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The innovative ways in which the human voice is used in performing Thomas Adès’s operas Powder Her Face, The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel, have ensured sustained critical attention on voice and vocality in these works. There has, however, been little academic scholarship on the role of the voice in Adès’s operas to date. Reconciling hermeneutic approaches to voice, phenomenal song and narrative with a more recent material turn in voice studies, this chapter will discuss a range of interpretatively salient moments in Adès’s operas, in which the sound and activity of the resonant singing voice itself is used as a narrative parameter independently of what these operatic voices have to say. It aims to interrogate the play between voice as embodied sonority and more metaphorical conceptions of voice as vehicle for meaning, as a way to access and understand traits in the relationship between surface and structure, and the use of musical techniques for semantic ends. In doing so, this chapter provides a long-overdue theoretically grounded hearing of the sonorous voices in Adès’s music and of the performers that capture our attention from the operatic stage.
Thomas Adès described his compositions as the ‘organic, necessary’ linking of ‘tiny cells’ into larger structures by a ‘musical logic.’ This chapter demonstrates how successions of dyads in his two recent operas follow the logic of a specific musical transformation, retrograde-inversion chaining. This distinctively temporal process establishes cyclical patterns which can be realised, twisted or broken in various dramatic situations. In The Tempest, the cycles direct the music in ways that express Prospero’s power and Caliban’s resistance. Such logic, applied to different materials, also permeates The Exterminating Angel. On the surface, the retrograde-inversion chains represent the dissipation of the characters’ will. More deeply, though, the logic underwrites the tonality and form in the Act I lovers’ duet, the ‘Fugue of Panic’ and Leticia’s creative exuberance at a pivotal dramatic moment. These observations offer insight into how Adès controls musical time on the very largest scale.
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