Stage

Stagestruck: The Italian (Dis)Connection

Our critic admits that he’s a philistine.

Comments (4)
Wednesday, May 07, 2014

For many people, opera is the highest and noblest form of theater—high-flown drama married to ravishing music sung by glorious voices, lifting it to a higher plane than mere spoken dialogue or opera’s downmarket cousin, the musical. But I’ve never been a fan.

You’ll probably think me a philistine, but for me, opera is an art form frozen in aspic, and one whose contemporary manifestations have pulled it wilfully out of the mainstream. These heretical thoughts were prompted by several new operas seen on Valley stages in recent years. Those works told important American stories instead of what an opera-loving friend of mine calls “the awful plot lines” of the classical repertoire. But for me, their impact was diminished by musical styles that seemed out of synch with the material and vocal delivery that obscured the words.

Most recently, Mary D. Watkins’ Dark River related the life story of civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer, but her score mostly bypassed the musical roots of that story in favor of what its director described as “some touches of African-American musical motifs but for the most part more avant-garde rhythms.” Last year, The Garden of Martyrs, by Eric Sawyer and Harley Erdman, recounted a miscarriage of justice from Northampton’s early history, but projected the libretto in supertitles above the stage because of the quite accurate assumption that the audience wouldn’t understand most of the words being sung.

I’ve heard classical singers and conductors insist that what’s most important is producing “pure” vocal tone and vowel formation—which is why opera singers sound to my ears like Italians. The text, in effect, is treated as a subsidiary vehicle to hang the music on. And that’s why it’s frustrating to me when a new opera, written in English, that’s about something interesting and important, is sung in an archaic style and often needs to be “translated” for its listeners.

I also find it puzzling that contemporary opera seems to have become the almost exclusive province of modernist composers working in a deliberately non-melodic and often arrhythmic style. And I find it bizarre that, while this approach brings the classical tradition “up to date,” the vocal performance remains untouched, impervious to the tides of change in popular and theatrical music.

This odd fellowship—postmodern music in classical mouths—has dealt a double whammy to what was once the Western world’s most popular theatrical form. As my friend says, many avid theatergoers avoid opera because they don’t like the music and can’t understand the words.

The very idea that the default response to incomprehensible singing is adding supertitles—that insisting on clarity from the singers isn’t an option—seems bizarre. But that’s the necessary solution, because the singers are trained, according to conventional rules of “purity,” to (mis)pronounce so much of what they sing.

So here is what I just don’t get about contemporary opera. Why is it perfectly okay, even expected, to treat an English text as if it were being sung in a foreign language? Why is there nowadays a fairly rigid and quite limited definition of what “opera” is? (Why, for instance, is Les Misérables, a sung-through opera with a scale as epic and a plotline as sentimental as anything in the classic repertoire, dismissed and despised by purists? I suspect not least because it’s so melodic and so popular.)

The disconnect I feel is also, I think, due to the opera world’s sense of exceptionalism—that only a particular musical approach can achieve the highest aesthetic standard. Which also, as my opera-loving friend says, contributes to “the idea that opera is an art form that is only for snoots.”•

Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and his StageStruck blog is at valleyadvocate.com/blogs/stagestruck.

 

Comments (4)
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Hmmm. Reads like you are publicizing an argument with your opera-loving friend. How many people in the 'opera world' do you really know, personally, other than your friend, that is. You crash one extreme (a sense of exceptionalism, exclusivity) against another (frozen in aspic, out of the mainstream, bizarre) but don't provide any value. Listen - ALL art forms have the good, the bad, the fanatics, the haters. What's interesting is the defensive posture you enter the article with - 'You’ll probably think me a philistine..' Do you think most readers of the Valley Advocate are opera purists that you need to defend yourself against? My guess is that the readers have a range of exposure to opera but don't come at it as purists. And they might even enjoy an article that provides some depth and insight into the negative aspects of it, provided it wasn't done as a whipsaw of stereotypes as you present. But if all your going to do is hawk on the sidewalk, please do it elsewhere, and by the way, wipe it up when you're done so no one has to walk in it. Sorry.

Posted by JT on 5.13.14 at 22:17

Why on earth would it matter how many people in opera he knows personally?

Posted by SDudgens on 5.14.14 at 11:17

SDugens: - I think without really knowing some range of people involved the author doesn't get any insight into why the culture is the way it is, or, god forbid, that it's not actually how 'someone' told him it is. That maybe the things he abhors are done for reasons other than he thinks, or that those who he identifies as purists may suffer from their own ignorance and not represent the art. This article deals in tired stereotypes - like for instance the whole idea of being a philistine if you don't love opera - hasn't that one been around the block enough times? If you know enough people involved in an artform, there's an appreciation of it, that even if it's not your thing, you still respect the human effort that goes into it. In contrast, this article appears to be a rude poke in the eye to anyone who enjoys it, or even might want to try it. What's the value there? What is there for the reader to learn in that? So does anyone have to actually know people involved in or even know anything about an art form to decide if they like it or not? Of course not. But if someone's going to write about it, pro or con, as an offering to the readers, isn't it a better contribution if the author has an informed, tempered perspective? And doesn't that better respect the readers' intelligence and ability to think for themselves? I think yes.

Posted by JT on 5.14.14 at 15:36

POint taken. However, I don't think that is necessary when it comes to weighing in on the performances themselves. They should not require anything but themselves to be interesting as art.

Posted by SDudgens on 5.15.14 at 10:05
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