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I will soon be the owner of a shiny new smartphone, from which I will be able to (but will most likely refrain from) broadcasting various details of my life and activities. Announcing one’s activities, no matter what they might be, is growing more commonplace, and the opera is no exception. Take, for example, this piece in Wired describing the author Dylan Tweney’s attempt to live-tweet a performance of Die Walküre (flagrantly ignoring the pre-performance request that all electronic devices be turned off).
You might think that Twitter and opera (not the browser) don’t work together. On the one hand, you’ve got epically long, rich visual and auditory feasts for the senses that require significant education to appreciate. On the other, you’ve got a text-only medium that restricts you to 140 characters, is free to use, and currently reaches more than 30 million people, who use it to broadcast such prosaic items as what they’re wearing, whether its raining or if Ronaldhino has just scored a goal.
On top of that, opera is, well, old. I think the medium was last popular in about 1895, whereas Twitter is very much a child of the 21st century’s always-on, internet-saturated lifestyle.
But if you treat opera as an event, it sort of makes sense to integrate it with Twitter. After all, people have live-tweeted Steve Jobs keynotes, ballgames, breaking news events and even births. Twitter is very well-suited to giving people a glimpse of something as it happens, adding a communal (and even global) dimension to real-time events. So why not opera?
I have mixed feelings about this. It drives me nuts when I can see someone’s glowing smartphone screen from three rows away. If you’re really that bored, stay home, I usually think. And it’s been a while since I’ve attended a performance where at least one cell phone didn’t go off (followed by panicked attempts to silence it). The substance of Dylan Tweney’s tweets doesn’t do a whole lot to argue his case: he mostly tweeted plot details, which don’t really benefit from a live account (imagine live-tweeting the contents of a book). On the other hand, I think a new breed of discourse is emerging on twitter, and opera companies ignore it at their peril. Opera-listening can be enhanced by communal experience, whether it’s an appreciative nod to the friend sitting next to you after a particularly well-executed high note, or chatting with a fellow opera-lover while listening to a recording or watching a DVD. Vancouver Opera has found a way to live-tweet performances in an innovative and non-disruptive way: tweeting during the performance from backstage (here’s VO’s OperaNinja account).
Here’s a sampling of the comments, positive and negative, from the Wired story:
Dude, if you decide to be in a place where electronic devices are not permitted, then it is your responsibility to turn them off or, even better, leave them at home. There’s more to life than texting and tweeting, even if you write for Wired. You wrote an entire article detailing your own obnoxious behavior.
congratulation…you’re a cultural surrogate. an electronic replacement for hearing, seeing and thinking.
you also an alchemist, since you managed to transmute a complex cultural experience into some banal, pointless observations. you’re also a broadcaster, since you had the technology to transmit your observations to others. you’re a new world man…and i pity you
Allright, so your behavior (tweeting at the opera) seems to have ticked some folks off. Probably would have ticked me off a few years ago too, as folks around you paid a lot of money for their tickets…but I digress. I’m actually a big fan of using this medium in order to bring in a new audience to opera. We have to reach people where they are, and where they are is on twitter and facebook. Folks can either admonish you for your behavior, or thank you for spreading the word. As an opera singer myself, and as the director of a burgeoning regional company that embraces social media and technology, I feel that we have to find a middle-ground. I think we’ll reserve our back-row for twitter-heads this coming season. I, for one, would much rather see the word get out (in a way that doesn’t disturb others) than see the art-form that I love, die a slow and painful death as people lose interest.
I am a composer of operas, and a professor of music as well: one of my students from my spring course on opera forwarded your tweet about the Wagner performance — and I am still laughing so hard, it is almost impossible to type this….Power to you! The art form has a long and complex history, which most genuine opera lovers should know by now: for instance, Italian opera houses (until Napoleon) had exclusive legal gambling rights (which I assume helped to subsidize the costs); boxes were equipped with mirrors, so one could play cards or chess without missing too much of the action; food was served (of course, so no one would leave in your calorie-deprived condition). And so forth. Opera now is very little like opera as it has historically been– and, at best, tries to duplicate the conditions that prevaiied ca.1895. But what about opera in 1675? or 1750? Does anyone actually know the totally wacky stuff that used to go on, routinely? Does anyone read Casanova’s memoirs about castrati — and women posing as castrati, who (he claims) he can tell by intuition? As an ardent admirer and current practitioner of the medium, I support wholeheartedly any and all efforts to bring it back to the lively, low-brow, FUN genre it has been over the ages. Which means opera is not, and cannot ever be, outdated.
This last comment appeals to history – in the past, opera audiences didn’t listen in silence, but rather chatted, ate, and even gambled during the show. The trouble with this kind of argument is – do we really want to return to those days? Even at the movies, still for the most part a populist entertainment, people generally prefer silence and attention from the other members of the audience. The benefits of this are obvious. While increased conversation about opera must always be a good thing, it’s also valuable to retain some experiences to which we are prepared to give our full attention.
I will shortly be beginning a new job, and in seeking out a thematically appropriate opera, was struck by how few operas deal with the question of work and vocation. I suppose this is a function of many opera plots featuring characters who are either divine beings or members of the nobility – none of whom “work for a living” in the usual sense.
Here is one of the exceptions, although its concern with “jobs” is rather oblique: Poulenc’s surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias (English translation: The Breasts of Tiresias), a short, goofy opera dealing with gender politics and birth rate panic. The opera is partially a satirical response to alarm at falling birth rates in early 20th-century France, as well as the changing role of women in society. The principal character, Thérèse, is unsatisfied with her feminine role and announces early in the opera that she is a feminist. She rattles off a litany of male occupations that sound much more appealing than cooking and childbearing, then promptly dispenses with her breasts (represented by two balloons that she removes from her bodice) and becomes male. Later in the opera, her husband decides that he must make up for his wife’s unwillingness to bear children by having some of his own – and by the following day he’s given birth to over forty thousand of them.
It’s tempting to read the opera as attempting to subvert traditional gender roles, and that likely accounts for much of its renewed popularity – but it seems just as likely that it’s an attempt to point out what 1930’s traditionalists would have seen as the absurdity of the feminist project. I certainly prefer to see it as both silly and subversive, especially since the music has a tuneful vaudevillian lean and showcases Poulenc at his most hedonistic.
Here’s a YouTube performance from the Liceu Barcelona of Thérèse/Tiresias transition from female to male (nudity warning!). The sound quality is rather poor but the performance is exuberant. The 1999 Barbara Bonney recording is a staple of my listening.
Like a lot of people, I learned to love opera by listening to Puccini. There’s a reason why people who rarely go to the opera will buy a ticket to La Boheme and bawl their eyes out at the end – Puccini was a master of isolating the “good parts” (i.e. immediately, popularly appealing) of opera, cranking them up to maximum intensity, and cutting back on everything else. This is extremely difficult for a composer/dramatist to accomplish – several centuries of operatic output have yielded maybe ten works that reliably bring in the crowds now that the form is outmoded. Shakespeare alone has a much better track record for longevity than all the greatest opera composers combined. But there are downsides to loving Puccini. He only wrote a handful of operas and a couple of those are duds. The good ones don’t have a lot of thematic variation (the plots of them could be summed up as, woman falls in love, suffers, dies). If you’re listening and going to the opera with any regularity, you’ll probably get bored of the big three (Boheme, Butterfly, and Tosca) pretty fast.
Of course, there’s Mozart and Verdi and Rossini and Wagner to explore, each with their own rewards and drawbacks. There’s the French and Russian repertoire. But even after exhausting these options, many people avoid “modern” (meaning, post-WWI) opera like the plague, despite the fact that, by definition, it’s the only site of new operatic production. And this is a shame, because it’s one of the most rewarding areas to explore, an entire branch of repertoire that can make you think about what opera should be and what it’s truly capable of when divorced from the popular appeal that used to sustain it.
Aversion to modern opera is easy to understand. The music, rather than being tuneful/romantic/charming, is often highly abstract and difficult to follow. A lot of post-WWI operas have unrelentingly bleak plots, and may also look drab on stage. The fact is that, in the 20th century, opera transformed from being popular entertainment to a niche interest, and opera composers are no longer bound or motivated by the desire to appeal to popular tastes. Alienation is therefore part of the territory.
Some people assume that you need to be musically educated to appreciate this style of music. I think there is some truth to this, but not in the sense that formal or “book-learning” is necessary. I think what’s required more than a study of the principles of twelve-tone music (or whatever) is the willingness to listen widely, and with an open mind. Modern opera won’t get you drunk and sweep you away the way Puccini does, but it can inspire devotion just as intense. So, here are my tips for dipping into opera post-WWI.
1. Give it time. If necessary, wait until you start getting bored with the standard rep. If you put on Bluebeard’s Castle and hate it within the first ten minutes, don’t try to force it and don’t start complaining to everyone within earshot that no one knows how to write pretty music anymore. Put it back on the shelf and go back to Verdi; in a few months you might surprise yourself by giving it another shot and loving it.
2. Look for works “on the border”, or works that wear their classic influences on their sleeve. Salome and Jenufa are examples of the former, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is an example of the latter. If you’re already an opera lover, you’ll have a good grip on the roots of these works and a good basis for exploration. Give Benjamin Britten a listen, save Alban Berg for later.
3. Listen to more baroque opera. This might seem counter-intuitive, but a lot of modern opera is inspired by a desire to return to the relative austerity and technical complexity of the pre-Mozartean era. If you have a good ear for Montiverdi, Gluck, and Handel, you’ll have a better idea of the kind of effect many modern composers are going for.
4. Relish works in the English language. If you’re an English speaker (which you must be if you’re reading this), the English-language repertoire has gotten much vaster and richer in the last century of opera composition. Not only that, but the literary quality of opera libretti has gone way up, and enjoying the textual element of opera is much easier and more rewarding now. This is what struck me about listening recently to Nixon in China – hearing lines sung like “I want to hear the sound of industry borne on the wind” reminds me that opera isn’t only a musical experience.
5. Attend live performances when possible, or rent a DVD. Public libraries often have an excellent selection of opera on VHS and DVD, and something that may not immediately make sense aurally may become easier to understand when put in its proper stage context.
6. Some modern works are actually comedies! Not all of them are about the bleakness of existence. The Rake’s Progress and Les Mamelles de Tiresias are both excellent and lighthearted.
Underlying all of this is one basic principle – try to stay open-minded. If after several listens you hate Richard Strauss, that’s fine, but that’s no reason to also write off Bartok or Carlisle Floyd. If you subscribe to the local company’s season, don’t go to Barbiere but sell your ticket to Lulu because you assume it will be no fun. No one has to like everything, but cutting yourself off from a whole branch of the repertoire does no one any favours, especially not the composers, directors, and singers who are looking for ways to keep opera vibrant and living.
To my great delight, I’ve been written up in online indie mag cokemachineglow.com’s blog Daily Ops!
Here are links to the posts mentioned in Conrad Amenta’s thoughtful post:
The opera crowd (People who Like Opera)
“What dangerous ninnies romantic male leads can be” (Five Operas with a Disturbing Perspective on Love)
I hope you enjoy reading them!
When I was first getting into opera, Ruggero Raimondi was my guide, at first without my really realizing it. In the beginning I wasn’t paying much attention to the names on the CD covers, but once I started paying attention I realized he was on all my favourite recordings. I started off with Puccini, and Raimondi was there on the 1979 Carreras/Ricciarelli Tosca, as the smoothest evilest Scarpia out there. Then I moved on to Mozart, and Raimondi was there as a chocolate-tongued Don Giovanni and a Count Almaviva with gravitas. Then I started getting into the Russian rep and Raimondi was there in the Russianest opera of them all, Boris Godunov. Then I was interested in Rossini and Raimondi was there again in a variety of comic roles.
I’d like to point you to this conversational “review” of Renee Fleming’s Dark Hope over at The Awl. It talks about Renee Fleming’s status in the opera world, the cautious reviews of the pop album, and whether this is a thinly-veiled attempt at “outreach” (but to whom?)
Zack: Yes! I still think that younger, cool, hip audiences can like ‘Traviata’ as well as ‘The Nose.’ but they have to be shown that ‘Traviata’ is as powerful, as affecting. There’s so much… stuff that builds up around these pieces
Seth: Oh, don’t “stuff” me. Tell me all about the plaque that’s really building up alongside traditional rep’s gumline. Creating all kinds of terrible gingivitis.
Zack: I mean, I think a lot of operas are taken for granted. And not really thought about even when they’re given a new production. Like, the new Met ‘Carmen’ was screaming “BOLD THEATRICALITY”, but then it had a lot of the same tired shit.
If you’re an opera buff, there are a lot of unkind things you might say about Prima Donna, pop singer Rufus Wainwright’s debut as opera composer. It has Der Rosenkavalier’s dull stretches without its intelligence or emotional depth; it has Puccini’s vulgarity without his soaring highs; it has the cliches of a creaky Verdi melodrama without the tunefulness. Is it unfair to compare Wainwright’s genre exploration to the form’s greatest masterworks? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Indeed, one might argue that in directly referencing his predecessors both musically and textually, Wainwright is kinda asking for it.
But now that these mean things have been said, let’s talk seriously about Prima Donna and what it means, and how it fits into the operatic tradition. Because there are a lot of things about it that are interesting. It’s at heart a revivalist work, meaning it makes a serious attempt to replicate both the musical language and the emotional language of a specific moment in the past, namely the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And revivalist works always raise the following question: how will this work be meaningful to modern audiences while immersing itself in the language of the past? How will it take account of the century of social and cultural change that stands between us and the tradition it invokes?
Some artists deal with this problem with nostalgia, showing us a fantasy past where our values are reflected back at us (see: all those proto-feminist heroines in historical fiction). Some use irony. Some use it as a mechanism to examine today’s world, in much the same way as science fiction. Some take the postmodern route, reconfiguring the old material in a way that exposes all the seams. Prima Donna is both nostalgic and postmodern, but not in a simple way.
It’s an opera about opera, or rather, an opera about the way we relate to opera in the 21st century. The elements of opera emphasized in Prima Donna are the ones that describe it in the popular imagination today: sweeping romanticism, melodrama, Europe, foreign languages, sparkly dresses, high notes, grand divas, and heroines with crushed dreams. And, hanging over everything, the narrative of decline. The diva’s best days are over. Her beauty is fading, her opulent apartment has grown shabby, and her companions are deserting her. In the early Broadway musicals, while the form was on the rise, the plots were always about scrappy young nobodies transformed into stars; it’s hard not to read diva Saint Laurent’s decline as reflective of the fear and pessimism that shrouds the opera world today.
The music in Prima Donna is lush and romantic, with liberal use of the harp, but everything sounds a bit smoothed-over – there isn’t often much to catch the ear. It sounds sometimes as though Wainwright is anxious that he not be accused of simply arranging his pop songs for strings. But the most hooky moments are also the most enjoyable – the maid’s aria that opens the second act comes immediately to mind. The vocal performances are excellent all around, and all the principals (especially Opera Atelier regular Colin Ainsworth as the journalist) have rich and sumptuous voices. Janis Kelly as Regine the diva is commanding and entirely believable as a great star.
The libretto, sadly, is the weakest link. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be campy or serious. This is particularly disappointing given that Wainwright’s songs are full of lyric inventiveness and emotional nuance – his trademark charm is swallowed up here in grave, simplistic pronouncements. The characters in this opera express themselves like, well, characters in an opera – perhaps this is meant to serve the pastiche, but a smarter libretto would have gone a long way in lifting this work above banality.
As always, below are the alternative opinions. I’ve expanded the net this time to include productions of Prima Donna that took place in other cities. I can’t help but noting that reviewers who confessed to not being “opera people” seemed to enjoy the work the most, while opera buffs tended to be harsher with it. Perhaps this makes sense – when the trio from Rosenkavalier is explicitly referenced, it’s hard not to notice that Wainwright’s version of the trio isn’t as good. But if you’re new to opera and not making those comparisons, it might seem like just the right mix of romanticism, sensuality, sincerity, and drama, a combination that isn’t given a lot of space to play in our irony-obsessed moment. Prima Donna may be an ideal entry-level work for people who are curious about opera, but who like to keep one foot in the pop world. The premiere audience gave it a standing ovation.
UPDATE: added some reviews from Toronto. Since I attended the premiere, they weren’t available until this morning.
Parterre Box: “I’m glad that someone as undeniably talented as Wainwright loved opera enough to want to dare to write one of his own. It’s not quite an heroic failure, but it would be churlish indeed to say that it isn’t an honourable one.”
The New York Times: ” The opera ends with a tender aria for Régine, a long-spun melody with a gentle accompaniment riff: in other words, a Wainwright song. Would that there had been more of them.”
Toronto Star: “Despite the best efforts of those capable singers, a clever director, an impressive set and lighting and a willing orchestra and conductor, Prima Donna is a dramatic wreck.”
Globe and Mail: “Is it truly a work of our time? (No.) Does it point out a new way forward for the art form of opera? (Certainly not.) But if we ask a question that’s both smaller and more to the point – Is Prima Donna a musically and dramatically effective work? – the answer is a resounding yes.”
Eye Weekly: “Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna receives just about the finest production a first-time opera composer could hope for. Yet despite the ardent advocacy of the singers, conductor and director, the opera’s inherent flaws are all too apparent.”
Torontoist: ” Wainwright insists that an opera about opera has never been seen before, but the show fails to expand on that premise. Presented with the opportunity of taking a reflective look at the art form, the plot of this “meta-opera” instead focuses too much on the melodrama—the brash temper tantrums, the embellished embraces, and the soul-crushing heartbreak that have become clichéd in the eyes of non–opera-goers”
The Montreal Gazette: “The dedicated Rufus fan can see traces of his characteristic vocal style in some of the music, but as one audience member nearby asked, where are the tunes?”
The Guardian: “The score itself comes clothed as Strauss, Massenet and Puccini; Wainwright would seem to be on a mission to drag opera back into the late 19th century. But his gift as a melodist and an orchestrator are in no doubt”
NME: “Wainwright has earned the right to live out his Guiseppe Verdi fantasies. The fact he can not only make this grand folly work artistically, but also achieve it with his cool and affability intact, tells you a great deal about this remarkable artist’s charmed existence.”
The Independent: “Musically Prima Donna is at best banal, at worst boring. The orchestral writing is lumpy, leaden and repetitive, so that the merest flash of inspiration – a dashing musical signature for example – is welcomed with relief as an original idea.”
The Independent (again): “This rather camp confection bears some recognisable fingerprints of the Rufus Wainwright we know and love – kernels of melody and subversive harmony that occasionally knock it off-kilter – but for the most part it’s distressingly derivative”
Paste Magazine: “Overall, it was a charming and enjoyable, if not exceptional, work of art, and it was endearing to see a bearded Wainwright roaming the theater halls in top hat and cane. There was much of his persona evident throughout Prima Donna, and that was ultimately the opera’s greatest strength.”
The Evening Standard: “at times the music can descend into stylised vamping. But Wainwright has what too many starter opera composers lack, a sense of drama, of the ebb and flow of emotion and the vitalising force of character.”
The Omniscient Mussel: “Overall, Prima Donna is worth seeing. It is tempting to write it off as the work of an enthusiastic amateur imitating his heroes but the music is too good for that. Writing new opera is difficult and while there are several things that don’t quite work, what’s more important is that the opera shows tremendous potential.”
There Ought To Be Clowns: “Sometimes though, there is just too much going on with the music, with little thematic consistency emerging from the evening, it can get a little bit wearing. And for me, I found the balance was sometimes questionable.”
City Life: “Prima Donna is an entertaining – and accessible – piece of music theatre, full of passion, drama and, perhaps most surprising and welcome, some wonderful grace notes of humour.”
Drowned in Sound: “Sure enough, opera buffs reacted fairly badly to Prima Donna, rejecting it as lightweight, musically boring, overlong and a bit silly; but they were missing the point entirely.”
Music OMH: ” The only people who may not be converted by this opera are the outright Wainwright haters, and that’s mainly because they won’t be giving themselves the chance to by staying at home. That group aside, anyone else is likely to be, at the very least, pleasantly surprised, if not, as I was, entirely bowled over by the experience.”
Primi Divi: “But the musical ideas just didn’t like go anywhere. The same idea was repeated over and over and after a while it got boring, it didn’t mean anything anymore. Like there was one bit where the main character Regine was singing in octaves, two notes an octave apart, going down the scale chromatically. Great stuff the first 3-4 times but after that it was like, sing something else can’t you?”