Composer Peter Eotvos makes modern opera "angelic"

Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:22am EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - "Contemporary" and "opera" are scary words, but when Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos writes one that includes the sound of car horns and slide guitars, his aim is to engage his audience from the minute the curtain goes up.

"My experience with the public is very positive -- if you give them something interesting they are open to take it," Eotvos, 66, said in London where his 2004 opera based on the 1970s AIDS play "Angels in America" was performed at the Barbican Center last week, garnering rave reviews.

It was one of six of his operas that will be staged by major companies this year, which puts the shy, professorial Eotvos, a onetime protege of the completely out-there composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who believed he had come from the planet Sirius, in league with the likes of Philip Glass, John Adams or Kaija Saariaho for getting their operas staged and heard.

If other composers aren't quite as successful, Eotvos thinks he knows why.

"Many new operas, in my observation, show not enough experience in the theater. The theater is something special -- when you open the curtain, it's another world and you must take the audience in there with you.

"'Come, let's play together' -- and this play-together feeling, that's what theater needs."

It also may be that Eotvos's Hungarian background, and his fascination for all things American, which comes through not just in "Angels" but also a concerto inspired by the Columbia shuttle disaster, has allowed him to develop a musical language and style that are all his own, yet somehow familiar.

For someone growing up in then-communist Hungary, a closed- off country behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet bloc, America was "something very, very far away, another part of the world, we'd never seen anything like it," Eotvos said, adding that when he was able to visit the U.S. in the early 1970s he found it to be "very big and very violent."   Continued...