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The singing dead

“Somehow with opera, just as with theatre, it turns out that the monster’s head still hasn’t been cut off. Or else, like any monster worthy of the name, it keeps finding ways to rise from the grave.” Occasional friend of the box Joseph Cermatori offers an obituary of sorts for opera in New York in 2011-2012 in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art.

170 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Galina!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    I hope the new MET Rigoletto will be as good as this 1907 Video

  • Maury,

    Oh god, with such phrases I’m afraid you’ll invoke the Wistful Pelleastrian to tell us once again how we don’t love Pelleas quite enough.

    Let’s stick to the topic. Here is the quote again:

    “Boredom can even overcome us at excellent performances of a canonic work. Opera lasts for hours and hours, and there is no operatic work, not even the greatest, without its moments of tedium”

    This is crazy.

    Are they really saying that Moses and Aron, The Marriage of Figaro, Das Rheingold, Elektra or Falstaff (to name just 5 off the top of my head) contain tedious moments??

    I am enjoying their book very much don’t get me wrong but that line is something I would expect to hear only from an opera newbie.

    • ianw2 says:

      Well, of your examples the only one I’m confident talking about is Figaro, and it absolutely does have tedious moments, such as the oft-cut arias from Bartolo and Marcellina at the beginning of Act IV.

      Not even Mozart can write at 110% all the time. To use another pertinent example, even Nixon, which I love, has its moments where I think “get on with it”- such as the study scene, where the orchestration overwhelms much of the wordplay.

      • armerjacquino says:

        I will fight anyone who says Marcellina’s aria is boring.

        However, I will also fight anyone who makes me listen to Basilio’s (which is what I presume you meant: Bartolo’s aria is in Act 1 and is ACE).

      • Ian,

        it absolutely does have tedious moments

        Yes but thinking that a work contains a couple of weak moments here or there is not the same as being “overcome with boredom” (their words)

        And they continue:

        ”What is more, we are nowadays further encouraged to be bored by the conditions under which opera is performed: we are forced to sit in the dark without interacting with our friends; we are forbidden to leave the auditorium during a performance; rapt and above all silent attention is demanded as a courtesy to the performers and fellow attendees -- and, strangely, because they are almost always dead, as a courtesy to composers”

        The fact that two opera scholars are complaining that any of these things are somehow restrictive is mind-boggling to me.

    • grimoaldo says:

      I agree that “there is no operatic work, not even the greatest, without its moments of tedium” is a very silly statement and it makes me feel that the authors’ judgement on other matters is to be trusted.
      Apart from anything else, it is merely a matter of taste what one finds tedious and because you find something boring does not mean someone else is going to.
      Also it depends on whether the performance is good or not. All sorts of pieces can be tedious in dull performances but riveting in good ones.
      I can lay my hand on my heart and say truthfully that I have attended performances of, for instance, Giulio Cesare, Don Carlos and Gotterdammerung and not found a single second tedious, been absolutely riveted, enthralled, from start to finish and when they were over wondered why they could not have gone on a bit longer.

      • Grimoaldo,

        Apart from anything else, it is merely a matter of taste what one finds tedious and because you find something boring does not mean someone else is going to.Also it depends on whether the performance is good or not. All sorts of pieces can be tedious in dull performances but riveting in good ones. I can lay my hand on my heart and say truthfully that I have attended performances of, for instance, Giulio Cesare, Don Carlos and Gotterdammerung and not found a single second tedious, been absolutely riveted, enthralled, from start to finish and when they were over wondered why they could not have gone on a bit longer.

        Exactly!

        I agree that “there is no operatic work, not even the greatest, without its moments of tedium” is a very silly statement and it makes me feel that the authors’ judgement on other matters is to be trusted.

        And speaking of judgment… Here is the first line of Taruskin’s blurb on the back cover:

        “Writers on opera tend to fall into two mutually hostile camps: the mind people and the body people, the Kermans and the Koestenbaums”

        It was a nice alliteration but I don’t see how anyone could view Wayne Koestenbaum as being representative of the ‘sensual pleasure’ camp? (whatever that is). I’ve tried reading his 1993 book The Queens’s Throat and he just comes across as a canary fancier with narrow tastes.

        I think the first two customer reviews (by George Goldberg and Jay Dickson) are spot on here:

        Too much gay culture, too little opera and Tediously whimsical

        http://www.amazon.com/The-Queens-Throat-Homosexuality-Mystery/dp/0306810085

      • Oops! Blockquote error. One more time:

        Grimolado,

        Apart from anything else, it is merely a matter of taste what one finds tedious and because you find something boring does not mean someone else is going to.Also it depends on whether the performance is good or not. All sorts of pieces can be tedious in dull performances but riveting in good ones. I can lay my hand on my heart and say truthfully that I have attended performances of, for instance, Giulio Cesare, Don Carlos and Gotterdammerung and not found a single second tedious, been absolutely riveted, enthralled, from start to finish and when they were over wondered why they could not have gone on a bit longer.

        Exactly.

        I agree that “there is no operatic work, not even the greatest, without its moments of tedium” is a very silly statement and it makes me feel that the authors’ judgement on other matters is to be trusted.

        And speaking of judgment… Here is the first line of Taruskin’s blurb on the back cover:

        “Writers on opera tend to fall into two mutually hostile camps: the mind people and the body people, the Kermans and the Koestenbaums”

        It was a nice alliteration but I don’t see how anyone could view Wayne Koestenbaum as being representative of the ‘sensual pleasure’ camp? (whatever that is). I’ve tried reading his 1993 book The Queens’s Throat and he just comes across as a canary fancier with narrow tastes.

        I think the first two customer reviews (by George Goldberg and Jay Dickson) are spot on here:

        Too much gay culture, too little opera and Tediously whimsical

        http://www.amazon.com/The-Queens-Throat-Homosexuality-Mystery/dp/0306810085

  • atalaya says:

    Gardner got booed at Don Giovanni tonight. Probably no more than a handful of people up in the Family Circle. Unusual to hear that for a conductor.

  • m. croche says:

    I’ve held my tongue until this point, but now I think I’ll jump in. 

    When people make sweeping denunciations of Italian bel canto, or Wagner, or what they term “baroque” opera, I find that they generally (not always!!!) are not very familiar with the subject.   Nothing wrong with that -- nobody can like everything.   So the material rubs them the wrong way, they get bored with it, whatever.   They, naturally, don’t spend a lot of time on the matter and consequently don’t have very interesting or insightful things to say about the repertoire in question.  I think I’ve said before, the most insightful people to read are usually the ones who are interested and enthusiastic about their subject.

    Comes now the subject of “modern opera”, though it’s usually unclear from the context whether any person is talking about post-Puccini opera or work of the last 25 years.   Even restricting ourselves to the latter category, the number and variety of operas being composed and premiered around the world is sufficiently intimidating that I would be very hesitant to make blanket characterizations of the scene, and would do so only under duress.  I find that people willing to offer an opinion on “modern opera” tout court have less breadth and depth in the subject than would be ideal.

    The other point to be made is that new work is NEW.  It sometimes takes a while to become assimilated into the repertoire.   Look at Janacek, look at Cavalli (who was “new” back in the mid-20th century.  Not all pieces can be sufficiently appreciated immediately.   Repeated exposure, changed cultural contexts, and the efforts of performers and critics can help make comprehensible that which was formerly obscure, help make interesting that which was formerly tedious.

    I’ll take as a case in point one of Maury’s betes-noires, Tan Dun’s The Last Emperor.  This opera had generally poor reviews in the New York and European press.   One reason for this, I believe, is that those critics were not (yet) Tan Dun’s ideal audience for the work.  Tan, of course, ended up receiving a bi-cultural musical education and his work reflects a pretty imaginative and sophisticated appropriation and blending of both cultures.   Here’s an aria from the opera, perhaps less than ideally cast by Placido Domingo:

    If you click through to the original YouTube video, you can find the text for this passage. Now, this passage is not written in th European 19th-century style, but instead draws on several formal characteristics of Beijing opera or some other regional Chinese opera styles.   It has no modulations for dramatic effect (the scale stays principally on G-major, with a low D often serving as a final note).    There are occasional emphases on high notes, but the whole piece is not structured in giant arches to climax on them, but instead sinks down into the lower registers consistent with the types of melodies sung by old-man (laosheng) characters in Beijing opera.   The poetry is structured like a Beijing opera “aria” -- an initial, unpaired sentence in unmetered tempo, followed by pairs of lines (occasionally broken up or ended with further unmetered sections).  The pairs of lines have somewhat similar melodic contours, as they would in Beijing opera, and are also differentiated somewhat by tempo in the same manner.   And even the poetry is in English, it is still more-or-less clearly structured in the three-segment lines common to the New Tang style poetry that served as the basis for Beijing opera songs.   This poetic structure, with its opportunities for two caesuras in the lines (and, in Beijing opera,  for musical enjambment between lines) affects the lengths and melodic shapes of musical phrases both in Beijing opera and here.  (A line by line analysis is impractical in chat comments.).   So if you are already familiar with Beijing opera, many of the things Tan Dun does turn out to be interesting and expressive.
    And the more familiar you are with Asian musical traditions in general, the more significance you will find in his musical gestures.

    Maybe the New York critics already knows all of this stuff and still find the opera boring, but I doubt it’s the case.   The point is that the opera is new, produced by people with a distinctive and unfamiliar point of view.  It will take time for people in New York to come to a better appreciation of what Tan Dun was doing in The First Emperor.    But we should remember to factor this quality of “newness” into our discussions of contemporary work.  I think we should always be prepared to bring a measure of humility to new work that we initially find boring or incomprehensible.  

    • DonCarloFanatic says:

      Food for thought, but you’re talking way over my head.

      I did not find either The First Emperor or Nixon in China boring or incomprehensible on first hearing. I just don’t care enough about their subject matter to make an effort to see or hear them again.

      New music and new productions often seem about as flawed as new movies. The millions of dollars spent on them and the hundreds of people involved produce a story that does not make sense, characters who don’t appeal, ill-chosen words, inapt symbolism, and off-putting sets. Yet these people are supposedly talented. Is this the best the world of art can offer? Statistically, most of these efforts are doomed to fail, and rightly so, because they just aren’t very good.

      As for the music itself, no amount of explaining to me that I should like something is going to convince my ears to like it. Repeated exposure might help me discern elements to like, but there must be something appealing--and appealing in a completely instinctive, irrational, and uneducated way--for me to like a piece of music.

      Bottom line, I don’t have the temperament for boring and incomprehensible art and dense symbolism and so-called “difficult” music. I certainly respect people who do and who have great musical knowledge to bring to their appreciation of new works of art, but I stand by my own visceral and uninformed reactions.

      Enjambment is a new word for me. Thanks.

      • Belfagor says:

        So what subject matter would you care about for a new opera?

        • DonCarloFanatic says:

          The tragic arc of Anna Nicole Smith’s life, both despite and because of its vulgar comedy elements, made sense to me as an opera. I have yet to see it. Looking forward to it.

          Naming some famous names whose stories contain elements that work well in opera, how about John Edwards, Rock Hudson, OJ Simpson, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simone de Beauvoir, or Frank Sinatra? And what ever happened with that opera written about Hemingway? I’m not saying write thinly disguised bios, but write about the themes in these well-known lives, which are the typical themes of successful opera: love in the wrong places, duty or friendship vs. desire, betrayals, murderous passions, intense ups and downs, etc. Although I’d definitely go see an opera which ends with Hemingway blowing his brains out.

          • Indiana Loiterer III says:

            Interesting…it always seems that, when subjects for new operas come around, celebrity stories dominate the discussion. Never movies, or novels, or even plays--that is, the sort of subject-matter that past composers drew upon with some success.

          • oedipe says:

            DonCarloFanatic,

            I believe I know what you are getting at. Let me try to formulate it on a general level:

            Opera USED to be about human passions, so that a (good) performance was a communal celebration of such passions, a sort of “rite”, in which outstanding singers would function as conduits. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that opera’s roots can be traced to open air performances of Greek tragedies and, even before that, to ancient “mysteries”.

            But that conception of opera is at odds with our skeptical, postmodern society, which favors a distancing, a deconstruction of passions. Whenever passions are presented in (serious) art, there is a tendency to approach them in an intellectual, critical way, or through an unsentimental, “doomsday” lens.

            What you are yearning for is more empathy in new operas, I think. May I suggest that you give a try to the recent Written on Skin? I predict you’ll get a chance to see it, it’s one of those that will be around…

        • lucy brown says:

          I wish Sondheim wrote opera. Such great stories! Sweeney Todd has it all: passion, comedy, tragedy, great scope, great characters. A Little Night Music is as wistful as La Rondine, and pretty racy to boot. Assassins? That one is my new obsession. Lord, what a cast of characters! What brilliance in the way he puts the stories together! And the music? Sublime. I’ve seen people in the audience of Sondheim shows get up and yell at the characters because they’re so involved with the story, just as I saw someone jump up at a recent performance of Il Trovatore, and scream at Azucena. Opera and theater (and I hate to separate them) are so wonderful when they deliver a visceral experience like that! Intellectual satisfaction is great in its own way, but it’s so special to find a piece of work that gets you in the gut.

          • Belfagor says:

            Exactly -- but in the field of musicals he is the only ‘thinker’ and teller of tales -- the musicals experience has been taken over by those trashy Brits and their damn chandeliers.

            Most composers invited to write opera have a proven track record in concert disciplines, and thus are often at sea when it comes to articulating story, character and activating control of pace and dramatic tension through music -- I can’t think of a candidate at present I could whole-heartedly endorse.

          • MontyNostry says:

            I like some Sondheim (or at least ALNM and Follies and not quite sure about Sweeney Todd), but I don’t think he could write a real opera (much as many current ‘operatic’ composers don’t seem to be able to write a real opera). He has a tendency to being too short-breathed. I have to say I wasn’t crazy Into the Woods and Merrily We Roll Along, which are both rather preachy and repetitive, which wouldn’t be a positive in an opera either. (And, while I’m at it, can I say right here and now that I find Die Zauberfloete pretty damn irritating, in spite of some fine moments.)

          • La Cieca says:

            I will never understand why DIE ZAUBERFLOTE is an opera, but A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC isn’t.

            The answer is “Hermione Gingold.” Or “Elaine Stritch,” even.

          • louannd says:

            Can I say, once again, that Die Zauberflöte is one of the greatest gifts that Mozart bestowed on the world. In my experience, when friends/family members encounter opera as the Magic Flute, the inevitably come to adore the piece despite it’s being *opera*. Unfortunately, there are many less opportunities to expose them to Steven Sondheim, which could or would I imagine give the same result.

          • Famous Quickly says:

            I could sing Petra *tomorrow*; it’s a question of color and tessitura.

      • redbear says:

        A forum for all! Even the “visceral and uninformed” that Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Schubert, Monteverdi, Richard Strauss, Handel, Berg, etc. etc used to enjoy irritating. They all have a podium here.
        The single reason that opera exists is that it is a living art. Artists are the life blood. If they can’t express themselves with new work, out of rep discoveries or a new interpretation of a standard, then opera is dead.
        If, however, artists challenge the “V&U” then you can have a December like in Paris: a Carmen that creates a scandal, a Cherubini that creates a scandal, two productions of Blow’s Venus and Adonis (!), a Vinci, two Purcells, a Verrieres, a Poulenc, a Rossini, a Handel, a Bernstein. And it’s a short month.

      • m. croche says:

        Hiya, DCF:

        Thanks for your response.

        The millions of dollars spent on them and the hundreds of people involved produce a story that does not make sense, characters who don’t appeal, ill-chosen words, inapt symbolism, and off-putting sets. Yet these people are supposedly talented. Is this the best the world of art can offer? Statistically, most of these efforts are doomed to fail, and rightly so, because they just aren’t very good.[emphasis added]

        Here’s the point I was trying to make: it is easy for people sometimes to assume that a work they didn’t like was the result of the composer’s/librettist’s/production team’s incompetence. I’m trying to make the case that sometimes (sometimes!) it’s the critics and/or the audience who are incompetent.

        That thought is always at the back of my head when I approach new work, and that is also why I’m always happy to revise my negative criticisms of a piece when I hear or read some insightful criticism praising it.

        • Belfagor says:

          With new work and its inability to crash the general repertoire, I think the answer is very simple: THERE AREN’T ENOUGH OF THEM.

          I have a stupidly recondite knowledge of some areas of opera and love ferreting out obscure works from past centuries and cultures. It amazes me how often I find composers and titles I’ve never even heard of, yet they were premiered in prominent places and were published -- and their composers often went on to write a body of operatic work. Time has justly forgotten them -- but they sprang from a soil where new work and novelty were expected. Time has winnowed them away and the standard rep and novelties account for -- what? -- say 0.5 percent of all operas created. Now the operatic culture is that of a museum -- from which, it can seem at times, the oxygen is slowly depleting. There aren’t enough operas tried out, written, there’s no tradition, no accepted norm, so all the creators are freewheeling madly -- and as any artist knows, there’s nothing more paralysing than too much freedom.

          The historic vitality that meant that certain libretti were set 80 times in the 18th century has gone, it migrated to the movies and television -- and now is moving on to more private arenas.

          There’s now a current rash of new operas about to happen in the US that is hanging off the coattails of famous movie titles: Manchurian Candidate, The Shining and so on. Just because it was a great movie, doesn’t mean that it works as opera.

          What I believe opera needs is an auteur -- rather like Woody Allen, or Bergman, the Coens, Almodovar, who can start from scratch -- devise an original subject and find that subject that is realised best as a music drama -- not through a second hand lens. There’s all this crap talked about how you need a good librettist -- knickers to that! -- you need an all-rounder visionary who can tell a mean story and write brilliant, fresh, yet memorable music. THAT’S ALL IT TAKES!! Ha ha! Of course the intendant who is going to risk THAT -- and not from the usual suspects, the career composers who get the pie and don’t deserve it and all that………

          But what the form doesn’t need is a host of fifth rate Puccini wannabes adapting Cliff notes classics and singing them to you slowly. BORING!

          • m. croche says:

            I got yer auteurism for you. Belfagor, meet Karlheinz.

            Also: Arnold. Die Gluckliche Hand, Die Jakobsleiter, and Von Heute Auf Morgen all would have benefitted from the input of a real writer. Moses und Aron, too, I’d argue, though the libretto in its present shape has its defenders. Some people just aren’t cut out to write this stuff. Anyway, demanding that composers be auteurs in control of all aspects of their work is a surefire recipe for having fewer works be created. Opera since its origins has been a collaborative, magpie effort, and only exceptionally have figures like Wagner successfully mastered all of its disciplines.

          • Belfagor says:

            Well, I agree with you actually M.Croche -- but Karlheinz was a wack-job egotistical loonies surrounded by people who didn’t dare say no, and Schonberg was writing all by and for himself at a desk with his mind (mainly -- golden calf excepted) on higher things…….

            Again, you see, the problem is we always define ‘opera’ by historical precedent -- which is why I cited auteurs from film -- a more accessible and vital medium.

            But I think it would be great to see new operas taken from experience and not from secondhand sources……

            Not that I’m idealistic, or anything……!

          • luvtennis says:

            Belfagor:

            I was actually thinking along the same lines before reading your post.

        • phoenix says:

          m. -- BINGO!: “(sometimes!) it’s the critics and/or the audience who are incompetent”.
          - Much of this incompetency derives from just plain old disinterest. The age old mainstay of ticket sales -- the promotion of ‘Subscription Series’ as well as the more recent ‘special’ nights for this or that (this or that usually having directly to do with the performance itself) only further exacerbates the situation -- even when I first began going to the opera in the 1960′s I noticed that many in the audience seemed to be there for other reasons than the performance -- and from what I read, such was the case throughout history. Some actually felt they were only tolerating the performance in order to fulfill a social or professional obligation, gab to find out what happened so-and-so and so-and-so these days, wear a stunning outfit, make a business deal, pick up a trick, or just to show they are still alive -- or not -- etc.
          - Even with genuine devotees, programming unfamiliar or new works more often than not puts people on the defense if they do not already have an interest in that specific genre or the composer. But composers are wise to this and sometimes (sometimes!) take up well-known historical events or legends for their new works (The Death of Klinghoffer, Nixon in China, etc.) anticipating the audience has already achieved some sort of knowledge, opinion or personal identification with the story.
          - There are also informative lectures to attempt to ‘familiarize’ patrons with operas, but I have never found these lectures very satisfactory -- I only come away with memories of this or that opinion expressed -- which is usually pertinent, but no more so than most of these comments around here.
          - As far as critics’ ‘incompetence’ goes: the issue is unsolvable.

          • kennedet says:

            Agreed phoenix, and that is precisely why the best we can hope for is continue to enjoy what opera means to us personally, regardless of the analysts.
            Also, another sign of the declining audience, is the empty seats in most opera houses compared to 20 years ago. That speaks volumes about disinterest. Comparing HD presentations of opera at the movies is not the same. Ironically, we know for a fact that is one of the many reasons some opera companies have closed.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Kennedet: High prices are also responsible for empty seats.

          • La Cieca says:

            Ironically, we know for a fact that is one of the many reasons some opera companies have closed.

            Know that for a fact, do we?

          • kennedet says:

            Tommasini has written about this very subject some time ago. No, i don’t have “chapter and verse”, let the archivist find it, if they are interested. I know better than to make up facts when I write on this website. There are too many knowledgeable people. Also,I stated it was one of the many reasons why opera companies fold, not the main reason.