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Robert Ashley, Opera's Misunderstood Innovator, Dies At 83

Robert Ashley's operas for television redefined the genre.
Joanne Savio
Courtesy of the artist
Robert Ashley's operas for television redefined the genre.

Robert Ashley, a restlessly innovative American composer, died at his home in New York March 3 from complications of cirrhosis of the liver. NPR confirmed the composer's death through his wife and manager Mimi Johnson. Ashley was 83.

Although not a household name, Ashley blazed an individual path in opera throughout his career, which spanned five decades. Far from resembling any traditional form of opera, Ashley's works are constructed of intricate speech-song recitations on a vast array of topics — from Renaissance consciousness to The Wall Street Journal. He composed his operas not for the stage, but for television — a foreshadowing, of sorts, of MTV.

"I put my pieces in television format because I believe that's really the only possibility for music," the composer told author Kyle Gann in his recent biography of Ashley. The American tradition, Ashley said, is not tied to the great opera houses of Europe: "La Scala's architecture doesn't mean anything to us. We don't go there. We stay at home and watch television."

Among Ashley's more notable operatic experiments were The Park and The Backyard, episodes from his first TV opera Perfect Lives (1977-80), itself a panel in a large trilogy tracing the consciousness movement in America and commissioned by the Kitchen in New York. His evocative and enigmatic lines, in deadpan recitation over electronic drones and Indian tabla drums, gave the music a timeless and improvisatory feel. The recording became something of a cult hit among Ashley insiders and at some more adventuresome college radio stations. A sample from almost any moment in the two 20-minute works includes seemingly odd but ultimately memorable lines such as, "Fourteen dollars and twenty-eight cents is more attractive than fourteen dollars because of the twenty-eight. No one likes or dislikes zeros." (In my days as a radio producer in Ann Arbor, Mich. in the early 1980s, Robert Ashley fans identified themselves by reciting one of his colorful lines like "The feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air" then waiting for an equally esoteric response.)

Ashley was born March 28, 1930 in Ann Arbor and graduated with a degree in music theory from the University of Michigan. He worked at the University's Speech Research Laboratories before organizing the ONCE festival of contemporary performing arts in the early 1960s and the resulting music theater ensemble called the ONCE Group. In 1969, Ashley was named as the director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College where he created the first public access music and media facility. For ten years, beginning in the mid-1960s, Ashley toured with the experimental Sonic Arts Union, which included composers Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma. In 1984, the BBC televised Ashley's complete Perfect Lives in seven half-hour episodes. It's since been seen in Austria, Germany, Spain and the U.S.

Along with some 17 operas, Ashley wrote film scores, chamber music of all stripes, works for tape, for solo piano and free-thinking pieces like Night Sport, for "improvising voice and various distractions." Although his music was performed around the world, Ashley always seemed to be a composer on the fringe, one rarely recognized for his brilliance and humor, and often either misunderstood or outright ignored.

"And let it be set down, Bob was one of the most amazing composers of the 20th century, and the greatest genius of 20th-century opera," Gann writes on his blog. "I don't know how long it's going to take the world to recognize that. And it hardly matters. He knew it. That the world was too stupid to keep up was not his problem."

The world premiere of Ashley's final opera, Crash, will be performed along with two of the composer's other works at the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York April 10-13.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.