Monday, May 12, 2008

Operatic Conservatism: A Response and Rejection of It

A few years back I found myself embroiled in an argument, defending Cecilia Bartoli’s intent on making an album of Salieri’s music – and thus writing in defense of the oft-maligned Salieri.

What prompted my defense was a published quote stating “Everyone is aware that Salieri’s music is severely lacking in musical substance, refinement and is generally unlistenable.” The quote went on to say that Bartoli (and anyone else performing Salieri) was scraping the bottom of the barrel . . . and there ensued more badmouthing about about the Emperor’s new clothes, etc.,

One of the things that bums me out most about the current classical music “industry” scene is that audiences seem to be becoming more and more conservative, less able, or perhaps only less willing, to being challenged by the new or unfamiliar. This keeps us from achieving any meaningful or deeper musical intelligence, since staying with the familiar we’re automatically depriving ourselves of activity that would enhance our awareness of tradition, its role and where music is going - as well as from whence it came.

It is this same prosaic attitude and inactivity which (in part) prevents new operas from being developed and actively becoming part of the repertoire. I recall how most of the professional reviews – almost all negative – for Jake Heggie’s "Dead Man Walking" offered neither admiration for, nor appreciation of, the risks the young composer took in attempting to write his an opera, his first. That he took on such a great challenge in a suffocating environment hostile towards anything new is even more remarkable. Interestingly, audiences found the work approachable, powerful and theatrical. It has gone on to receive productions throughout the world, despite continued negative press.

More and more I am disgusted by audiences who seem to avoid any sort of challenge - who want their opera, like most of their art, easily digestible; in some instances, even pre-digested. (I'll chew on my own, thank you very much.)

Recently I read a criticism of a production of Elektra I rather liked as not being deranged, demented or mad enough, comparing the heroine with Birgit Nilsson who “looked and sounded crazy from the start.” This got me to wondering: why is it we demand every damned cat be skinned the same way? If we're going to keep hauling out the same operas, is there, in today's climate, no room for at least a fresh look? Good grief, Nilsson last sang the role nearly 30 years ago and some of us still can’t move on? Still can’t accept a different perspective? Still can’t accept a different voice?

As familiar as I become with my favorite works, I'm forever seeking new ways in which to explore them, new things to find in them; to discover, as with a good friend that, while I may expect a certain level of comfort, there might be a challenge or two waiting in store as well. It keeps things fresh. Prevents mental mildew and ennui from setting in.

But that conservatism I'm complaining of extends not only to newer works of the last century and of our own time, but to ALL things unfamiliar; even (or especially) "old" things. Those that would suppose our enlightened age to possess the final word on what is worth exploring and rediscovering, knowingly or not, limit or minimize the efforts and gifts of those who blazed every path before us. To dismiss the exploration of the works of Salieri - or of any unfamiliar composer - is to automatically, without just reason, close ourselves off from the possibility of experiencing . . . well, possibilities. It wasn't too awfully long ago Bach was considered an inferior composer to Buxtehude, Hasse and Telemann and his works lay dormant, unperformed. In my own brief lifetime I've seen the operatic works of Handel go from being summarily dismissed as "too much of the same," to the latest craze.

The effort to offer only the familiar feels too much like an attempt of universalizing or homogenizing everything for a more common, blander palate. It is the equivalent of "one size fits all" when clearly it doesn't and can't.

There is perhaps a place for conservatism (and I don't mean tempering) in the arts which I possibly just don't understand, for I feel it the very antithesis of why art happens in the first place. Certainly some would argue it is to merely entertain, but what is wrong with letting it also enlighten?

There is something about the age in which we live that bothers me. Perhaps because of the time constraints we've put upon ourselves via making our lives easier than in prior centuries, we seem to have developed a feel we've only the time (or is it the need?) to have and enjoy only the very best. If this is so, how then can we use “only the best” as gauge or measure? Every day it seems as though I hear or read of our society’s increasing inability to enjoy or appreciate something that isn't the biggest, the best, the grandest, etc. - be it food, music, film, drama, architecture, gardening . . . whatever. It's a cheerless commentary then that ours has, in essence, become a society of size queens.

While Salieri's music may not be deemed genius (though who truly of us can play judge, outside of our personal tastes?) his compositions do offer something other than the steady diet of sameness to which we’ve become content (or overjoyed) sustaining ourselves with. I've enjoyed just about every bit of Salieri I've heard and can't (truly) understand the damning he gets. I've watched the Schwetzingen DVD of "Falstaff" at least a half dozen times now, and have grown to love it more each passing time. If there’s something wrong with me for liking this music, I hope I’ll remain blissfully ignorant of the cure!

I would never imagine disputing the greatness of Mozart, but we seem to forget – or even worse, not care - that there were others, many of them, who came before and during the time of music’s beloved golden child. So then, where are the performances of the composers from the Mannheim School? Franz Richter (who died only two years before Mozart) wrote some 100 symphonies (or more) 80 of which have survived to this day/ Ever heard one? He penned 39 masses, countless solo works, chamber works, motets, concerti, etc. In addition to his dazzling prolificacy as a composer, Richter was a performer: a highly celebrated opera and concert singer, successfully touring France, the Netherlands and England. Not only this, Richter was one of the most respected of musical educators, teaching many gifted composers and performers. One of his treatises on musical composition was translated into a number of languages and during his lifetime and after, taught around the world.

While there are perhaps a few of us who would be more than merely curious to hear more of his music, certain respected critics, have given him a casual listen, dismissing it with variations of the damnable "he ain't Mozart." Even with years of training and experience I'm glad my own ears are not so highly skilled for me to reject Salieri, Richter or anyone else as not "important" as ol’ Amadeus.

Another Mannheim composer, Ignaz Holzbauer, was widely acclaimed throughout Europe, moving outside of Vienna and finding work in Milan and Venice. Here's another wildly prolific composer who gave the world some 70 symphonies, many popular operas (including his own La Clemenza di Tito years before Mozart’s), numerous masses, concerti, chamber and solo works for a number of instruments. Anyone heard any good Holzbauer lately? I didn’t think so.

Then there was Johann Stamitz (father of the still, somewhat semi-popular Karl). Stamitz, Sr., was one of the very first proponents of the four movement symphony, long before Mozart adopted the switch from three to four movements - years, in fact, before Mozart was even born! Yet, often – and incorrectly, Mozart (and M. Haydn) are given more credit for the 4 movement development. Certainly Mozart and his contemporaries took the symphony to a higher level, but the groundwork had already been laid for them - they had only to take it and run. There’s certainly got to be some advantage in developing and advancing of an idea when one has the added benefit of not having had to "invent" the idea in the first place.

If we look at music as an evolutionary art we cannot - or should not – be so quick in summarily dismissing or ignoring its history. I don't believe it is should be a requirement of every listener to know "from whence we came" - but I believe too many of us call ourselves "music lovers" when in actuality we are music enjoyers; casual observers. Not a bloody thing wrong with that, but, if we profess to actually "love" something does it not behoove us to explore its history, understand it and accept it on its own merits for precisely what it is and from where it came? I can't imagine otherwise.

I've been thrilled to see the resurgence of interest in music earlier even then the early Viennese and Mannheim Schools (far earlier!). One of the highlights of my life so far was being able to experience a an absolutely life-altering performance of Hildegard von Bingen's "Ordo Virtutum." Short of having lived in the 12th Century, this opportunity would not have been possible in any other era than ours.

Now, hopefully we’ll live long enough to see more music by the aforementioned guys get a chance to also see the light of day. Now, that would be something!


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Anonymous operagal said...

re:DMW It has gone on to receive productions throughout the world, despite continued negative press.

...when I interviewed Lotfi Mansouri a couple of weeks ago, he told me that DMW was the first opera in his career where they had to ADD performances.

Screw the critics.


May 12, 2008 at 9:49 PM  

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