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On Kate Soper's "Romance of the Rose"

As manyreviewers of Kate Soper's recently-premiered opera The Romance of the Rose have observed, this work was a long time coming: its original premiere, slated for early 2020, was cancelled due to the COVID epidemic. In this sense, this opera is the culmination of five years of work. But in another sense, this opera is also the culmination of fourty-two years of work, and also seven hundred years of work: it synthesizes musical ideas that the composer has been developing for her whole life into forms, styles, and narrative tropes that others have been developing for centuries. 

In a 2020 essay about this opera, Soper explains that her interest in Medieval European music lies in “the occult sense that its messages are hidden even when its surface is transparent.” “By dialing up the surface intelligibility,” she writes, "you can increase the contrast, you can circle around things that you can’t look at directly.” In previous works such as 2017’s Ipsa Dixit, Soper’s exploration of things that you can’t look at directly, or perhaps things that you can’t listen to directly, was often undertaken through what some listeners might have heard as “difficult” sonic excursions through material both musical and philosophical. Ipsa Dixit, which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music, sets texts from the European tradition with an almost ekphrastic musical style, drawing on differing musical traditions to express, and interrogate, the natures of both words and music. 

In The Romance of the Rose, Soper builds on this strategy, but takes it one step further. Yes, the music, as Zachary Woolfe wrote in the New York Times, contains “astringency, complexity and moments of plain noise.” But those moments are framed by more comforting musical styles, such as in the aptly-named “Torch Song” that dates back to Soper’s early career as a singer-songwriter. 

Rather than a simple post-modernism, Soper’s radical use of differing musical styles has a very specific purpose, and a very powerful function: even as the audience might recognize the stylistic references intellectually, their formal arrangement in the narrative of the work has a very real effect on the heart. Soper likens the effect of this kind of formal intentionality to alchemy: the creation of a new, unknowable thing from a few well-known but ordinary elements. 

The beginning of Act II exemplifies this feeling of musical alchemy: it begins with a welcoming serenade sung with early renaissance style imitative polyphony led by the Dreamer, accompanied by a single plucked string instrument reminiscent of a lute. As the Lover wakes up, however, she begins to converse with these characters in plain, spoken language; they respond with fantastical evocations of dream-like spaces. After the Lover huffs that she’d rather go to a bar than any of these proposed dream-worlds, the piano begins playing the opening of Soper’s “Torch Song,” which melds a descending minor tetrachord—the same device that undergirds such well-known operatic arias as “Dido’s Lament”—with both jazzy seventh chords and medieval open-fifth harmonies. More than a “juxtaposition” of musical styles, this is an alchemy of musical form: as Soper writes, “a glimpse of something real, even hard, underneath a glittering surface.”

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