Opera Forward Festival 2024 Review: The Four Note Opera

Koutchoukali’s Lively & Fun Presentation Keeps Audience Fully Engrossed

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Bart Grietens)

Tom Johnson entitled his opera “The Four Note Opera.” Certainly, it is not one of the most gripping titles in the catalogue, and when it becomes clear that the reason for the name is that the entire score was composed using just four notes, A, B, D and E, it sounds even less appealing. Moreover, there is no narrative outside of how the singers engage with the act of performing the opera; they only sing about what they are doing as singers on the stage. Yet since it was premiered in 1972, there have been over 70 productions, and based on this production for Amsterdam’s Opera Forward Festival, it is easy to understand why.

Five Singers In Search Of A Composer

Johnson’s inspiration for the opera came from reading Luigi Pirandello’s metatheatrical play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in which the characters are aware of their existence within the play, aware of the author and of the audience. “The Four Note Opera” is cast from the same mould, but instead, it is opera characters searching for a composer. Fortunately, the characters found their composer in Johnson, who created an experimental work that pokes fun at common opera practices and the clichés that non-opera goers often mock or find ridiculous. There is no plot. The singers simply comment on what they are doing. After an ensemble, for example, the alto, tenor and baritone explain to the audience that they are now simply marking time so that the soprano has time to recover to sing an aria, which they have to do more than once as she is taking longer than expected to prepareherself. Each aria, ensemble and passage of recitative is explained in the same manner, often in a very amusing way, and successfully draws attention to the dramatic absurdities that arise from the art form as adopted by 19th century composers.

Of course, the rigidity of only being able to use four notes and having a libretto without a plot means that everything eventually grinds to a halt, which of course the singers explain to the audience. There is nowhere left to go. It is, however, a very entertaining and amusing work that will have seasoned opera-goers as well as first-time attendees laughing along.

The director for this production, Kenza Koutchoukali, however, views the work as very much a product of its time and no longer reflective of current practices; opera forms and styles of presentation have changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Certainly, contemporary composers are no longer bound by traditional forms as they were in the 19th or even the first half of the 20th centuries. Composers now have greater freedom in how they wish to develop the narrative in musical terms. Even the standard Italian operas from 19thcentury that still make up the core repertoire are produced with a greater sense of freedom and imagination. In her program notes, she, therefore, concluded that “The Four Note Opera” is “no longer so relevant for an opera house like ours that prioritizes creativity and innovation,” and thereby gave herself a problem of how it could be staged in a meaningful way today.

Although she was compelled by the nature of the work to poke fun at the clichés and forms of traditional opera, she expanded this so that the singers are also “protesting against the work and the way they are at the mercy of the whims of the composer and the artistic team,” as well as magnifying the supposed behind-the-scene rivalries and stereotypes with which the audience is familiar.  It proved to be a good idea that created plenty of opportunities for comedy: there was the soprano who was constantly pushing herself to gain the attention of the audience, the tenor who spent most of the time sulking, and the bass who was knocked unconscious after one brief scene and then insisted on dragging himself into the centre of the stage so he could still be seen. Everything was exaggerated to magnify the absurdities of the conventions.

The set, designed by Yannick Verweij, was fairly basic, consisting of a large red curtain, a red carpet and a slightly raised red platform and a chandelier, along with a coat rail, a few chairs, and stage lights with the pianist positioned on the left side. The dominant color was, therefore, red set against a black background, which was supposed to suggest a horror film set. The reason behind this was not evident, although in the final scene, the stage was covered in mist to accentuate the effect. Verweij was also responsible for the costumes, which amounted to no more than casual grey clothing of little interest.

A Team Effort From A Committed Cast

Obviously, the singers did not have character names; that would add too much specificity to the piece, but instead were simply identified by their voice type: soprano, tenor and so on. Overseen by the musical direction of Alejandro Cantalapiedra, all produced energetic and well-sung performances and genuinely appeared to be enjoying the absurd text, which they delivered with earnest commitment, which had the audience laughing out loud.

Sophia Hunt hammed up her role as the limelight-loving soprano to the full, pushing herself in front of the other singers and spreading her arms out wide to block them out in order to secure the audience’s attention. She loved the opportunity to show off her ‘four note’ coloratura, which she did with a great deal of flamboyance and confidence. She was flirtatious and excessively happy with herself. In other words, she was the stereotypical soprano in extremis. Underlying the façade, however, was her solid technique, her pleasing vocal timbre and versatility that allowed her to move her voice freely across the vocal line without signs of stress and ping out the top notes clearly.

At the other end of the spectrum was bass Mark Kurmanbayev, who had a very small role, amounting to little more than a single scene, but which he used successfully to display his neatly crafted phrasing and equally attractive timbre. Not content with his small part, he had the audience laughing along for the next few scenes as he struggled to insert himself physically into the picture in an attempt to gain a little more attention and had to be dragged off by the baritone.

The tenor was not dealt a good hand in this opera. Much to his chagrin, he was only given a single aria to sing. It fell to Salvador Villanueva to play the part, which he did brilliantly, sulking, whinging and complaining his way through the evening. His pleasing stage presence and solid singing ensured a good performance.

Martina Myskohlid gave a convincing performance as the alto. Her singing was articulate and emotionally nuanced, and it clearly captured her supposedly private feelings about her treatment by the composer. Her highpoint was an unaccompanied aria in which she voiced the stress and anxiety it was causing her, despite the impression that there were fewer constraints on how it should be performed; all she could think about was whether she would be able to end the aria on the required A.

Georgiy Derbas-Richter was an animated and lively baritone who engaged fully with all the onstage nonsense. He possesses a colorful voice, which he used intelligently, modulating the dynamics and accenting the vocal line to create a strongly defined character who was determined to show off both his individual strength and team spirit, such as when he knocked out the bass in order to keep the course of the opera on track.

The final act was wonderfully done and brought its fair share of laughter as the opera descended into a state of stasis in which nothing really happened as the singers explained there were too many repetitions and too many pauses, while the tenor complained about having to sing while lying in an uncomfortably awkward position.

The music is accessible with plenty of easy-on-the-ear melodies and catchy numbers, which the pianist Daniel Ruiz de Cenzano Caballero captured in a lively performance. Always keeping an eye on the score’s comedic potential, he deliberately exaggerated the emotional nature of the music to the point of absurdity to reflect the onstage antics. He was fully aware of the wider picture, which successfully led to a pleasing balance with the singers.

I must admit that “The Four Note Opera” proved to be a pleasant surprise. It was not the experimental, inward-looking work that the title suggested, and it kept the audience fully absorbed. I would recommend it to anyone who has not seen a performance, although I doubt that I will ever see another. It is a well-constructed comedy based on a single theme, and therein lies its shortcoming.


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