‘As Living as Opera Can Get’: John Cage’s Anarchic Anti-Canon

The start was typical: Oper Frankfurt in Germany asked John Cage to write an opera.

But the premiere, in 1987, was unlike anything in opera up to that point. Cage, an American maverick whose philosophical, socially conscious works at the time were based on chance, mapped out an elaborate scheme for a show that would bring the entirety of European opera onto the same stage — at the same time.

It was called “Europeras 1 & 2,” an enormous undertaking of controlled chaos, engineered with an eye toward history and populist reclamation, hence the title that implies both “Euro operas” and “your operas.” Each element, its rollout determined by the I Ching, unfolded independently from all others: Singers performed arias unrelated to the instrumental accompaniment, which was unrelated to the scenic and lighting design, as well as stage directions. (Audience members also received varied plot synopses that read like opera Mad Libs.)

The public wasn’t exactly equipped to receive what Cage had served them. Laura Kuhn, who runs the John Cage Trust and worked with him as he prepared “Europeras 1 & 2,” wrote in her dissertation on the piece that the reception in Frankfurt varied from “overt enthusiasm to no less overt bewilderment or disdain.”

But Cage kept going. At the Almeida Festival in 1990, he premiered “Europeras 3 & 4,” which will receive a rare revival this week at Detroit Opera, in a production directed by Yuval Sharon. In Cage’s series of works, which concluded with “Europera 5” in 1991, the whole became greater than its parts, with affection alongside the anarchy, and the feeling, Sharon said, that “this is as living as opera can get.”

Yuval Sharon, left, the director of “Europeras 3 & 4” in Detroit, with the associate director, Alexander Gedeon.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

In Cage’s time, there were those who appreciated what Cage was doing. As “Europeras 1 & 2” was arriving in the United States, the artist and critic Richard Kostelanetz wrote that “by running innocently amok in European culture, Cage has come as close as anyone to writing the Great American Opera, which is to say, a great opera that only an American could make.”

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