Hans Werner Henze 1926-2012

28 Oct

I’m sorry to hear of the death of Hans Werner Henze, though at 86 he had had a long and highly productive life.  I suppose that what it’s brought home to me is how little of his work I know and what this says about opera in the late 20th century.

I’ve seen three of his operas: Prince of Homburg, Boulevard Solitude and Elegy for Young Lovers which are certainly the only operas that have had major performances here in my opera-going lifetime (I’m too young to have been able to catch We Come to the River or La Cubana).   This number of performances strikes me as a pretty poor show for a composer who, Britten apart can make a claim to be the most important opera composer of his generation and, more controversially (Birtwistle?) since 1950.

I enjoyed and admired each of them – enough to feel that I’d go back and see them again if they were revived, but not enough to go out and buy such CDs or DVDs as were available (interestingly, it seems to be possible to get recordings in one format or another of most of his major operas apart from Elegy for Young Lovers, which must be the most performed in the UK).

I think it’s understandable that this should be the case.  I think that it’s quite difficult to “get” an opera at a first visit: there is often so much going on that you do not necessarily identify the beauties or the crucial moments all at once, particularly if the music is unfamiliar. Janáček is an obvious example of where I’ve enjoyed a first performance but only really come to appreciate what a masterpiece it is and to identify outstanding parts later on.  You only have to listen to people attending their first Janáček or even Britten opera to understand that these aren’t as immediately accessible to them as some others. I’d apply this also to much of Wagner, Richard Strauss and even Monteverdi: they need work and performances to get a public engaged.  Yet how can we get to know and appreciate these pieces if they are never performed?

I think Henze has suffered from a number of things.  First there is a perception that anything written after Puccini is “modern” and “difficult”, so people won’t go.  The second is the fact that he is following a trend in classical music which rejects much of the aesthetic that makes some operas immediately popular.  His music isn’t “difficult” to listen to in the way that, say Birtwistle’s or Berg’s might be thought to be, but it doesn’t, so far as I can recall, have the heart-stopping moments or instant appeal to the senses as well as to the brain, that successful operas have.  They don’t have an element of entertainment.

It may, of course, be that his operas, rather like those of Haydn, just don’t quite make the grade and will only ever be appreciated by a few enthusiasts to whom his music speaks particularly.  What would be nice, however, would be if one or two companies were to give us the opportunity to see some more of his work and even revive them, so that we can make up our minds.  That’s what happened with Janáček where it was only after a good deal of perseverance that he became popular.  In the present economic climate, can you see that happening?  It’s a shame, but I do feel that Henze deserves more than the neglect his operas seem to be garnering at the moment – how about it, Opera North?


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