Thomas Adès’s Eight-Year Itch

Illustration by Montse Bernal

Major new operas often take forever to reach New York. Kaija Saariaho’s twelve-year-old L’amour de loin has been performed in Paris, Salzburg, Santa Fe, Darmstadt, Bern, Beirut, Helsinki, Toronto, and Antwerp—but not here. We’ve been waiting for Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise for more than 25 years. By those standards of sluggishness, Thomas Adès’s The Tempest has practically hopped from its world premiere at London’s Royal Opera in 2004 right to its October debut at the Met, in a new production directed by Robert Lepage. Make that an almost-new production: Over the summer, it had an out-of-town tryout in Lepage’s home base of Quebec, which allowed for an unusually luxurious rehearsal schedule. “We got to rehearse on the actual set for a whole month,” says Adès, who will conduct the Met performances. “That gave us a chance to make the experience of seeing the opera one with the experience of hearing it. For a composer, it’s an alchemical process.”

Adès, who divides his time between Los Angeles and his home base in London, went from boy wonder to musical sage through his thirties, and now, at 41, is by far Britain’s most important composer. (His first opera, the raucous and raunchy Powder Her Face, had a memorable New York premiere in 1998 at BAM and will return in February, this time with City Opera.) In massive orchestra works like Asyla and Tevot, and more intimate chamber pieces like Lieux retrouvés for piano and cello, he has fleshed out a musical universe that can be sublime or ferocious, but never bland. Even his least successful passages fail with an inventiveness and intensity that lesser composers strive for.

Adès is not the sort of composer who aspires to launch movements, invent new forms, or write for undreamed-of ensembles. “It’s better to put the note down and worry about its originality later, rather than try to reinvent the wheel with every piece you write,” he says. “The traditional orchestra can represent 100 percent of a human—body and soul. A violin still says something as true now as it did in the eighteenth century.”

The history of opera is littered with forgotten adaptations of Shakespeare’s Tempest, but then Adès is attracted to out-of-the-way corners of the past. “I love going back to seventeenth- or eighteenth-century opera and turnings that didn’t lead anywhere. Moments in Berlioz’s Les Troyens [which returns to the Met in December], for example, or Purcell’s King Arthur.”

A pianist and conductor, he is a regular performer and voracious consumer and, sometimes, quasi-thief of music he didn’t write. “I’m constantly turning over people’s private drawers to forage for bits of material they’ve left over, and that borrowing animal is no respecter of the expected hierarchies. I don’t care if it’s Bruckner or something I’ve just found in the trash.” Adès seems to feel that the mainstream of music history has shown poor judgment over the centuries, anointing composers who don’t merit their reputations. In Full of Noises, a forthcoming book of interviews, he rearranges the canon with brisk ruthlessness: Wagner is “fungal,” Mahler occasionally brilliant but more often “self-loathing,” and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony “a waste of space.” His preferences tend to idiosyncratic composers like Janácek, Berlioz, and Nancarrow, whose music was more innovative than influential.

He’s now at work on his third opera, based on the Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and Adès approaches film with a mixture of passion and suspicion. “It’s one of the most artificial of art forms, and yet if we are lucky enough to lose ourselves in it, an opera transforms everything,” he says. “Even if the subject is very light or ridiculous, it can still go right to the heart.”

The Tempest
By Thomas Adès.
Metropolitan Opera. Starts Oct. 23.

Thomas Adès’s Eight-Year Itch