Thursday, August 23, 2007


Don't get me wrong, I'm not denying that the notion of juicer opera stars has a certain ring to it (Villazon and Alagna hosting notorious cortisone parties in the Covent Garden dressing room...nefarious agents who take you aside and ask if you would really do "anything" for that b-flat...Ben Heppner as the cautionary tale every rookie must learn) but I think the sports analogy is off the mark. The problem with steroids in sports is that it actually changes the nature of the enterprise to the point where the drugs are part and parcel of what people consider the state of the art in the field. And it's uncomfortable to know that you're rooting for something which may be essentially artificial.

But the issue here for opera has little to do with the thing itself. It's a simple case of opera stars getting roped into the same demands that rock stars and other international performers have been facing for years. Unfortunately for them, while its considered OK and even kind of endearing for Keith Richards to go onstage strung out and phone in a set from time to time, no one has much sympathy for an opera singer on an off night.

So definitely a big problem, but let's be clear that the appropriate reference is more Stevie Nicks: Behind the Music than Juiced: The Jose Canseco Story.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


A: do you know what the deal is with Norma #1?
A: "Hasmik Papian"?
J: yeah she's supposed to be good, though Greg finds her ordinary
A: hrm
J: probably better than Guleghina
A: ok
J: we waited in line for 4 full hours yesterday
A: there are really non without stupid Farina, huh
J: F-ing Farina is in all of them
A: so
A: weak
A: what were you waiting for?
J: oh just a bunch of balc box stuff
J: my new obsession is balc box 1
A: interesting
J: the one right up at the stage
A: did you have an experience with BB1 recently?
J: well last year we sat there for those national council finals
J: and I was very pro
J: and then we sat there for Cesare
J: and it was sort of great
A: nice
J: and $15.
A: they were selling for the whole year?
J: yeah
J: the line wrapped around the Met lobby 4 times, went out the door and past the fountain
A: dude
A: I think my priorities are as follows, in no particular order
J: ok
A: T n' I
J: natch
A: Walkure
J: natch
A: Otello
J: yeah
J: despite Guelfi
A: oh balls
J: total balls
J: continue
A: Norma
J: despite Farina
A: War and Peace
A: In the second tier of things that could be awesome but aren't pressing life list things
A: we have
A: The Gambler
A: Peter Grimes
A: and I'd like to see Fille du Regiment for the CDF
A: and one of the Dessay outings
J: yeah I think the Lucia will be sort of awesome
A: oh
A: I forgot that its new
J: with Dessay
J: right
A: despite Dessay and all, I was having a little trouble getting stoked about that lame old production
J: totally
A: with Levine conducting no less
J: we skipped a bunch of key things yesterday that we wanted to wait until we could afford decent tickets for
J: so we ended up with:
J: Lucia (Season opener)
J: Figaro
J: Butterfly
J: Aida
J: Norma
J: Manon Lescaut
J: Macbeth (new prod opening)
J: and Otello
A: nice
A: I might throw the MacBeth on my pile too
J: the rest of the premieres require some saving
A: which cast did you do
J: as even the cheap seats are $50
J: we did opening night of Macbeth
A: dang
J: T und I and Walk may require balc
A: yeah
A: oh
A: Roschmann is Countess in the Figaros
J: yeah
J: she is awesome
A: trying to come on a weekend and paying the weekend prices is annoying
J: yes
J: ugh
J: the only semi-affordable Saturday seats are fam circ boxes
J: even then it's $27 for sucky seats
A: I suppose I should wait to figure out classes in case I have weird days off
J: oh yeah
A: and try not to choose classes based on their opera vacation potential
J: that will be the tough part

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On Slow Culture

I like this from Matthew Guerreri very much. A great addition to the debate that actually sounds like it is asking some new questions.

I often think that maybe classical music hasn't gotten smaller, the world's just gotten bigger. And classical music, i.e., a sort of music and a practice of experiencing it figured out when the world didn't have so many people in it, therefore has some natural limits on its ability to maintain the market share it did in 1860. And, as Matthew and others seem to be pointing out more and more lately...that's OK.

It gets me thinking, though, about that mid-century golden age of modern classical music appreciation that serves as the benchmark for the classical music debate. We seem to spend a lot of time thinking back to that period, when the country waited with bated breath for the next Saturday Met Broadcast, when opera stars made the cover of Time Magazine, when NBC devoted more energy to a symphony orchestra than it did to Fear Factor and its imitators, and wondering: what's wrong with us today that seemed to work back then? We're not talking about hundreds of years Bavaria...when people had no electricity. The country looked more or less the same, yet it actually seemed to give a damn about art music and serious culture. Pretty soon otherwise rational people are feeling warm and fuzzy towards the Eisenhower era, while the Sandows of the world are using it as a cudgel to justify just about anything in the name of putting butts back in the seats and slowing classical music's long cruel slide from the relevance it used to enjoy. It's not a pretty state of affairs.

So here's my armchair cultural historian take, intended to at least start parsing out how we ought to reconcile ourselves with the nagging questions raised by that mid-century classical music heyday. In short, I think that period, as tantalizing as it sounds sometimes, should be seen as an aberration rather than the norm. Back in the day, what we might call "art music" and "popular music" both subsisted on live performing traditions, and, as such, more or less co-existed in their separate spheres as defined by experience, setting, class, what have you. The great breach which upsets the order of things is, of course, modern recording and distribution technology. The short song form and malleable structures which figure large in popular music forms collide with new technologies favoring discrete packages, easy recognition and rapid stylistic assimilation. A truly viable product for the new media is born.

And what of the mid-century heyday? Perhaps it was nothing more than a lag period during which this process took place. The pinnacles of recorded music, hybrid popular music forms like rock and R&B, had not yet been reached, and those guiding the industry were distributing the old music through these channels because people wanted it and nothing better had come along.

If that sounds like snark, it shouldn't. The radical break in music precipitated by modern technology is a simple fact, and it has produced its own tailor made art forms which have great virtues. But 'proving' that certain styles of music and musical experiences are now inferior or irrelevant because they have trouble competing with musical mousetraps designed specifically with world domination in mind just makes no sense.

And if that's true, then the takeaway should be that the "classical music problem" isn't a problem with classical music, per se: it's a bigger problem for all music still firmly rooted in the pre-mass media performance traditions attempting to compete in the 20th century information universe. The immediate issues are genre specific to be sure, but the overriding challenge is the same.

Now, that doesn't mean I think classical music and popular music don't have their differences. Call them what you will, there are clearly some broad differences in the character of the listening experience and the nature of intellectual engagement entailed in classical and, say, the blues. All I can say is that anyone who would argue that those things are equal must not care very much about the unique qualities of either. And to be sure, when talking about the practical question of how you keep a tradition alive, there is a resource question. You're probably not going to do struggling Bluegrass traditions any favors by consolidating banjo faculty, whereas losing Juilliard, Eastman, and Curtis would leave a substantial void in the classical world.

But in the end, is the music really so endangered? I suspect the contractions we've seen in recent years, far from heralding the coming disappearance of the tradition altogether, were more likely the final death throes of that mid-century moment when the classical tradition found itself grafted wholesale onto the emerging modern media universe. And besides, its not at all clear that the net gain in classical enthusiasts hasn't been positive--it stands to reason that more people have heard Brahms 3rd in the past decade than heard anything by the man while he was alive.

If the gains don't seem to be keeping pace with the total universe of music listeners, or don't live up to some mythical period when 'everyone' listened to serious music, then so be it. But its time to start thinking about this process as moving toward some sort of natural rate of engagement rather than a descent into oblivion. Partisans and Sandows of the world alike need to realize that "the music isn't for everyone" doesn't mean its elitist, or that everyone should know better, or that its suffering from some massive and elusive failure in appeal. To a large degree, those are just the breaks for an art form built for personal experience trying to make it on a planet which has figured out ingenious ways to circumvent the personal experience.

So what is to be done? As far as changing attendance patterns, concert formats, programming, etc., I don't think there's terribly much we really can "do". We can innovate and try to tinker here and there, but in the end the serious music tradition will be based on whatever it has always been based on in one form or another, and there's just no way around it. It will evolve in whatever way its adherents decide is most conducive to that experience.

In thinking about how to make a functional rather than value driven distinction between the classical and modern pop tradition, I keep coming back to the idea of expropriating the term "slow culture". I like the analogy with the 'slow food' phenomenon, and its distinction between food production as it has been more or less throughout history and food production as it is in the modern era of industrial agriculture and mass processing; you can extrapolate a lot of positive and negative conclusions from there, but the fundamental point is purely about the mechanism of production.

And that's where the slow culture idea comes in handy. As Matthew's post points out, while most sensible people have figured out that arguing aesthetic value is a dead end, we're still trying to wage proxy debates about value using circumstantial evidence and half-baked economics to figure out what is 'in demand'. Slow culture makes the simple point that 'demand' for art is a relative quantity in an information landscape where different art forms operate on wildly different scales.

Update: Since I got called out on "there are clearly some broad differences in the character of the listening experience and the nature of intellectual engagement entailed in classical and, say, the blues" above, I feel like elaborating a bit. To be honest, I never understand why such a sentiment is so problematic. I'm not denying that there are true experts and devotees for music genres besides classical, nor am I denying that any one of these traditions involves opportunities for intellectual depth as rich as one wants it to be. Either of those claims can be disproved instantly. But that's why I said broad and not absolute differences.

There are good reasons why copious program notes at a punk show would injure the experience rather than enhance it (not that anyone's clamoring for punk to change its performance practices, despite its slide from relevance), just as there are good reasons why those notes are now deemed a welcome and essential addition to the modern classical concert. And there are reasons why people like to listen to Beethoven in as close to dead silence as possible, while people generally like to listen to blues in a crowded bar, and listening to it in some antiseptic concert hall just feels weird.

"Intellectual", which I suspect is the word which causes the real offense here, isn't supposed to be a sneaky value judgment. It denotes a specific kind of artistic experience, and in some contexts it has its place more than others. I mean seriously...does the intellectual wing of popular music really believe people want to experience it in the same way that people want to experience Beethoven? So sue me, but I think the primordial appeal of popular music is precisely its immediacy, its power to effortlessly evoke memories and emotions, its ability to tell stories. That's its folk heritage. By contrast, art music's primordial appeal is its range of ambiguity, its perfectly contrived effects, its technical depth. Yeah, of course there are exceptions, and people do what they want, but why is it a crime to say there's some kind of general distinction here? That way of thinking seems to go against everything in front of our eyes, and everything we know about the motivations of artists who actually created the music in question. Am I missing something?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Classical Music Triumphalism (!)

Well, well. Looks like boring moldy ol' opera is nearly as big as American football, admissions wise (ht: ACD).

I'm thinking some billboards along the lines of:

"Opera: Like Football for Sensitive People"

...might win some converts. At least you don't have to worry about rooting for dog-torturers.

For the record

Caught the Pat Racette Buddahfly at Ravinia this weekend. Pat was in glorious form--I never really noticed how sweet her voice is in the middle regions and the slash and burn stuff was as thrilling as hoped for. Having the CSO for the band was also a luxury--the perfect antidote to the usual sinking feeling that opera orchestras are phoning it in on this one.

I thought rookie James Valenti, the Peenkertone standing in for Frank Lopardo was a real highlight, though John von Rhein thought he was a lightweight up top, which I may have chalked up to the vagaries of the amplification system out on the lawn. I also can't quite decide if he is really really good looking or merely opera hot, to revive an old term. His little black and white picture in the program argued strongly for the former, but this might indicate the latter...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Well played: Renee

Splendid show by Renee Fleming at the Proms the other day: first up is some of the Berg she does so well...this time its the Seven Early Songs. After the interval she dominates on two barnburner Korngold arias from some of the lesser known (to me at least) works. It's on the proms page for a week or something. Her first set is 30 minutes or so in.

P.S. Not to rub snark on an otherwise unabashedly positive recommendation, but even on good behavior she still has to do that little slide up to the note thing that I think she thinks is part of the trademark BV sound. OMG that is so bothersome.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Last Dance: Parsifal

A: this gurnemanz is kind of a chore
J: yeah I have it on fairly softly
J: I have been listening to so much Ring I keep waiting for like the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla motiv
A: yeah
A: that would confuse things a bit
J: it would
A: Wotan is all "what, the cup is a god? Weak"
A: deine mutter ist tod!
J: Greg has a friend in Austin who refers to the Liebestod as the "Love Frog"
A: hah
A: that's great
A: so
A: I was taking notes for this conference the other day
A: and got kind of sleepy for a bit
A: and am now trying to go back through that part
A: it is not good
A: the conference was about responsible credit use
J: oh man
A: I wrote "Australian mammal feelings…"
A: at some point
J: hahaha
A: Grail Knight #8 (trans.): whispers. You have got to be shitting me. That guy is still back there?!? Sick...
A: here's another good one:
A: "Good reason to think that those arranged it wielly wowou"
J: hahah
J: were you falling asleep?
A: little bit
A: it was like 5 minutes out of 8 hrs of meetings
A: but it was this really dense presentation
A: I think its going to be over soon
A: wish it had happened during some of the crap they had the next day, tho
A: arg
J: oh lovely Parsifal
A: yes
A: did Adam Fischer do the Met ones we saw?
J: I don't think so
A: he did something year before last
J: Peter Schneider conducted the ones we saw
J: are you thinking of Asher Fisch?
A: dur
A: yes
J: he condcted Rigoletto in 05-06
A: right
A: well, Adam Fischer is nice
A: good tempi
J: he had a short little Met career in the mid-90's
A: did someone yell something out there?
J: oh man I turned it down for a phone call
J: is this the dead bunny Parsifal?
A: that it is
A: totes Häschen
A: or maybe totes Kaninchen
A: for rabbit
A: rather than bunny
J: I like bunny
A: ooh
A: rotting bunny is Verrottenhäschen
A: thank you deustch
A: Parsifal, mit Verrottenhäschen
A: um
A: I think maybe this parsifal is crap
J: I have sort of not been paying attention
A: the parsifal himself
J: was there a Kundry problem?
J: ah ok
A: I'm kind of stoked about her
J: she seems great, yeah
A: definitely one of those sock you in the gut Kundrys
A: that was a good noise Flowermaidens
J: that was an insane noise
A: I kind of love her
A: it's not priddy by any means
A: but still awesome
A: that was a hott note
J: fucccck I had to turn it down
A: her low down note before the makeout
A: was extra smokey
J: has the crazy high note happened yet?
A: no
A: almost
J: mexcellent
J: woo!
A: huzzah!
J: yeaaah!
A: she hit that shit fo reals
A: little trail off at the end
A: but all good
J: god she's awesome
A: "Evelyn Herlitzius"
A: "bad-ass"
A: *chills*
A: bra-fing-va

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Watson brings her A-game

J: oh CRUD!
J: I forgot about G Dams
A: me too til just now
J: well, I didn't want to hear L-Wats sing that diet anyway
J: duet
A: the end of Siegfried was nicht gut I take it
J: oh man
J: her last note especially
J: was a mess
J: like, not even in the ballpark
J: just some random note
A: gah
A: she needs serious warm up time
A: I feel an oath coming on
A: while listening to the bcasts I sometimes have these sudden moments of realization about just how nutso what's happening on stage right now could be
A: like Hagen could be in a bunny suit for all we know
J: yeah! I think about that too
J: I mean, esp after the Meistersinger stuff
J: like, it's all nice pretty Meistersinger
J: but their cocks are out
A: i suppose it makes directing kind of straightforward
A: ok...let's do a run through...who's turn is it to take their pants off?
J: hah
A: um
A: there is a comic strip about bayreuth
J: ahhh!
A: dang
A: I wish that site had an english version
A: uh oh
A: looks like someone is not about to be out-oathed
J: hah
A: sounds like gould's getting a little tired
A: it sucks how everyone gets burnt out before the nice Act III bidness
J: yeah that sucks
A: Brunnhilde (trans.): "Know what? Fuck him. You heard it. Brunhild don't play like that, bitch."
J: at which point she tries to ride off triumphantly on her flying horse, only to hit the ground with the glorious thud of mortality
A: d'oh
J: act 2 is short
A: 'tis
A: this is handy
A: the length of siegfried act 3 is surprising
A: those Meistersinger times must be with cuts
A: in Act 2
J: and also Siegfried was shorter than G-dams by like 20 mins when I saw it
J: confusing
A: there's now way that last act is 100 minutes
A: no
A: I just ate the nastiest piece of cheap birthday cake and am about 15 minutes from a severe sugar crash
J: ew
A: brutal
J: he didn't quite nail that
A: arg
A: I am in a meeting and can't listen
J: did you hear?
J: urg
J: Gould's woodbird stuff is fairly bad
A: yeah
A: nuts
J: are you listening again?
A: its only a meeting with my co-intern
J: ah
A: so I turned it on
A: I haven't quite explained it to her yet
A: oh man
A: he's suffering
J: poor guy
J: well
J: the end is near
J: it's a good thing he's about done
A: valiant efort tho
J: yes
J: I mean he made it
A: I am pro Gould
J: I am mixed, but impressed he can sing it
A: I think a recording made with him singing one act on different days would be swell
J: yeah
J: that makes sense
A: get that spear ready, Hagen
A: save it Guturne
J: god damn that is so hard
A: lwats saved some gas
J: yeah
A: well done
A: do people sound wierdly underwhelmed?
A: not for the Wats i guess
A: she really brought it there
J: yeah I wonder what the problem is