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Long Live Elliott Carter! An Operatic Double-Bill?

Excerpt from Elliott Carter’s first opera, “What Next?”

I didn’t make it to last Thursday’s well received Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performance of Elliott Carter‘s 1955 “Variations for Orchestra.” But I did see, the night before, both its conductor, James Levine, and the high-spirited, keen-minded 99-year-old Carter himself at the Museum of Modern Art, where they conversed onstage after a world premiere of a filmed live performance, conducted by Levine, of Carter’s mysterious, whimsical, “What Next?”—a one-act opera composed when Carter was 94. (That’s the age they gave last week, but MoMA’s press materials say it was composed in 1997, which would have meant the composer was a mere octogenarian.)

Why had Carter waited so long to compose his first opera?

I was always interested in opera. I just didn’t know why they sang!

He finally found inspiration in a scene from a 1971 Jacques Tati film, “Traffic”: Six victims (or possibly, in the filmed Carter version, their disembodied souls) emerge from the wreckage of a serious car accident.

Levine, who is music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, noted that he had always wanted to mount experimental, contemporary opera: “Once I got into a situation where I had more control over it, I made up for lost time.” He added that he hoped Carter would compose more such work.

So during the question and answer period, I asked my favorite American composer if he’d take Levine up on the operatic challenge. He replied that he couldn’t say, because he’d first have to come up with another idea that, to his mind, called for song. Levine immediately observed how great it would be to be able to present a Carter double-bill. (“What Next?” is about 40 minutes long.)

In case anyone had any doubts about the venerable composer’s current state of musical health, he answered a question about whether he had ever thought of creating a work for percussion ensemble by remarking how timely that query was: He had that very afternoon been perusing his printed proofs for such a piece.

Levine and the Tanglewood Music Center (where “What Next?” was filmed) are planning to celebrate “Carter’s Century,” July 20-24, billing the series of concerts as “the first time a major composer will be present at has own centennial celebration.”

We can only hope. Based on the evidence last week—when this difficult, cerebral composer basked in the audience’s admiration—it looks like an excellent bet:


At MoMA last week (left to right): conductor James Levine, director/designer Doug Fitch, music critic Richard Dyer, and an intensely interested, loquacious Elliott Carter

an ArtsJournal blog