because I, too, have looked warily at what Mr. Wuorinen calls the populist push in opera. Composers, audiences and company directors have been too quick to play it safe and embrace musically tepid, Neo-Romantic styles. Overall there has been frustrating resistance to composers who use challenging musical languages.
But the music in an opera must serve the text, the singers and the dramatic impetus of the story. Complexity must be warranted and effective, as it is in great operas of the past by composers like Berg and Messiaen, or in more recent works by Poul Ruders, Kaija Saariaho, Thomas Adès and others. The complexity of Mr. Wuorinen’s score too often intrudes on, distracts from and deadens the drama.
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Legends, Lessons, and Lies
By Julie Squire [Playbill Arts]
November 1, 2004
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, City Opera’s 28th world premiere, argues eloquently for the importance of “stories that aren’t even true.”
“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” For young Haroun Khalifa, eponymous hero of Charles Wuorinen and James Fenton’s new opera based on Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, that is the question, and a terrible one at that. It is the Khalifas’ neighbor, Mr. Sengupta, who, with delectable disdain, first doubts the value of stories. This is incomprehensible to the 11-year-old Haroun. After all, he is the son of Soraya, singer of enticing dream worlds, and the renowned storyteller Rashid. There are no ifs, ands, or buts here—stories are Haroun’s life.
But then one day, as is wont to happen, something goes wrong: Haroun’s mother stops singing and runs away with the weaselly Mr. Sengupta, a man utterly devoid of imagination. To make matters worse, his father goes on a rampage and destroys all the clocks in the house, including Haroun’s. That is the final straw, prompting the child to shout the fateful question at his father. The result is devastating — Rashid loses his ability to tell stories — and Haroun will spend the rest of the opera trying to take back those agonizing words.
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Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a modernist twelve-tone opera that