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Conrad Osborne: High Fidelity Critic/Blogger - Specialty: Opera

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This weekend's (Aug. 25/26 2018) Wall Street Journal has a book review about CONRAD OSBORNE!!!

Why the excitement?  Conrad Osborne was one of  the best writers and critics on opera and classical music in the last century!   The review explains why we should look into his present activities as a blogger and into his self-published book on opera in America.  In the 1950's and beyond High Fidelity magazine provided some of the best reviews of classical music (along with stereo equipment), and I always looked forward to reading Conrad Osborne's pieces.

The Conrad Osborne blog can be found here:

I will simply quote the entire review: the opening remarks especially mirror my opinions:

--- Quote ---   By Joseph Horowitz
Aug. 23, 2018 5:44 p.m. ET

During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when classical music was a lot more robust than nowadays, High Fidelity was the American magazine of choice for lay connoisseurs and not a few professionals. Its opera expert, Conrad L. Osborne, stood apart. “C.L.O.” was self-evidently a polymath. His knowledge of singing was encyclopedic. He wrote about operas and their socio-cultural underpinnings with a comprehensive authority. As a prose stylist, he challenged comparisons to such quotable American music journalists as James Huneker and Virgil Thomson —yet was a more responsible, more sagacious adjudicator. In fact, his capacity to marry caustic dissidence with an inspiring capacity for empathy and high passion was a rare achievement.

Over the course of the 1980s, High Fidelity gradually disappeared, and so did C.L.O. He devoted his professional life to singing, acting and teaching. He also, in 1987, produced a prodigious comic novel, “O Paradiso,” dissecting the world of operatic performance from the inside out.

Then, a year ago, he suddenly resurfaced as a blogger, at—a voice from the past. Incredibly, the seeming éminence grise of High Fidelity was revealed to have been a lad in his 30s. And now, in his 80s, he has produced his magnum opus, “Opera as Opera: The State of the Art”—788 large, densely printed pages, festooned with footnotes and endnotes. It is, without question, the most important book ever written in English about opera in performance. It is also a cri de coeur, documenting the devastation of a single precinct of Western high culture in modern and postmodern times.

This Olympian judgment takes the form not of a diatribe but of a closely reasoned exegesis. It impugns philistines less than intellectual trend-setters, notably including operatic stage directors (with Robert Wilson’s catatonic Wagner the “last straw”). They are, in Mr. Osborne’s opinion, recklessly intolerant of earlier aesthetic norms, not to mention norms of gender, politics and society. His conviction, painstakingly expounded, is that the past is better served by understanding than by such remedial tinkering as (to cite one recent staging) empowering Carmen to survive the end of Bizet’s opera rather than submitting to José’s knife blade.

That Mr. Osborne has chosen to self-publish “Opera as Opera” is not really surprising. To begin with, it is several books, complexly intertwined. The subject matter ranges from philosophy and aesthetics to theater and theater history, to the mechanics of the human voice—and some of this material is addressed exclusively to specialists. The pace of exegesis is at all times unhurried; Mr. Osborne is intent on telling us everything. In fact, large chunks of “Opera as Opera” take the form of a copious diary that most editors would instantly scissor (and, if skilled, better organize).

Mainly, however, “Opera as Opera” is self-published because the audience for which the author continues to write does not itself continue. Let me offer a sample of what the Osborne perspective on things looks and sounds like: “Over these past five decades, continuing a process already underway, the operatic world has grown more tightly integrated. . . . During this time, the aesthetic ground has also shifted, and has now come set sufficiently to clarify its contours. The hostile takeover is on the books and the stealth candidates are out in the open. Still, nobody who is anybody will quite say so. Performance criticism . . . has been reduced, marginalized, and stuck in a lineup of popcult perpetrators, where it suffers the same woes as the artform on which it fastens. It is by far not enough for devotees to express exasperation and bafflement, or chuck everything into the Eurotrash bin. The dismemberment of opera is being undertaken by some of its most sophisticated, well-educated, and talented practitioners, and while their tongues are often in their cheeks, they don’t seem to know it. . . . Operatic true believers must show not that they don’t understand, but that they understand all too well, and that they have reasons beyond the lazy pleasures of nostalgia for their dismay.”

A useful starting point for absorbing the many-tentacled Osborne argument is the “metanarrative” he extrapolates from the operatic canon. It turns out that nearly all operas coming after Mozart and before Richard Strauss may be said to hew to a single basic story. An outcast male protagonist falls obsessively in love with a forbidden woman who returns his love. The fated couple encounters inflamed opposition. A clash of male claimants ends badly for the lovers. Mr. Osborne is hardly the first to notice that this template, or something like it, encodes dated notions of virile masculinity and divine femininity, but his treatment transcends cant, jargon and ideology more than any other known to me; it is adult. The challenges here posed for 21st-century preservation and revivification in the realm of opera are tackled vehemently, pragmatically and resourcefully.

The challenges ramify, multiply. Appended to the metanarrative is an even more original, more powerful insight. Here Mr. Osborne delves into the history of rhetoric and “orality”—the stuff of the “Odyssey” and its distant progeny. Relying on other writers, he limns the 19th-century novel as a watershed departure, displacing poetry and drama as the dominant literary mode, “with its tightly controlled narrative, its . . . increasingly antiheroic characters leading increasingly important inner lives, and its cultural saturation via print.” And then—an intellectual coup—he positions 19th-century opera as the apotheosis of the older movement: “For a shining moment,” he writes, opera “seized the torch from orality’s failing hand.” That is: For a century, grand opera rebuffed mistrust of venerable rhetorical traditions otherwise discarded as “artifice.”

With high-toned orality and rhetoric in retreat, a crisis in “great-voiced” singing was self-evidently foreordained. Here Mr. Osborne has a formidable precursor: W.J. Henderson (1855-1937), the most prominent American vocal authority for nearly half a century. Because he started so young and ended so old, Henderson commanded a lofty view of vocal decline. In the Wagner world, he could remember the prodigious Albert Niemann, whom Wagner himself chose to create the role of Siegmund; he reviewed the bewildering advent of Jean de Reszke, legendary in his own time as Tristan and Siegfried; he heard Lauritz Melchior, the Met’s reigning Heldentenor for two decades. Mr. Osborne picks up the thread—he, too, heard Melchior. He also frequently heard Jon Vickers, the last great-voiced Tristan.

Henderson wrote wonderfully about the singing voice. Mr. Osborne is more wonderful still. He can instantly evoke the frisson of Vickers’s idiosyncratic instrument. Why are there no great-voiced Tristans today? Mr. Osborne’s answer, incorporating early recordings not just of singers but of actors in several languages, references microphones and recording studios, changing styles of oratory and everyday speech, an unrefreshed repertoire, and newfangled performance priorities privileging directors’ prerogatives over those of singing actors.

Mr. Osborne dedicates some 34 pages to the decline of operatic conducting and orchestral playing, highlighting James Levine’s recently terminated Metropolitan Opera tenure. How Mr. Levine and his orchestra acquired such a commanding reputation is a question that deserves a book of its own. That Mr. Levine inherited an erratic pit ensemble, and fixed it, is undeniable. But the gifted Met orchestra of today lacks presence, depth of tone, kinetic energy. As Mr. Osborne observes, to encounter Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky orchestra in the same Metropolitan Opera pit is really all you need to know. I also retain dazzling memories of the throbbing and mellifluous Bolshoi orchestra from its 1975 visit to New York. As for Mr. Levine, the Osborne account cites chapter and verse: He was an opera conductor of high energy and competence who nonetheless failed adequately to articulate musical drama. I would add that the dynamics of harmonic tension-and-release never sufficiently shaped structure, or clinched a Wagner climax, with Mr. Levine in the pit. But never mind.

It must be stressed that “Opera as Opera” is not a sour pedantic exercise. Mr. Osborne craves emotional surrender. And he lovingly documents exceptions that prove the rule. His fondest memories include a famous New York City Opera production from the 1960s: “La Traviata” as directed by Frank Corsaro (with whom Mr. Osborne subsequently studied). Corsaro and the soprano Patricia Brooks collaborated on a portrait of Verdi’s Violetta saturated with fresh empathetic detail, including a daringly prolonged pause—dreamy, sinking into reverie—before the expostulation “È strano!” (“How strange!”) just after the party ends in Act One. “This activity took a little over a minute . . . very long for an unaccompanied pantomime inserted between the numbers of a middle-period Verdi opera,” Mr. Osborne writes. “More important than the mundane household activities [receiving a shawl, sitting down on a couch] . . . was the fact that we watched Violetta make a necessary but previously unremarked transition from her social persona to the private, emotionally charged state that generates her long, conflicted solo scene. How could we ever have tolerated the absurdity of Violetta showing out the last of the guests, turning around, taking a breath, and launching into the most intimate confessions of her soul?”

Mr. Osborne finds similar virtues in the singing and acting of the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and of the tenors Neil Shicoff and Jonas Kaufmann. None of these is a great-voiced singer (Mr. Osborne counter-offers Renata Tebaldi and Giovanni Martinelli ). Rather, they are singing actors who ingeniously combine a “modern acting sensibility” derived from Konstantin Stanislavski and his legacy, with voices that are balanced, versatile and personal, if never galvanizingly voluminous.

The penultimate chapter of “Opera as Opera” is a 25-page set piece reviewing one of the Met’s most admired productions of recent seasons: Borodin’s “Prince Igor” as reconstituted in 2014 by the director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Mr. Osborne: “[It] sold out the house and generated an astoundingly acquiescent critical . . . response of a sort you’d expect from collaborationists greeting an occupying force. . . . That this takedown of a production and sadsack performance should stir not a whiff of dissent, not a scrap of controversy, is a mark of a dead artform.”

Finally, there is an epilogue—“Dream On”—imagining a corrective opera company of the future. It is run by singers after the fashion of certain theatrical cooperatives, of which Chicago’s Steppenwolf is the best-known American example.

Some people will dismiss “Opera as Opera” (without reading it) as an exercise in deluded nostalgia. Don’t listen to them. Listen instead to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Verdi’s “Otello” on Feb. 12, 1938. The cast includes Giovanni Martinelli, Lawrence Tibbett and Elisabeth Rethberg. The conductor is Ettore Panizza (to my ears, as great as Toscanini ). If you prefer Wagner, Exhibit A is “Siegfried” on Jan. 30, 1937, with Melchior, Friedrich Schorr and Kirsten Flagstad, conducted by Artur Bodanzky. These imperishable readings document standards of singing and operatic orchestral performance unattainable today.

Conrad Osborne flings the gauntlet, relentlessly inquiring: What happened? What to do? It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the fate of 21st-century opera partly hinges on the fate of the bristling insights delineated and pondered in this singular mega-book.

—Mr. Horowitz’s 10 books include “Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.” 
--- End quote ---

An example of Conrad Osborne's style: a review of Willy Decker's production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera of New York:

--- Quote ---

...Finally, we have Decker’s “Director’s Note.” It’s perfectly kosher for a director to explain him/herself and to argue for any departures from the creators’ specifications (though once again, these last are not honored with representation). Like most directors working at this high a level, Decker is obviously intelligent, inventive, and highly skilled. His mind, however, again like those of so many of his brethren, rattles about in a postmodern, neoMarxian cage. We’ll meet some of his thinking as we encounter it in action.

...with the orchestral burst of allegro brillantissimo e molto vivace that would have marked that moment of unconcealment, a flying wedge of leering, crouching folks in black suits charges onto the scene. When I say “scene,” I refer to the white cycloramic structure that is the set. It resembles a clamshell, pried open at the front so we can see in, and open high in the back for projected background and assorted directorial doings. The black suits stick close together—we can’t tell who’s who, who’s singing, or which gender is involved—because they represent en masse the monolithic “bourgeois” . . .  “society of greedy men” (per W.D.) whose sole function is to hound Violetta (and all women) literally to death. The color scheme (black-and-white, broken only by Violetta’s red dress and, from time to time, flowers up in back); the attitudinal affect imposed on the chorus and comprimarios; and The Clock (a bit of downrent Dalì, also recalling the countless old movies in which clocks spin, pages flip., etc.), together with the circling, stalking presence of Death/Grenvil, lend more than a tinge of interwar German Expressionism and Surrealism to the “colori occulti”  Violetta has been inwardly nursing. The cycloramic shape, steeply raked toward the rear, facilitates much walking in circles, because (W.D. again) “Time . . . runs in circles.”

Does it? A great many operas bring back music from a prelude or overture toward the end, and drop heavy hints of doomed love along the way. Should they all be staged in circles?

...Expressionism, Surrealism, and cyclical motion are superbly à propos in works written in accordance with those aesthetic principles. La Traviata is not such a work. It is pretty much the opposite.....As soon as we’ve moved from a story about a captivating young femme galante with tuberculosis and her passionately sincere, rather naïve lover from Provence amid the glitzy haute-bourgeoisie of Paris, circa 1850, to black suits and the Circle of Time and Death, we’ve come a fair distance from the emotional place Verdi was trying to take us.
--- End quote ---


Conrad Osborne has an essay on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht with one of the main ideas being that Brecht's influence seems to be stronger today than Weill's, but that the Marxist playwright's influence is misplaced today by opera director's:

--- Quote ---...While the musical practices of Weill, the composer, have so far as I can tell left almost no impression on subsequent operatic creation (as distinct from their considerable influence on the American musical), those of Brecht, the playwright, are in evidence daily in the world of opera, which he had sought not so much to reform as to replace altogether. And they are apparent less in the creation of new operas ....than in the production of old ones conceived not at all in accordance with those principles...

  ...  (One of Brecht's artistic principles) is meant to apply specifically to the operatic situation, and it is given typographical emphasis by Brecht:  ” . . . a radical separation of elements” (“ . . . einer radikalen T r e n n u n g  d e r  E l e m e n-t e “).  Brecht placed this idea above all others where opera is concerned, and consciously aimed it at the very foundation of the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. When, Brecht argued, the elements of a work, of a production (and by implication, of work and production together), are gathered, so that they are mutually reinforcing and directed toward a common, all-engulfing purpose, when the contributing arts are intermingled, each is necessarily degraded, and functions only as a signpost to the others. Music, words, and scenic representation must become more self-sufficient. And they must, in their conspiratorial independence, seek a kind of theatrical disenchantment—not an “experience” (“Erlebnis“), but a world-view (“Weltbild“)...

...this concept of the Separation of Elements (is seen in) Robert Wilson’s production of Lohengrin (it is cited as a working precept by his dramaturg, Holm Keller). And it was much in evidence. While its setting was not really Brechtian (for although it abjured any “real-life” pretense, it did seek a kind of abstract enchantment), its slo-mo, pantomimed telling of the story was utterly detached from the rhythms and tempos, the emotional content, of the music. The receptor was thus left to contemplate, and puzzle over, this bifurcation; and the confirmation  of eye and ear, through which Lohengrin registers its wonted sensory impact, was destroyed. That wasn’t Brechtian, either. Brecht didn’t want the audience puzzled or confused, or “alienated” in the sense of “put-off.” There cannot be a Brechtian production of Lohengrin, because its music, whose power can be vitiated only through musical and vocal inadequacy, could not possibly have been written to Brechtian ends....

--- End quote ---

For the entire essay:

Greetings Opera Lovers!   8)

Conrad Osborne wrote an essay recently about the microphone and its influence on singing since the 1920's: fascinating stuff!

--- Quote ---In my book, I write of a shift in the timbral and behavioral characteristics of operatic singing, marked by exceptions but general enough to be categorized, starting in the years just prior to WW2 and proceeding apace after it. I describe it (with many illustrative examples) as moving from a brighter, leaner, tauter paradigm to one that is darker, plumper, and looser. I don’t believe the microphone is solely responsible for this shift. But I do believe it was a major participant in it, and particularly in the weakening of sheer vocal calibre that followed. Bing Crosby (to make of him an exemplary stand-in for a thousand more) found his identity at a moment (a very long moment, embracing the aftermath of the first World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War) when the yearning for comfort, laced with carefree assurance and whistling-through-the-graveyard good cheer, was pervasive, and when a sheltering in the private and personal seemed like the only protection. A turn toward a cozier, softer-textured aesthetic was probably indicated, technology aside. But the technology was a mighty catalyst. And though the prevalent fashions in non-classical music have changed, they have served only to further de-nude voices of overtone and melodic sustainment. They are more than ever separate from the traditions of the acoustical voice, and even less constructive in the cultivation of young ears.
--- End quote ---

My emphasis above.


I am not sure how many people are following this topic, but...

Conrad Osborne has a new essay, in two parts: the first deals with Karl Goldmark's The Queen of Sheba...

(An excerpt:)

--- Quote ---...In Act 2 of Karl (Karóly) Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba), set in a lush garden at night, the eponymous Queen instructs her slave Astaroth to lure the love-dazed Assad with her singing. Astaroth obeys with a vocalise replete with Oriental-sounding intervals, long sustained notes, and ornaments. Assad responds with a short, beguiling aria, “Magische Töne.” It happens that for collectors of historical records, these are the two most notable of several fragments that kept The Queen of Sheba‘s aura alive over the past century. The vocalise (called the Lockruf) is most famous in the voicing of Selma Kurz (though an earlier version, by Elise Elizza, while lacking Kurz’s Guiness Book of World Records extended trill, would probably be almost as highly regarded had it been recorded later), and the latter in stunning interpretations by Leo Slezak and (in Italian) Enrico Caruso. And sure enough, poor Assad, though figuratively outside the studio door, soon finds himself—for the third time and counting—hopelessly enmeshed in the Queen’s on-again, off-again allurements. (I)We aren’t speaking here of plain old powerful attraction at first sight. We’re dealing with enslaving, all-enveloping, lost-to-the-world sexual intoxication that presents itself as the mother of all the games of tease, then play hard-to-get, that some girls learn at a remarkably early age....

...In this time of countless revelations concerning piggish men of authority importuning powerless women, the depiction of a woman of rank reducing men to rubble and creating social chaos thereby through the calculated deployment of superpowers of seduction is not, shall we say, the most natural fit with the cultural moment. Yet this fear of a disruptive female sexuality, evoked by the call of a voice, the drawing aside of a veil, the invitational water-nymph move, is certainly not dead, but only sleeping through our affects of transactional cool. As illustrated by the Queen of Sheba tale, it’s as old as the earliest myths and scriptures, then much enhanced over the centuries....

(An excerpt:)

--- End quote ---

...and the second is a review of Heidi Waleson's book on the decline and fall of the New York City Opera.

--- Quote --- Heidi Waleson, the longtime opera critic for the Wall Street Journal, has published her recounting of the protracted death throes of the New York City Opera, which moved into this same theatre in 1966, and stayed until its self-banishment to scattered venues in 2011 (Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, Metropolitan Books, 2018). The subject is of automatic interest to those of us with intense, extended experience of the company’s work, and by extension to everyone concerned (and concern is called for) with the overall artistic and economic health of our artform...

...The gradual loss of artistic focus and lowering of vocal standards by no means fully accounts for the death of the New York City Opera. Many other factors, including demographic shifts that undermined both the audience and donor base; increasing competition for front-line talent; the weakened presence of arts in education (and the defining-down of what’s meant by “arts”); social changes in where people look for entertainment and what they’ll pay for it —these and more, not to mention the economic punch to the gut of the recession of 2008-ff., were and are involved for all opera companies, and for high-culture enterprises in general.(I) Waleson brings these into her discussion, and in her final chapter tries to be optimistic about some of the post-opera fauna that are gamboling about. I’m not too sanguine about all that. But meanwhile, Waleson’s book is most useful for the lessons to be extracted from her grappling with the nitty-gritty of one major company’s trip in the tumbrel.
--- End quote ---



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