Never have the words "The Egyptians had a system of pictographs" been set more movingly as in the first act of Michael Nyman's recent opera "Love Counts"! The story concerns a mathematician, Avril, who is recently divorced after having been beaten by her husband; who meets a boxer, Patsy, down on his luck and at the end of his career. Patsy is innumerate--he's unable to use numbers in even the most basic setting. Avril takes pity on him and helps him learn to read numbers and count; and in a most unlikely turn of events she falls in love with him. Singing the part of Avril, the mathematician, is Helen Williams; boxer Patsy, is sung by bass Andrew Slater. Accompanying them is the Michael Nyman band, a small orchestra of strings with keyboards, electric bass, baritone sax and clarinets, trumpets and a horn. The orchestra is vitally important in this work, as they play a sort of commentary of musical quotations around the dialogue. Bach is particularly important, but there are smatterings of other works--a Beethoven sonata, for instance; this sort of assemblage of quotations and recomposition is a technique Nyman has favored from his earliest works. The relationship of the Bach chorales and other quotations to the story lies in their numbers, when one of the characters mentions a particular number, as in, say, a PIN, Nyman quotes music associated with that number from a Bach Chorale or Cantata, or something with that opus number, etc. It's an entirely artificial relationship--especially since the accuracy of some of these numbers is highly questionable--but one which makes for the most interesting part of the opera.
Nyman is credited as the first person to apply the term minimalist to music; the works of Philip Glass had an enormous influence on his work; but Love Counts, like all of Nyman's recent work, is more than just minimalist, it's postmodern minimalist. We have the constant repetition, the abrupt harmonic shifts, the unending pulse, but in true postmodern style, anything else can appear, too, from Bach chorales to jazz tunes and rhythms. To most listeners I suspect this is going to be more than a little disconcerting; it certainly annoyed my family and the neighbor's dog when I was preparing this review. Fans of the minimalist school will likely enjoy it, but I doubt this particular work is going to win over any new listeners. For one thing, the operatic soprano and bass singing the mundane or jargonistic words strikes me as wildly incongruous--the words just don't seem to me to lend themselves to an operatic treatment at all. I can't imagine Verdi setting a text about an ATM, nor about the origins of numeration--but maybe it would just sound better in Italian. And just wait til they start singing about sex--it's not as offensive as much rap music, but I can't play that scene over the airwaves on my radio show here in Hong Kong. Even why this is an opera at all puzzles me--Nyman doesn't take advantage of the voices in any meaningful way--there's hardly a memorable moment for them, and several places where the instrumental ensemble almost completely covers the bass singer. His text setting is appalling--the natural accentuation of the words is totally destroyed to fit tunes Nyman seems to care more about than the meaning of the words. That's fine in something like Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, where the words are not conveying any linear story or even traditional emotional state, but that's not the case here. Nyman has had a thing for musical quotation and minimalism, in the context of theatrical works involving numbers at least since his 1987 soundtrack to the film Drowning by Numbers; it probably dates back even earlier to his fascination with Einstein on the Beach. But his long-term fascination isn't conveyed to me; I'm not compelled by his artistic vision in this case. For me Nyman's best work is his purely instrumental music--his Trombone Concerto is a gem, a real treasure of contemporary music, and his score to the Piano perfectly fit the drama of the movie without having to deal with a text.
In Love Counts, though, there are interesting, even lovely moments, such as the slow music near the end, whose opening is intriguing; the soprano's entrance lovely and it seems to move toward a meaningful emotional climax...but then Nyman veers away. Certainly one of the tenets of minimalism is the avoidance of the grandiose Romantic gesture...but in an opera one wants to hear something powerful, dramatic, moving, expressive for the voice. Don't those things count, so to speak? I know I'm demonstrating my own expectations and indeed, aesthetic prejudices. But in this pluralistic world, we all must do so; and those who like this sort of thing are welcome to my place in line.