What Next? (opera)

What Next? is the only opera by Elliott Carter. Paul Griffiths wrote the libretto to the one-act work in 1997/98 on a commission from Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. The opera premiered there on 16 September 1999 in a fully staged production conducted by Daniel Barenboim.[1]

What Next?
Opera by Elliott Carter
LibrettistPaul Griffiths
16 September 1999 (1999-09-16)

Performance historyEdit


Role Voice type Premiere cast, 16 September 1999
(Conductor: Daniel Barenboim)
Mama, a mother and much else soprano Lynne Dawson
Rose, a bride and a performer soprano Simone Nold
Stella, an astronomer contralto Hilary Summers
Kid, a boy boy alto Ian Antal
Zen, a supposed seer and not much else tenor William Joyner
Harry or Larry, a bridegroom and a clown baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann


As the percussionists replicate the sounds of a car crash the characters wake up and discover themselves lost. They are physically unhurt but have lost all memory of who they are and how they came to be together. Many theories arise from all the characters. Mama suggests that they were on their way to Rose and Harry or Larry's wedding, Stella is sure that she was driving to the astronomical institute with Kid, and Rose claims she was in a taxi on her way to her hotel after an extremely well received performance. Harry or Larry, Kid and Zen don't suggest any possible reasons how the situation came to be.

An argument arises about whose story is the right one. Zen is overwhelmed by the situation, and when he exits the stage in search of help, Mama accuses him of being a coward and goes to insult him. While Stella sings of the stars and space to Kid, she decides to follow the others. But, Kid is afraid of Mama and Zen so he decides not to follow Stella. When Rose realizes that everyone is gone, she asks Kid where they have all gone and Kid replies by pointing offstage.

After the adults are gone, Kid entertains himself. When the other characters return, they are completely disheveled and it is evident that their search for help has turned into another disaster. There are more arguments about a divorce between Mama and Zen that only Mama remembers. When four road workers arrive, they think they are saved but the road workers appear completely oblivious to the six victims. All hell breaks loose after the road workers leave. Mama discovers that Rose is pregnant, Harry or Larry is distressed to realize he can't remember if the baby is his, Stella and Mama both have nervous breakdowns, and only Kid remains sane. As Rose recalls the notes of a particularly horrible aria from her recent performance, Kid finally loses his temper. He shouts "What?" to the audience, Rose sings her highest possible note, and the lights go out.


There are four recordings (key: Conductor/Mama/Rose/Stella/Kid/Zen/Harry):

  • Barenboim/Dawson/Nold/Summers/Antal/Joyner/Müller-Brachmann, 1999, live in Berlin (not commercially released)
  • Eötvös/Sarah Leonard/Valdine Anderson/Summers/Emanuel Hoogeveen/Joyner/Dean Elzinga, 2000, live in Amsterdam, ECM 1817 (CD)[2]
  • Levine/Jamie van Eyck/Kiera Duffy/Christin-Marie Hill/Rebecca Danning/Lawrence Jones/Chad Sloan, 2006, filmed at Lenox, BSO label (DVD)[3]
  • Schirmer/Vera Semieniuk/Anna Borchers/Sonja Leutwyler/Bastian Sistemich/Lucas Vanzelli/Andreas Burkhart, 2007, live in Munich (BR recording)


Further readingEdit

  • Capuzzo, Guy. 2012. Elliott Carter's 'What Next?': Communication, Cooperation, Separation. Rochester: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 978-1-58046-419-2.

External linksEdit