Bernard Rands’ Vincent and the Future of Opera

As we embrace a new century, many Western critics in the arts debate the future of some old traditional genres such as the symphony, ballet, and opera. From the start, historians and critics blasted opera for its enigmatic plot, fantasy, and extravagance.

To many, the act of singing a work from beginning to an end was bizarre and unnatural concoction. In 1766, French critic Charles de Saint-Evermond wrote, “Opera is a bizarre mixture of poetry and music where the writer and the composer, equally embarrassed by each other, go to a lot of trouble to create an execrable work.”

Similarly, Tolstoy declared that opera “has one of the most gigantic absurdities that could possibly be devised” and in the 1960s, French composer Pierre Boulez proposed blowing up the opera houses just as the French destroyed the Bastille. He argued that opera is passé, costly, and frail. Yet composers continue to write opera and audiences embrace the genre as a necessary and vital element in their life.

The recent world premiere of Bernard Rands’ Vincent by Indiana University Opera as an example of an avant-garde composition that combines art, music, and technology testifies to the genre’s resiliency and ability to transform itself. It was a sign of where opera was heading, and an assuring work to those who love the theatre that opera is alive and well.

Tracing episodes in Vincent Van Gogh’s life through his paintings and strong relationship with his brother, the two-act opera is the culmination of Rands’ intense interest in Van Gogh’s biography and works, first inspired by his 1973 visit to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

Mental illness, self-mutilation, and suicide caused by a self-inflicted gunshot capped Van Gogh’s short and productive life, which was also marred by attacks of epilepsy and battles with alcoholism. According to Rands, the opera proposes to present the world through Vincent’s mind in a series of tableaux that are roughly symmetrical (the first act has seven scenes, the second six).

The paintings used cover a non-linear progression from faith to doubt and his struggles with alcoholism and his sanitarium confinement, beginning with the realistic and dark Potato Eaters, where we see the peasants depicted through the harsh earthy colours; to the impressionistic Night Café in Arles, with its bright colours; to the dark Starry Night, painted from his sanitarium room. The Starry Night is apocalyptic, and like Munch’s The Scream, depicts the universe in a state of swirling motion and despair.

Through the various and fragmented vignettes of Vincent’s art, the music itself paints an impressionistic and alienating atmosphere as the artist helplessly attempts to reconcile his spirituality with his sensual world.

The musical episodes are unified through one of the prevailing themes of the opera: abandonment, as Vincent is forsaken by family and friends one after another. Throughout Vincent, we are confronted with the fate of an artist who is not only out of touch with reality but who is unable to blend with his surroundings.

During a fatal mining incident, Vincent fails to comfort the miners through preaching as he spins and spins without aim. Vincent is also irrational as he informs his brother Theo of his intentions to marry Sien because of his search for God and his desire to redeem her. As do Britten’s Peter Grime and Berg’s Wozzeck, Rands’ Vincent addresses the disturbing themes of alienation and insanity.

The opera exploits the theme of an artist’s desire to join the surrounding community and his/her inability to do so. Alienation is accomplished musically as Vincent is relegated to his atonal domain against the crowd’s tonality.

We see his frustration at the missionary church and at the Café Le Tambourin where he is unable to connect with the crowd, the approval of whom he desperately seeks.

At the end of each failed relationship, Vincent cries, “I don’t understand,” and “Why have you forsaken me?” This repeated theme is treated musically - as in Berg’s Wozzeck - as a leitmotiv through repetition and variations in the mixed of atonal web of symphonic music.

Wozzeck’s theme is his critique of society is his declaration of “poor folk like us” as he confronts the sadistic abuse from people around him. Vincent feels the same torture and is eventually driven towards the same fate.

Highly symbolic, Rands’ Vincent looms as a complex philosophical opera. Aside from the technical challenges of projecting Van Gogh’s paintings, a central question in Vincent is how it responds to and engages with 20th century works and how it carves its own path.

Dreamy, fragmentary, and muted in its passion, Rands’ score is sensitive, evocative, and enduring, resulting in a magical experience of music, drama,  spectacle, providing a glimpse of where opera is headed in the new millennium. If opera is to continue, and I have no doubt that it will, we have, in Vincent, a shining model to follow.

Dr Nasser al Taee - Director of Education and Outreach at the Royal Opera House

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