The Storm Rages, Onstage




Audrey Luna as Ariel in Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest.”
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

In an ironic bit of timing, a new opera based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on October 23, less than a week before Hurricane Sandy hit.

“The Tempest,” by British composer Thomas Ades, is the 12th company premiere since Metropolitan Opera general director Peter Gelb arrived in 2006. Gelb, who has launched an aggressive campaign to widen opera’s public appeal, has introduced audiences to modern works as well as presenting the company premieres of canonical pieces. He has also revived operas that haven’t been at the Met for some time, like a 2010 production of “Hamlet,” by Ambroise Thomas, that hadn’t been produced at the Met for 113 years.

By the end of this season, the Met will have presented 13 new works over six seasons, while under Joseph Volpe, Gelb’s predecessor, it presented 27 premieres in 16 years.

This production of “The Tempest,” which received its world premiere at London’s Royal Opera House in 2004, shifts the setting from Shakespeare’s mystical island to the world-famous La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. Director Robert Lepage hoped to draw parallels between the actual magic of Shakespeare’s play and the real magic that a night at the theater can provide. Simon Keenlyside, who created the role of Prospero in London, is in the Met cast, as is Isabelle Leanord, who received the 2011 Beverly Sills award, as Miranda.

In a panel discussion at the Met hosted by Peter Gelb, Keenlyside described how it feels to take a second look at the role he originally created 8 years ago, “ [I am] a parasite sitting in the gut of this animal.”  He proceeded to describe how he was still learning the inner workings of this new opera.

Ades is a respected modern composer who has gained recognition, according to soprano Elizabeth Futral, by attending to narrative as well as to music. “In my opinion, a new operatic work must possess dramatic integrity,” she said. “It must tell a story compellingly and with musical gravitas. The music must viably support the drama at all times.”

Scholars of modern classical music have created musical-geographic boundaries which correspond roughly to Manhattan. “Uptown music” is associated with atonal composers from Columbia University; for much of the 20th century, atonality was popular among composers who placed its intellectual qualities above popular tastes.  Although Ades uses the occasional dissonance, he uses it to tell the story through music, not to demonstrate his compositional intelligence. This is what distinguishes him from the uptown composers.