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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boxing Art

Occasionally art befuddles. Often art confuses. Sometimes art is effective, sometimes even affective. Rarely, but hopefully, art moves through humanity and changes an outlook, or a current state of emotions, or gives someone a pick me up, or takes away some daily care that strips away at someone's sanity.

Many of us are as inspired by looking at a Van Gogh or listening to a Brahms piano concerto or a Beethoven string quartet, or an opera by one of those dead white guys as we are by attending a Shakespeare play or reading a Hemmingway novel or digging through James Joyce or listening to a Berg piece or tapping our toes to an Ella recording or clapping wildly at the end of a Broadway rock musical.  If one genre inspires you, I find at least, most of the rest -- I'll call it all "art" for lack of a better word -- does also.

That's why I don't get classical musicians who only know classical music,  or who only listen to classical music, or who quickly dismiss other kinds of music as less important or beneath their attention somehow. I don't get classical musicians who are snobs.

Snobbery is something I hate, especially in music.

Link: Pedants!

Now we all have our likes and dislikes. I wrote a blog about Menotti. I'm pretty open about my lack of love for epic grand operas written in French (except for Faust.) I am not a fan of large symphonic works cause I find them to be a bit, um, boring. (Do I need to hear the same motif played ad nauseam in every bank of winds, followed by a round through the strings, then culminating in the brass and call that something special? See: Dvorak or Bruckner) And my distaste for large Bach choral pieces is, I've been told, something verging on heretical. To say that I find Andrew Lloyd Webber more engaging than Bach, when it comes to dramatic vocal music, causes apoplectic fits in some of my students and colleagues.

A passion by...

But my love for the repertoire is huge and vast, as is the repertoire itself. From Adam de la Halle's Le jeu de Robin et de Marion to Kevin Puts' Silent Night, text set to music in order to tell a story gets me almost every time. So does practically anything ever written for the solo piano (aside from some icky Soviet stuff) and most of the string quartet literature out there. Then there's the 20th century -- the best on many levels because of Stravinsky and Bernstein and Copland and Puccini and Loewe and Kander/Ebb and R/H and Sondheim and Korngold and Strauss and the great one: Britten, and, and, and...

I try not to divide and slice the rep into boxes or genres or categories. Aren't we all just a bit bored and annoyed by those who describe Die Fledermaus as "light opera" or "operetta"?! Have y'all tried to sing it with the full orchestration? Or Hoffmann?!  Those are huge sings. There's nothing "light" about it. The opposite is kinda true for Carmen. I get frustrated when people hold it up as some magnificent grand opera, like it's a French Trovatore or something. It's one of the first modern musicals - complete with world music settings: Formally it's a musical (telling the story in songs, ensembles, dance, and lots of dialogue) that sounds like a grand Italian opera at times, set in Spain, sung in French, with some Cuban dance rhythms thrown in for fun! The argument against those statements come, as they should, from mezzos and tenors who sing Carmen and Don Jose. They are totally right when they say those two roles are hard to sing and are as operatic as Tosca and Cavaradossi. But why care what it is called? Audiences love it -- as do I!

Why categorize these pieces? What does calling something a "musical" or "chamber opera" or "opera" or "song cycle" do for a piece? Is Menotti's The Consul an opera because he's an opera composer? When it played on Broadway (and won the Pulitzer for Drama), there were many who thought they were seeing a new hybrid between the art forms of musical and opera. Why does Sweeney Todd now get accepted as an "opera" by opera companies and audiences? Is it because Bryn Terfel sings it with the NY Phil and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago? Emma Thompson, a singing actress who is not an opera singer, just sang the female lead with him at Lincoln Center. Does that make her part non-operatic in some way? Is it a musical when there are microphones? Then that makes Nixon in China a musical. (OH MY GOD!!! Opera Companies Use Mics?! Say it isn't so!!)

A pointed digression:
Here's a hint kids: When you're at an opera, look towards the back of the house. If you see a person standing behind a sound board mixing the show all night, then chances are they are mic'ing the opera. Some opera companies (like the dearly departed NYCO) are open about it. Others (I can't list them here because I might be killed by a squad of operatic terrorists) mic without telling their audiences -- and sometimes, without even telling their artists!

Back to Boxing Art:
Mostly I wonder if we are doing modern day audiences (and young singers) a disservice by paying more attention to the name of what we'd like them to come and see, hear, or experience rather than on creating something really exciting that gets them out of their homes and gets their faces out of their smartphones and into a theatre, recital hall, concert hall, or found space.

I think this sort of labeling boxes all art into a corner and might contribute to making our current audiences uncomfortable or confused. Why would we want to do that? Yet it happens within the business and within academia; for what reason?

I think that some of it is just generational. Using old terms to describe something that no longer has a context with the general public (like when my mother-in-law always says "www" before any website she wants me to check out.  Remember those modems and "dial up"?  Well, our audiences are changing and they pretty much are now not cognizant of the differences between a grand opera, a cabaret, a revue, a musical, an operetta, or a masque. They want to spend their entertainment dollars on something that will excite them, or move them, or inspire them. That can be Cats or Candide or Einstein on the Beach. It can be by JRB or Guettel or Kitt. It can be a staged Passion by Bach or Sondheim. It can be an HD broadcast of La Traviata or a Live from Lincoln Center documentary on the Civil War (I think Ken Burns writes visual operas, but that's probably stretching the definition of opera a bit far.)

I even had a student make a case that the soundtrack for Baz Lurman's movie Romeo and Juliet was -- all by itself -- an opera. I agree with her assessment.

I also think that it can make a snob feel wonderfully smart (i.e. superior) if they can turn their noses down at a Zarzuela but hold up a Singspiel as a testament to humanity while simultaneously lecturing on the use of clarinet in Verdi's late operas. Knowing that the last chorus in Blow's Venus and Adonis "influenced" (really? prove it!) Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is nice for the pre-opera lecture but that knowledge doesn't change the impact either chorus has on an audience.

Boxes make people feel better.  Certainly I have a personal stake in this breaking of the boxes.  I'm a vocal coach, collaborative pianist, conductor, stage director, and artistic administrator whose career confounds some of my colleagues and certainly most of the artist managers I've ever spoken to about my career. I have friends in the business who only want me to be a coach, or a director of a young artist program, or a stage director. You get the point.  I find that young singers are also boxed in WAY TOO EARLY by their mentors and by programs. Yes, currently they are a lyric baritone, but who knows what a 24 year old baritone might be by the time he's in his late 20s. Let them sing outside of their boxes. Let them experiment with repertoire. There have only been a few deaths caused by operatic repertoire (most in the 1800s and those were tenors...) Let these young singers learn to be FLEXIBLE with a wide variety of repertoire. They don't have to be experts at the age of 26 in anything.

I will leave this topic with some harsh words for those who want boxes:

Confining Art into a neat little box is comforting for small minds.

It is time to move on and let go of old biases and false understandings of this great repertoire that inspires the world.  A world without boxes makes many people feel uncomfortable, uneducated, or ill-prepared to be seen as someone who knows something.  The same amount of effort, knowledge, expertise, and hard work goes into singing "Du Ring an meinem Finger" as it does preparing to perform "Where are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?"!

Du Ring by Elly Ameling
Simple Joys of Maidenhood by Julie Andrews

It's time to leave the musicological discussions behind, time to leave the lines drawn in the sand between genres, time to stop alienating young singers from repertoire that they will need in order to reach new audiences. It's time to stop thinking like a 19th century pedant. Ravel needs us, Heggie needs us, von Flotow needs us, Bellini needs us, Porter needs us, and so does Schwartz; these great minds that put their passion to paper. Perform it with purpose and it becomes quite clear: Telling a story with music is creative genesis. We recreate a world each time, we get to live in a composer's brain and heart, we get to surf in waves of poetry and music! It's breathtaking!

The flexible tree bends in the wind. An old tree can break in a wind storm, even if it is strong and healthy. Then the tree gets mulched up, turned to cardboard, and made into a box...

I prefer to keep the tree that is me as flexible as possible so that, in the end, I can take in the many...