Will Crutchfield on "The New Opera Problem"

Started by Cato, December 17, 2021, 10:14:12 AM

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Cato

Courtesy of Conrad Osborne, critic Will Crutchfield discusses the problems surrounding establishing contemporary operas in the repertoire:


https://conradlosborne.com/2021/12/17/guest-column-will-crutchfield-on-the-new-opera-problem/


Some salient excerpts:

Quote

...No, Hamilton is not an opera, but for one reason and one only: it exists outside the system devoted to presenting what people generally call "opera." Which is not so hard to define in the 21st century after all, if we're willing to be frank about some aspects that we opera people tend to find uncomfortable.

Within the broad category of dramatic-musical-narrative works delivered by live performers before gathered audiences, the particular subset we agree to give the name of "opera" generally has the following characteristics:

    it is European in outlook and derivation
    it is addressed to an audience educated in the musical genres we call "classical"
    it is performed by voices and instruments that project sound without mechanical mediation (or, remembering Nixon, it presupposes performers who spend the rest of their time doing that).
    it excludes any musical idiom that reached wide popularity later than the 1930s.

All four of those things are old-fashioned today, whether encountered in Lucia di Lammermoor or Two Boys. This might as well be confronted head-on by anyone concerned with the future transmission of the works-we-call-operas. More on that below, but I don't need persuading that such transmission is worthwhile; that's what I work on every day.

Where I need some persuasion is on the idea that new works in this sub-genre are urgently required.
...

...It is not clear that the world at large is suffering from the lack of new evening-length performance pieces based on centuries-old technology and instruments. The opera public signals its thirst-level mostly by staying home when recent work is on offer.

For whom, then? If I'm right in supposing that nobody has read this far who isn't somehow invested in the enterprise of what-we-call-opera, then the answer is "for us." We, the invested, need new works because it's depressing to think that we might be devoted to an artform whose creative arc has been completed. Or because we fear our own energies are dulled by insufficient engagement with recently-conceived material. Or because it's un-cool or even embarrassing not to have something to crusade for. Remember the Wagnerites!

...What is a successful opera, and when did we start worrying about the supply of them? Let's start with two simple, arbitrary benchmarks for "success" that seem reasonable in context:

    presented by at least ten theaters within a decade of premiere
    presented in at least four theaters outside the country of origin, again within a decade

Most operas never met these requirements, so we're not casting the net too wide, and yet for well over a century the top few regularly did so, so we're not being too picky either. We'll fail to catch operas that didn't succeed when new but did so later (Les Troyens and Jenufa, for example),...


(The author next shows various charts on opera performances down to the early 20th century)


...Any way you parse these numbers, they tell us one thing very clearly: Opera did not have a slow, gradual decline. Something quite sudden happened to it around 1930. Maybe there is a factor here other than the audience conservatism lazy critics love to bash?

I think there were two somethings. The first is easy to pinpoint: talking movies. Want to be transported out of daily life for a few hours, told a story, moved or amused, entertained and impressed by costume, action, music, scenery? You're in the market for a Gesamtkunstwerk, and here it is. The central place of opera in cultural life — the Big Show, the source of iconic classics everyone can discuss with everyone else, the trade whose top practitioners are called "stars" — cinema took that away, and took it fast.

The second something is more complicated, and more than a little tragic. It had been building for a while, ever since Edison invented sound recording, and it broke through at around the same time as the arrival of the talkies, with new electrically produced recordings and the radio to broadcast them. These media gave sudden market access to musicians who had previously been confined to localized and low-paying sectors of the artistic economy. People who could not necessarily read and write European musical notation, who may not have had much to do with the associated traditions, who didn't belong to the social or ethnic groups at home in a box at the opera, could now propagate their music directly on shellac. They could connect (with each other and with audiences) beyond their immediate geographical ambience. They could experiment, share, explore, develop, and earn.

That's all good. The tragic thing is the way opera and European "classical" music generally recoiled in terror from the new development. Not everyone — but enough to create a chasm. To read the commentary of "serious" music writers on the emergence of ragtime, jazz, blues, swing, and rock is to be stunned by the recurrent expression of class-based, racial, and sexual anxiety — anxiety is the nicest way to put it. Music for the educated — for the literate, the well-mannered, the high-minded — ran away from "pop" as fast as it could. Melody, rhyme, symmetrical rhythms — those mainstays of Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini — were dropped by the road in a panic, and left for Tin Pan Alley and its successors to pick up and enjoy as exclusive property.

If opera had welcomed the new music, it might have survived. That wouldn't have been impossible; Neapolitan and Russian folksong, plus various versions of "Gypsy" and "Oriental" music, had caught the ears of certain composers at certain times, and opera benefited enormously from the infusion of new blood. But the blunt market force of pop was like nothing European music had met before. Cultural appropriation was now flowing in the other direction, and the former masters were flummoxed....


...(Concerning losing) the sound of the naturally developed human voice. Pop music, prizing the authenticity of the untutored impulse, was never going to resist the microphone.

The world's new vocal "stars" by 1950 or so were people who could not have sung opera even if they had wanted to try. By around 1970 they were producing sounds that barely resembled the tonal properties of an opera voice, even one used at low intensity. The sound of a non-mechanized voice had become alien for most; for all of previous human history it had been the only vocal sound anyone could hear in public. Who would expect that the renewable crop of successful operas could keep growing in such altered soil?



(My emphasis above)


I will assume that if you are interested in the topic, you will want to read the entire article via the link above.
"Meet Miss Ruth Sherwood, from Columbus, Ohio, the Middle of the Universe!"

- Brian Aherne introducing Rosalind Russell in  My Sister Eileen (1942)

k a rl h e nn i ng

Quote from: Cato on December 17, 2021, 10:14:12 AM
Courtesy of Conrad Osborne, critic Will Crutchfield discusses the problems surrounding establishing contemporary operas in the repertoire:


https://conradlosborne.com/2021/12/17/guest-column-will-crutchfield-on-the-new-opera-problem/


Some salient excerpts:

(My emphasis above)


I will assume that if you are interested in the topic, you will want to read the entire article via the link above.

Very interesting, indeed.
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston MA
http://www.karlhenning.com/
[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

bhodges

Yes, agreed. Thank you so much, Cato, for posting this.

Just last Saturday, I was at the Met Opera for Eurydice, the new opera by Matthew Aucoin, and the house was half full. Though on the plus side, there were many young people in the audience. But I was keenly aware, once again, of opera's roots in the past, and a large number of operaphiles would never even consider going to newer operas. (Never mind some younger listeners, for whom opera as a whole is perceived as hopelessly square.)

As a PS, the friend with me -- a computer animator -- said, "The Met needs a TikTok account." She may be right.

--Bruce

Cato

Quote from: k a rl h e nn i ng on December 17, 2021, 10:34:15 AM
Very interesting, indeed.


Quote from: Brewski on December 17, 2021, 10:43:03 AM
Yes, agreed. Thank you so much, Cato, for posting this.

Just last Saturday, I was at the Met Opera for Eurydice, the new opera by Matthew Aucoin, and the house was half full. Though on the plus side, there were many young people in the audience. But I was keenly aware, once again, of opera's roots in the past, and a large number of operaphiles would never even consider going to newer operas. (Never mind some younger listeners, for whom opera as a whole is perceived as hopelessly square.)

As a PS, the friend with me -- a computer animator -- said, "The Met needs a TikTok account." She may be right.

--Bruce

I am happy that it is of interest! 

A Tik-Tok account!  So it has come to that, has it?!   8)

I am reminded of a couple of twenty-somethings, who worked with my wife.  Their life's goal was to become...Tik-Tok Stars!

Their spare time was spent making stooopid and supremely unfunny videos for Tikky-Takky   ;) , which of course they thought were hysterical, because - deep down, despite some basic intelligence - they were no-talent idiots.  8)

And when I write "no-talent idiots," I am being kind to them!   :D

"Meet Miss Ruth Sherwood, from Columbus, Ohio, the Middle of the Universe!"

- Brian Aherne introducing Rosalind Russell in  My Sister Eileen (1942)