Cage: Europeras 3 & 4

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COMPOSERS: Cage
LABELS: Mode
WORKS: Europeras 3 & 4
PERFORMER: Kevin Bell, Suzan Hanson, Ruby Hinds, Michael Lyon; Long Beach Opera/Andrew Culver
CATALOGUE NO: 38/39 DDD
John Cage (with his famous aversion to the specific representation of emotion in music) and opera (that most psychological of all the arts) had nothing to do with each other until near the end of his long career, when he devised a way to write non-intentional opera. The Europeras 3 & 4 are chamber works, premiered in 1990, and are here documented from a beautiful performance given in Southern California last year.

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The result is not an opera but the world of opera, all at once. Singers chose arias found in the public domain (Gluck to Puccini); two pianists provide snippets of Liszt piano transcriptions; and six ‘composers’ operate period Victrolas, on which they play 78-rpm opera recordings, creating a background of scratchiness as comforting as the whoosh of a waterfall. Chance operations control everything – resulting, maybe, in a counterpoint of Puccini and Wagner (surprisingly effective) or, maybe, silence.

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The singers have to sing their arias in a foreign musical environment, without any of their accustomed accompanimental support. This makes them seem both vulnerable and imposingly focused at the same time, which is a very touching combination. The familiar, here, becomes very new indeed.