Sunday, June 19, 2016

Seven Veils on the Opera

The classical opera was the flower of modern Western civilisation. It was to the nineteenth century what the Gothic cathedrals were to the middle ages. And it can still reveal spiritual realities to us that correspond to nothing in our poor, ordinary lives. Where, in the slog of coffee, work, and public transportation, is the terror of Don Giovanni? or the painful sweetness of Così fan tutte? Where is Pollione’s courage, or the Countess’s wistfulness, or Nemorino’s open infatuation? Where is the ghostly sacredness of the Magic Flute?

The world of the opera is higher than our own. We are lucky enough to have some access to it. The problem, though, is that the opera’s spiritual reality must be communicated to us in some visible, human form. And this earthly clothing is almost enough to completely obscure the heavenly idea that it cloaks. Let’s peel back the veils put up between us and the inner beauty of dramatic music. There are seven.

Outermost is the smelly shawl of wealth and high society. Go to the Royal Opera or the Met, and you’ll be confronted with a sea of women in fur scarves, their ears and wrists dripping with jewels. Silk-suited men order them $15 cocktails to pick up at the start of intermission. (The crowd, of course, are stern and bored.) If you want a seat where you can see the expressions on singers’ faces, you need to pay hundreds of dollars. If you want a seat on the board, you need to pay millions. 

The association between wealth and the opera is so strong as to fix luxury as the opera’s defining trait in the public imagination. If a fictional character as moneyed and cultured—like Gavin Elster in Vertigo—he goes to the opera with his wife. This justified perception, by the way—not the opera’s ‘irrelevance’—is what alienates young people.

The second veil is woven by pretentious and lazy directors who care more about grittiness, glamor, or shock than any real beauty. This is a belabored point that needs no more belaboring. But I refer you to Against Modern Opera Productions, a Facebook page whose mission is to skewer the sophisticated dreck peddled by modern and post-modern directors. And I refer you to this searingly relevant production of Rigoletto, which grippingly engages with the modern reality of anthropomorphic eagles.
Runner-up is the Met’s current production.
The third veil is related: it is the insistence of powerful people that the opera can be made ‘relevant’ to modern politics and aesthetics. We can’t have Nabucco anymore without a suggestive commentary on 2016 refugees inserted into the program. Nor an advertisement for La Traviata that fails to describe its heroine as a ‘glamourous diva’ or something like that. All female characters become proto-feminists, and all the drama becomes a prelude to American musical theatre. But the opera is no more an attendant on our century than it is on the ninth or the twenty-third. It expresses its own aesthetic principles, except when it’s trampled on by people with no sense of history or the past’s distance from us. That happens most of the time.

Fourth is the incompetence of the singers. If nature condescends to give someone a projecting voice, she usually denies him a sweet and lyric tone. If she gives him tone, she withholds all acting ability whatsoever. If she gives him acting ability, she denies him diction. And the rare specimens that possess all of the necessary virtues usually end up sounding distractingly strange nevertheless. (Say, Juan Diego Flórez and Gregory Kunde.) There are a few really lovely singers in every generation. But the great mass are ostentatious, bad musicians. 

Fifth are the imposters that the real opera is forced to share quarters with. For every Norma there are a hundred Toscas; for every Ugo, conte di Parigi a thousand Werthers. That’s not to mention the clanging modern operas that falsely claim the title: The Death of Klinghoffer, Peter Grimes, etc. But it’s bad enough that the French grand opéra and Puccini’s sentimentalism are allowed into the opera house. These operas are so popular that they leave very little room in the repertoire for their betters. I would burn every score of Madama Butterfly in the world for the sake of a single production of Gemma de Vegy or Medea in Corinto. These operas have been virtually abandoned, just like most lovely operas that have ever been written.

The sixth veil is the ceaselessly annoying audience. They go to the opera because it’s ‘culture’. They take flash photos. They whisper in the middle of arias. They show up late. They cough and they smell weird. They hiss at their bored children. They clap for campy and pretentious singing. All these sins can be pardoned of weak and suffering people, and I don’t point them out because they are inherently evil. They are just painfully distracting, and they bind the opera fast to the stupidities of human bodies and human society.

The innermost veil is the only one that can never be stripped off. (Recordings, after all, can free us from audiences, stagings, and repertoires.) It consists of the the little uglinesses and imperfections that blight every realisation of an opera. Notes go wrong here and there, or the orchestra goes off the rails entirely. Sometimes climactic notes are just a bit flat. Or the singers are ugly: Joan Sutherland, tasked with playing blossoming maidens, was a surpassingly plain woman. (In general, everyone on stage is too old for the part.) Ugliness takes other forms as well: Anna Netrebko is an airhead and a Putinist. Beniamino Gigli was a fascist. I also include under this head the random things that go wrong during a performance. The principal has a cold, but she is so headstrong that she sings the part anyway. Or a dying hero drops a rubber prop-dagger, and it hits the ground with a thud. All of this reminds us sorrily that we’re listening to human art, not voices from heaven.

All told, opera is swaddled nearly to death in the clothes of the Opera. The idea of dramatic music is holy, but the price it pays to be expressed is defilement by the world.

Now see an analogy in human life. Life in its ideal form is gay, friendly, and elvish. Anyone with a bit of imagination is visited by dozens of youthful May-dreams. Life could be spent singing by the riverside, or murmuring with gods on the mountains, or reading with the wise by the fire. But it’s never like that except for brief minutes. We dream of striding through Norway, but more often than not we end up driving across Scarsdale, NY for the ten-thousandth time. We think that we can arrange to be in the company of wise and loving people, and find ourselves trapped with petty gossipers and cold idiots. 

Life as it could be is choked by the very conditions that make life possible. Life must inhabit matter and flesh, so it is necessarily blighted with boredom and pointless pain. And still—just like the opera, its ideal form can be just made out under its earthly shrouds.

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