A percussive clash, with rumbled gong and beaten brake drum, a cymbal crashed and choked. Some sounds seem random, others penetrate in riveting repetition. As music, it is marked Violento [quarter note=96]; as drama, it is a monstrous car collision, out from which six survivors, dazed and in a state of wonderment, emerge. This is the “overture” to Elliott Carter’s one-act opera, What Next? What follows is a dream-like drama, in which contrasting characters connect, interact, question, or turn back into their own worlds. They are all bound to that crash site, waiting for help.
This work exudes a great spontaneity that embraces this genre. Here connections are local and immediate. Musical moments, established on the spot, then refashioned, share the same “stream-of-consciousness” quality of the opera’s action as thoughts, confusion, and fears move fleetingly from one character to the next.
The story and words, from a libretto by British/Welsh writer Paul Griffiths, make a congruous companion to Carter’s rich musical world. Plentiful plays on words, deep meanings juxtaposed with the surface sounds, naturally embrace Carter’s aesthetic.
Juilliard’s Axiom Ensemble, directed by Jeffrey Milarsky, will present the New York stage premiere of this tour de force of Carter’s output—his first and, to date, only opera. Four performances on December 7, 8, 9, and 11 (the final one falling on Carter’s 99th birthday) will be presented at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, produced with the support of the Evelyn Sharp Foundation and Works and Process. The cast, directed by Christopher Alden, includes Amanda Squitieri, Susan Narucki, Katherine Rohrer, Matthew Garrett, Morgan Smith, and Jonathan Makepeace.
In a recent discussion with the composer, Milarsky, reflecting on the sensational scenario of this work, inquired whether the characters may in fact be interpreted as dead, unsure of this grim reality themselves. This would explain why road workers, when they finally arrive, leave without offering help. Although this was not Carter’s initial intent, he is delighted by the story’s potential for multiple interpretations. For Milarsky, such construal not only explains the surreal quality of the work, but also lends to its haunting beauty. Milarsky concludes, “The characters play as phantoms, in a world where time now unfolds in very different ways.”