• U.S.

Music: Opera Spoofo

3 minute read

What lies beneath the noise and fury of grand opera? Not much, according to Tom Johnson, a Manhattan composer-critic. Johnson, 33, earned his master’s degree in music at Yale, and now serves as a music reviewer for New York’s Village Voice. “People were always dragging me to the opera,” he recalls, “and I always had guilt feelings about not liking it. Also, I wondered what all those singers were really thinking about during their 200th-or-so performance of the same piece.”

The eventual result: Johnson decided to write an hour-long opera that spoofs opera. He picked a cast of four characters, created a libretto that does nothing except describe itself and, using only four notes (A,B,D,E) created a deadpan score that he calls The Four Note Opera. The work began convulsing opera fans last May and has lately moved on to such respectable platforms as the Metropolitan Opera Studio and, in truncated form, CBS-TV’s Sunday morning Camera Three.

Miraculously, Johnson projects tedium without inducing boredom. The melodies are modest but tuneful, nailed down with piano chords that sound like Verdian oompah that has absentmindedly dozed off. The words are straight satire. “There are three choruses in this opera,” goes the opening chorus. “This is the first one. The second one will be almost like this one, but somewhat shorter. The third one will be almost like this one, but somewhat longer. But each of them is staged—differently!”

There is a duet written on a theme and variations with the words, “This duet is a set of variations based on a very short theme.” The soprano embarks upon a classical slow-fast aria whose lyrics explain, “I sing this aria twice, the first time I sing it slowly in order that I may display my lyrical quality…the second time so I can display my virtuosity.” A busy quartet has the baritone declaiming, “This is the quartet”; the contralto rejoicing, “I have a nice theme”; the soprano warbling, “I just sing la, la, la, la” and the tenor fuming, “But the tenor hardly has a thing.” Naturally, mass suicide concludes the work, as the characters gloomily intone, “This scene seems very long.”

Composer Johnson admits he is fascinated with static art that concerns itself with its own innards. His next project is even more nonmusical, a novel called The Fish Aren’t Biting. “It’s about Nick and Eddie, who sit on a lake for 200 pages watching their bobbers and the fish aren’t biting.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com