FOR a number of music lovers, it's hard to get excited about 20th-century opera. One reason is dissonance: Most people are trained to hear chords progress in a certain orderly way, and dislike being jangled in their seats when a chord fails to resolve.
Stephen Paulus is a product of 20th-century music theory, but he also understands an audience's desire for melody. And he has written a number of pleasing ones in ``The Postman Always Rings Twice.'' The soft-spoken composer from Minnesota says he's never given up on melody, ``but it's not the melody you get out of a Tchaikovsky Fifth or a Beethoven Eroica - those long arching romantic melodies. Modern melodies are more truncated, the listener may be expecting a bigger deal. We don't write that way because it's been done.... But there still is a yearning on the part of people to hear melodies, and in `Postman' there are several spots with romantic melodies, but in my own harmonic language.''
Mr. Paulus reaches into his other works for an example. He continues, ``I wrote a violin concerto in which, in the final part, the violin meanders around in the stratosphere and finally ends up on a high B natural, while the orchestra has held a quiet B-flat chord. If this were 1890 that would be unconscionable: The B should resolve down to the B flat, and you'd have a nice complete chord. But my own philosophic reason for not doing it was that it was the ultimate gesture of saying the [violin] soloist is an independent entity.
``The idea of a concerto means `pitted against' or `concerted the soloist against the orchestra,'' he says. ``Now, obviously they can't really fight each other or you don't have a concert, but that's the original definition.... The soloist is making a statement and to not have it resolve creates some tension, some expectations, some interest on the part of the listener. Instead of saying, `Ah, it resolved, now we can go home,' ... what happens if we leave [the sound] out there?''
Paulus says the business of melody has changed. Composers often construct melodies differently so that they'll cover a wider number of leaps and steps in the scale. But many composers are turning back to the original forms. He agrees that some of his tribe have pursued novelty for sheer novelty's sake, tossing aside harmony and melody as passe. But he insists that theme and mood should dictate the type of music written.
``There are times when you can resolve things,'' Paulus says. ``You can have warm fuzzies and still listen to contemporary music.''