Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Public Response

Regarding the post War Horses!, reader Henry Holland writes:

"That's a very interesting blog and it's very well written. He seems to be composer-centric rather than in to diva/divo worship, which is in line with my tastes too."

As far as being composer-centric vs. voice-centric, I absolutely see your point. I think there is some explanation, however, beyond "some people care about composition, and some about Diva Worship"

I think, as a lot (though not all by ANY means) of opera bloggers, columnists, etc are New York based, we have unusually extensive opportunities to see live performances, and are motivated to write by their immediacy.

It seems, when discussing performances of the "War Horses" as Bill calls them, we often tend to accept (with many isolated exceptions) the worthiness of the opera itself and its composer as a given. Whereas, when examining a newer or lesser performed work, the inclination is to discuss the music, the context, the composer, etc. (and also, of course...the voices).

If you look at a lot of the blogging about An American Tragedy, for instance, you will see much more evaluation of the actual piece than you would of, say, the Met's Rigoletto. Certainly, we still have criticisms and questions about these works, but, when writing about an old production of a dare I say canonical opera, the focus is almost unwittingly going to be on the voices and the conducting; this is where we will find fresh perspective and reasons to be newly excited about something we already admire.


Henry Holland said...

Jonathan, I'm glad my comment spurred your post. I see what you're saying, but (c'mon, you knew *that* was coming)....

I love the opera blogosphere. I think I visit most of the known ones every few days. However, when I read something like this (I'm making this up, no one I know wrote this)

"She started off the aria nicely, the chest voice nicely integrated with the lower notes. However, when it came to the coloratura, she blurred the notes with dropped vowels and the tone turned shrill due to...."

at that point I fall asleep. I have a very clear concept of singers: they are meat. They are disposable. They come and go, some are better than others, most are about the same. Now, as a gay opera fan, by DNA, I should be all up on my Callas/Caballe/Scotto/Hunt Lieberson/Netrebko worship, but I just can't. I *gasp* don't really care if they sing "O mio dio!" with all the heartbreak in the world. I don't care if their registers are knitted together or not. However, I worship Schreker, Britten, Korngold, Birtwistle, Strauss, Berg, Puccini, Wagner, Reimann, Debussy, Braunfels, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schoenberg, Janacek, Zemlinsky, Respighi, Prokoffiev largely because there's tons of interesting things going on in the orchestra. It's why I find Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, a lot of Verdi, the baroque stuff and so forth so boring, because the voice dominates.

What I do care about, passionately, is this: is *what* they are singing, not *how* they do it, any good? I have friends that can babble for HOURS about how David Daniels sings each of the dozen arias he has in a Handel opera but when I ask them are those arias any good, their eyes glaze over in incomprehension. To them, the music solely exists as a platform for The Voice; to them, they don't really like post-Donizetti opera because the orchestra gets too uppity.

You see, for me, the voices are what kept me from opera for the longest time. I still can't really abide the soprano voice, but hey, Wagner and Puccini and Strauss, among others, sure seemed to like it, so I bite the bullet. I care about the actual notes, the plots, the musical action happening in the orchestra, does the music support the story, not "Ooohhh, hear that coloratura".

It's why I find baroque opera so fucking excrutiating--I've tried, oh Jeebus how I've tried because I've been told so often that it's good for me--but I just can't stand to hear what, to me, sounds like an endless string of florid arias broken up by a duet every hour or so. Stuff like Xerses is *musically* tedious like nothing else I know and I don't care if the greatest singers ever in those roles could be resurrected and gathered together in a tasteful production, I'd still want to flee for the exit after the 6th countertenor--or to be accurate, castrato--aria in the first act.

See, that's one of the reasons I love operas by Birtwistle, Reimann, Zimmerman and so forth--they are actively *hostile* to singers, they implicitly say "Your voice is just another instrument, no more important than the second flute, you're there to fill in the notes in the inverted retrograde of the row". I love the fact that in The Second Mrs. Kong or Lear or Die Soldaten, the singers are subsumed in to the orchestral fabric, not "above" it. The orchestra rules in those operas and I love that. I know it seems bizarre that I'd love opera but not really like the one thing that separates it from a symphony or a play--the voice--but it makes sense to me. :-)

So, that's why I got excited when I read through Bill's blog--I thought "Finally, a discussion on why Il Pirata is a crap opera!" instead of which Callas bootleg is the best one*. I think that a lot of the "standard rep" gets a free pass in terms of whether they're actually quality operas and I think if Bill's blog is done right, a few sacred cows could get butchered in the process (oooohhh, the Golden Calf scene from Moses und Aron!!).

Seriously, though, he needs to have a comments section.

* Yes, I realize she may never have sung it live, but I don't care enough to Google it.

Jonathan said...

What a great response! Instead of responding fully, I want to point out a few things I fully agree with, but have been fearful of admitting publicly:

"It's why I find Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, a lot of Verdi, the baroque stuff and so forth so boring, because the voice dominates."

TOTALLY. Though I do like a lot of Verdi, bel canto opera can bite me. I can't f-ing stand it. If I never sit through Lucia di Lammermoor again I can die perfectly happy.

"Stuff like Xerses is *musically* tedious like nothing else I know and I don't care if the greatest singers ever in those roles could be resurrected and gathered together in a tasteful production, I'd still want to flee for the exit after the 6th countertenor--or to be accurate, castrato--aria in the first act."

XERXES definitley makes me want to die. I sat through all 11,000 of those da capo arias last year at NYCO and was bored to tears.

The only place where we differ is that I do believe the right voice can definitely change the experience of listening to terrific music--and I do think it can result in an excitement worth noting.

(I worship most of those folks on your list, too, btw.)


Maury D'annato said...

Um, just for the record so I can look like a loser, Callas sang Il Pirata at Carnegie Hall. In 1959. In my defense, I had to google the year.

And yes, it's a crap opera. (I've been all but instructed to use crap as an adjective by a friend recently returned from the UK.) I have said to the point of being a bore that the nine seconds in total that were Fleming's trills were the only times I did not deeply regret standing through that clunker.

But ok Mr. Holland, I'm going to call you on the voice versus music war you're setting up. It's very possible to love both and to compose operas that honor both. In fact I think the binary is a bit wrong-headed. Lulu requires an extremely healthy technique, to take one angle on this. The queen of Shemakha requires your pal Coloratura. To take another: these are stage works. They have texts. All the instruments in the world cannot convey a couplet of Pushkin. To take yet another (I'm sorry, I have a head cold. Am I incoherent?) Britten with bad singers sucks as much as Bellini with bad singers.

So love your Janacek--god knows I do--but why you gotta be hatin' on the appreciation of let's say Popp's silvery voiced Liska Bystrouska? I can see thinking the singer isn't the only thing, but this is opera. If the singer is actually a bother, is there much reason not to just read the score and save a lot of gelt?

Jonathan said...

Bingo---my thoughts exactly.

Also, I am glad this thread is leading to some good bel canto bashing.

Chalkenteros said...

Please don't bash the bel.

Maury D'annato said...

We bash because we love, Chalky. Or, well, have extraordinarily mixed feelings. I mean Bel's like anything else. You got your craptastic (Pirata) and your fan-fucking-tastic (Norma.) I will say bel canto is where if the singers aren't up to the task, you might as well stay home and watch Project Runway.

Jonathan said...

I can definitely see Heidi Klum as Lucia.

Speaking of craptastic bel canto operas, I definitely plan on seeing L'Elisir d'Amore (the most craptastic of them all!) this Spring--if only for a good dose of Filianoti (sorry Henry...but the man has an awfully bel voice).