People go to operas looking for different things. Some are in it for
the singing, some go for the music, and some go merely for the
experience. When I hear an opera, I expect it to meet the same dramatic
requirements as a straight play. No matter how good the music is, or
the staging or the costumes or indeed the budget, if the libretto
doesn’t work, the opera as a whole is in jeopardy.
This has me thinking that I very much favor the visual and the musical, but the textual is subordinate. Then, cidhou, in a comment, pointed out that the bomb in Dr. A that I said looked like a Christmas ornament may in fact be historically accurate. A-ha. What I really want in my operas are abstract, intuitive presentations. I can think of several minimalism-based works where I prefer the abstract to the realistic:
I still get thrills thinking about the stage for The Death of Klinghoffer. It was this large, metal, abstract representation of the ship, the lighting was vivid and even glaring, and the fact the Mark Morris Dancers were running through it in colorful costumes only added to the effect (not sure yet about Doctor Atomic's Gap-flavored khaki and white-shirted dancers). But in the film version of The Death of Klinghoffer, the realistic style alienated me such that I couldn't finish watching the DVD ("Oh my God, they're going to kill Sanford Sylvan").
Similarly, I'll argue that Koyaanisqatsi's time-lapse photography is also a means of abstraction and makes it superior to the down-in-the-dirt realism of Philip Glass' second film -- Powasqatsi.
Even in narrative film, I like my music linked to the more intuitive (if not actually weird). Bill Murray, Sharon Stone and others were great in Broken Flowers but a month later, all I really relish is the soundtrack (Hello, Holly Golightly). But with the recent Chinese film 2046, although the writing was confusing and occasionally tedious, and the music was annoyingly dated (although maybe appropriately so), I still find myself thinking, in a kinesthetic way, about the science fiction scenes.
Let's explore character portrayal and specifically, Philip Glass' quote about the influence of Beckett, Brecht, and others:
These writers took the subject out of the narrative. They broke the pattern of the reader identifying with the main character.
I don't think this was the intent of Sellars/Adams/Goodman in any of the Adams operas. But I have to say in none of them do I strongly identify with the lead character. I may have been sympathetic to Nixon, Klinghoffer, and Oppenheimer, but for example, several days later, who's the first character from Doctor Atomic that comes to mind? General Groves, in spite, or maybe because of, his tedious diet problems, (although even he isn't rich enough to carry the opera).
All this just confirms I need the visual and the aural for an opera to succeed, but narrative and characterization? Not so much. The five hour Einstein on the Beach would test that hypothesis.
FInally, can we swap in the set from The Death of Klinghoffer for Saturday's finale of Doctor Atomic?