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Michael Tippettīs New Year: A Modern Masque

Amidst the welter of criticism that was showered upon Michael Tippett's first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, when it received its premiere in 1955 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, came a perceptive observation from the doyen of British opera historians, Professor Edward J. Dent. He said the character of the work was less that of an opera, following one of the genres inherited from the nineteenth century, than that of a Renaissance masque. This would explain the interpenetration of the plot with an elaborate range of symbolism and ritual. It would justify the interaction of the mortals in the piece with a set of mysterious figures called the Ancients (Shakespeare would have called the Immortals); and also the intermingling of chorus, arias, duets, and ensembles, with dance, processionals and spectacle. Originally, masques were, in essence, celebrations, and The Midsummer Marriage comes across now as a rare example of a radiantly celebratory stage-work standing apart from the strife- torn epoch in which it was created.

In his next opera, King Priam (1962), Tippett returned onto more familiar ground, writing a tragic epic in a Brechtian manner, paring everything (including the music) down to its barest essentials. Then, in his two succeeding operas, he moved again in the direction of the masque. The ICnot Garden (1970) and The Ice Break (1977) both call for choreography in varying degrees, enabling their fantasy element to come fully into play. The image central to The Knot Garden is of a dance that unites all the characters in the opera. It is made overt in a climactic, scene near the end of Act 3, when Mangus-Prospero disowns his magic powers and manipulative control over the other characters, everyone stops feuding and steps forward to the footlights in an act of reconciliation. Here Tippett quotes a Goethe poem, "Das magische Netz" (The Magic Net) which depicts the comings and goings of a group of people dancing with a net:

We sense the magic net
that holds us veined
each to each to all.

The psychological confrontations of the rest of the opera, from its stormy opening prelude onwards, are articulated through fragmentary dance routines that occasionally develop in fully fledged song-and-dance numbers. Again, the Psychedelic Trip scene in Act 3 of The Ice Break, where homage is paid to (and rejected by) an androgynous God-figure, Astron-Astra, and Tippett's general deployment of the chorus that whirls around the stage throughout most the action, sometimes jubilant, sometimes threatening, created an ethos rarely encountered in any opera respecting Verdi-ian or Wagnerian antecedents.

New Year, whose libretto and music were composed between 1985 and 1988, returns to the masque tradition with a vengeance. It is not, of course, an historical reconstruction of a Renaissance entertainment; it simply draws freely upon all the possible modes of stage presentation that Tippett has found germane to his needs. Firstly, it has to be regarded as a masque for a televisual age. Like The Knot Garden and The Ice Break, it eliminates transitions between scenes, or it demands a high degree of imagination from the director and designer in translating the action back and forth between a generalized Somewhere Today to a utopian Nowhere Tomorrow. Secondly, the Renaissance interplay of Mortals and Immortals, as in The Midsummer Marriage, is at the core of the plot. Thirdly, dance is absolutely integral to the action. Two choruses, one singing, one dancing, are incorporated into the presentation, making the choreographer almost equal in status to the director.

Although from the composer's synopsis, one is led to expect a straightforward storyline ("Once upon a time there was a girl named Jo Ann ..."), it isn't long before it strays over the borderline into fantasy:"Donny cavorts onto the stage and enacts a 'skarade'... the dancers join in his bizarre antics, masquerading as lions to frighten the spectators..." Later on, Pelegrin and Merlin discuss what name to give their computer, "but the machine in a fit of impatience names itself." This doesn't mean that the plot is impossibly convoluted or obscure; rather, Tippett is expecting us to suspend our disbelief and accept his dream-like images just as we would if we were in the cinema or watching television.

New Year is, in fact, explicitly about dreams, about the desires and ambitions of two sets of characters whose destiny is for a brief period interlocked. These dreams enable them to transcend their normal everyday circumstances. The work is thus organized around their 'dream songs', dances and charades. Jo Ann, the female protagonist, dreams that she may summon up the willpower and courage to go out into the world and assist the abandoned children with whose plight she, as an orphan herself, so much sympathizes. Near the end of Act 3, when her love for Pelegrin, the space pilot, has provided her with the courage she needs to do her work, he teaches her a dance which symbolizes her newfound freedom.

Donny, Jo Ann's orphaned foster brother, already mixes freely with young people in the outside world, but mainly as a delinquent. In Act 1, his subversive behavior erupts in a "skarade" (i.e. a raggae-style charade). In Act 2, he challenges Regan, the iron lady from outer space, in a mocking, dub- style recitative. In Act 3, in the video-cassette that he leaves behind when he has finally to submit to the stern supervision of Nan (his and Jo Ann's foster mother), he evokes his Caribbean past in a William Blake-like dream of a primal communion between humans and animals.

The fantasy world of New Year extends naturally to the characters from Nowhere Tomorrow. Merlin, the computer wizard, is the arch-technocrat, pinning his faith entirely in the magical capacity of machines. When we first meet Merlin and Pelegrin, they are toasting their impending voyage into the future, which itself is the all-consuming ambition of their boss, Regan. The nub of the action, in Act 2 of the opera, is that their dream goes wrong. Because of Pelegrin's fascination with the image of Jo Ann, they travel into the past and engage in a confrontation with the characters from Somewhere Today. Ultimately, the inhabitants of the two worlds have to separate: the love between Jo Ann and Pelegrin can only be a dream; she must return to her work as children's doctor; he and his companions must vanish into the future.

There is, however, one slender thread that binds them all together. The universal dream is uttered near the end of the opera by the Presenter, the link-man in the operatic proceedings: "One humanity, one justice." We may be sure that this is something with which Tippett himself, for so many years an outspoken humanitarian and pacifist, completely identified. Significantly, these were words he heard spoken by a rock-musician at the 1988 Nelson Mandela concert in Wembley Stadium, London, which was televised all round the world. And the opera as a whole has its basis in the widely held notion that at particular times, things may change for the better, especially if we act in a manner likely to support such changes; i.e. by making New Year resolutions.

The opera, as far as its collective aspect is concerned, comes to a turning point in Act 2, where the crowd is enacting thc age-old New Year ritual, which involves a Shaman dancing himself into a trance in order to identify the Scapegoat (the Bad Old Year) which is then hunted out so that the (Good) New Year can come in. The temporary suspension of the narrative-sequence in Act 2 so that these rituals can be enacted is one of the most typically masque-like features of the work. Moreover, the arrival of the Space Ship in the midst of these ancient rituals shows up the spaciousness of Tippett's conception.

In his previous major work for the concert hall, The Mask of Time (1982), Tippett bordered on the theatrical. Like Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, the work is susceptible to some kind of stage realization, preferably using contemporary film and video techniques. The masque-like character of the piece, indicated in its title, survives especially in the fifth movement, "The Dream of the Paradise Garden." Interestingly, the final scene between Jo Ann and Pelegrin, also takes place in a Paradise Garden, and their dance together is adapted from the sarabande-style episode in that movement.

In New Year, this is the only direct reference to any of Tippett's earlier scores. For the rest, he has deliberately set out to create a new sound- world. Gone is the piano almost indispensable to his orchestral writing, since Symphony No. 2 (1956); gone also are the heterogeneous mixtures of instruments that made up the mosaic schemes of his compositions from King Priam onwards. Instead he concentrates on a blending of sonorities, through writing for families of instruments: three saxophones, four horns, etc. For the first time there are also electro-acoustic ingredients, off-stage voices, and so on, all made necessary by the boldly imaginative flights of his opera: the transitions between different realms, the ascent and descent of the spaceship, the voices of the singing fountain, and the lake.

Stylistically, the opera extends further that interaction of vernacular and art-music elements encountered in The Knot Garden and The Ice Break. Prominent in the score are two electric guitars and a lot of percussion, both used extensively in episodes where dance or song-and-dance routines take over. In this respect, the opera comes close to being a musical. While in Tippett's previous operas, lyricism flowered only briefly, in the context of a declamatory type of musical presentation, in New Year, it blossoms throughout, reaching a climax in the Act 3 love-music for Jo Ann and Pelegrin.

Most people who have previously come across a Tippett opera, either in the theatre or on record, will be aware of the immense range and variety of influences and ideas that impinge upon such works. New Year has absorbed much the same diversity of source material and inspiration. Some of its contents derive in part from a story by H. G. Wells, "Man Like Gods" (1921), which Tippett read and admired as a student. Other elements come from some of his more recent reading, travel, and other experiences. But the most powerful impression affecting the opera was a two-part film for BBC Television, called The Flipside of Dominick Hyde. At many points during the writing of New Year, Tippett had to sieve away details that too readily connected it with the film. The texture of his libretto is thus rich in hidden references and nuances of meaning and can, at a first reading, trip up the unwary. What is worth remembering is that Tippett regards his libretto not as 'literature', as something finished and rounded, acceptable in its own right, but as 'gestures for music'. The phonetic components of the text are developed by the music and the two can only be judged as an integrated whole, not as separate features.

Tippett learned this aesthetic of operatic composition from T. S. Eliot, with whom he had many encounters during the late 1930s and 1940s. In one conversation, Eliot elaborated upon the technical implications of such an aesthetic. He told Tippett that when he wrote the choral recitations for Murder in the Cathedral, he knew that only one word per spoken line would probably be audible, thus he constructed his lines so as to ensure the most significant words were heard. IncreasingIy, in his operas, Tippett has noted this practice, taking care to highlight important words musically, through repetition, etc. Another factor that determined his exact choice of words was the sheer singability of certain vowel sounds within specific voice ranges, male or female. By the time he came to write New Year, Tippett had become a master craftsman in the domain of opera; hence his assurance in handling all aspects of the composition.

Although New Year embarks on new territory, its underlying concern is the same as that in all Tippett's major works: the need among all individuals for self-knowledge and understanding. In the penultimate section of his oratorio, "A Child of Our Time," the chorus sings a prayer for renewal and regeneration that encapsulates Tippett's main message:

I would know my shadow and my light
So shall I at least be made whole.

This is developed in various ways in his operas. Mark and Jennifer, in The Midsummer Marriage, must undergo a ritual of initiation takes them through the two gates of mutual understanding, the high and the low, before they eventually return in the glory of a symbolic union. The protagonist in King Priam learns to accept his fate that his death will be caused by his son, Paris. Some of the characters in The Knot Garden, (eg. Dov and Flora) begin a journey from innocence to experience. Others, notably Thea and her husband, Faber, learn to communicate for the first time. The Ice Break tries to effect some sense of mutual understanding between father and son, Lev and Yuri. In New Year, Jo Ann's acceptance of herself and her traumas occurs when, assisted by Pelegrin, she undergoes a ritual (which Tippett derived from Plato) in which she tastes in turn the blissful waters of a fountain that will enable her to forget the abandoned children and all her worries, then the bitter waters of a lake, that will ensure she remembers her past and her duties to the orphans of today. She samples both, but rejects the fountain in favor of the lake, thus displaying the will to face up to her responsibilities.

Tippett's concentration on basic issues of psychology and social interaction gives his operatic ventures a rare degree of depth and veracity. Stereotype figures are generally absent, except insofar as they fulfill a dramatic purpose. In that sense, Nan, in New Year, acts along predictable lines and never disturbs the narrative with dreams or aspirations of a (perhaps) impractical kind. In this latest opera, Tippett's return to grass- roots level, dramatically speaking, has meant also that he can balance the more fantastic ingredients with well-known rituals, such as the celebration of New Year's arrival with great bell-strokes and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne."

If, in The Knot Garden and The Ice Break, Tippett was happy to mix up dramatic styles or ingredients in a manner redolent of late Shakespeare, in New Year he has searched for a more specific dramatic focus. Act 2 is thus an example of what Peter Brook called "rough theatre"; its energies derive from the activities of the crowd, and from the entertainments and rituals in which they are engaged. The trajectory of Act 3, by contrast, is towards "holy theatre" (Brook's terminology, again); after Donny's final departure and his dream song on video-cassette, Pelegrin comes to take Jo Ann away into a sacred place where her efforts at self-understanding can be brought about through the aforementioned ritual.

In this way, New Year demonstrates Tippett's continuing belief in the theatre as the most crucial means by which artistic and humane values can be promulgated to the community at large. By flexibly manipulating the technical emphasis in the course of the opera, in a way that the creators of Renaissance masques would have recognized, he has also here produced a fascinating renewal of a genre so readily ossified by commercial pressures, the cult of star singer and so on. Above all, he has done this through music that is distinctively his own and memorable in its own right.