Wednesday, July 08, 2009

On not bothering to bring the mountain to Mohammed

Fragment of a comment from "Pelleas", chez Parterre, regarding Rufus Wainwright's "bringing opera to people who normally wouldn’t consider listening to it,"

...except that I don’t believe his audience is going to listen to any opera other than his. He’s made no secret of his operaphilia over the years, and it’s made no difference so far, in much the way that his Judy concert didn’t really make Garland fans out of people who weren’t in the first place.

There's something not just correct but, I think, significant in this sentiment, and as soon as I work out what it is, you'll know. This is me thinking out loud.

Say, do other people known by their friends for being an opera fan get the question "what should I listen to if I want to get into opera?" a lot? Because I do. And, not wholly for the sake of being an asshole, what I sometimes say is, "if you're not into opera, there may be a very good reason." Which is to say: it's not for everyone.

What I'm questioning, I guess, is the very idea of "bringing audiences to opera"--whether it happens at all, and whether it's worth all the pontification that goes on around whether Rufus Wainwright/Andrea Bocelli/the Muppets/&c. &c. &c. will get people to like opera. I'm not sure it ever happens that way. From time to time some appealing face of opera pops up in broader culture, but it seems to be a self-contained thing.

If you liked the blue diva in The Fifth Element, chances are really not that awfully great that you'd be excited by the rest of Lucia. If you were inspired by Paul Potts singing "Nessun dorma," I might speculate while firmly refusing to discuss the merits of his performance that what you liked was largely backstory and novelty and, sure, you might love opera, but chances are good you wouldn't, and Paul Potts is not a good weathervane.

Think of the scene in The Last Picture Show where all an earnest teacher's love of Keats means nothing to his students, because the other parts of their lives aren't fertile soil for a love of poetry. Except take some of the condescension out of that, because a love of opera, like the love of poetry, does not make you a better person. Operaphilia in addition to the love of, say, Gene Autrey does make you a broader, more interesting person, but that's a two-way street, a clap that takes two hands.

None of this has much to do with RW's day-in-the-life-of-a-diva opera, on which I can't comment because I've only heard the excerpt played on Parterre. I didn't love or hate it, though I find Wainwright's crooning a little uncomfortable to witness when it's not in music written with croon in the blueprints (how can I hate on "Poses" when I listened to it obsessively for a year?) but then I'm thinking of his youtube-documented Berlioz, and not his opera, which may very well have built-in croon.

Oh but ok, so take the Berlioz. Someone hears those, thinks "what Rufus likes, I may like," and buys Steber's ravishing trip through those songs with Mitropoulos. Yet again, I think that's not going anywhere. It's just that music is not always a continuum of listener-suitability. Opera is really specific. Opera is discrete. (That does not mean it refuses to send its picture, certain gheis.)

All that's left to do, then, is for me to suggest how new audiences are to be found so opera doesn't die if Sheryl Crow singing "La ci darem la mano" with Pavarotti* (count the problems!) isn't going to do the trick. Obviously, I have no fucking clue.

But if the answer is that opera is on its way out, I'm not going to leap out the window, just hope it outlasts me. I read this book once, okay I read a chapter, about language death, and for anyone who loves languages and appreciates that each has things it can express that no other can (though this can never be more than a hunch), the idea of a language disappearing forever is really to dab your eyes about. But it's also completely inevitable and a part of the backdrop against which the languages that hang on, for now, live out their own interesting lives. Nothing is immortal and few things last very long at all.

Sorry, I'm totally killing time 'til I can get on a train for a long weekend, so it's getting a bit purple in here. (I never work blue. Except a few paragraphs up, for a second, and then only light blue.) But I think I'm not wrong about all of this. Please feel welcome to disagree politely, as it cheers a blogger up to see comments.

*awful but not reprehensible. This is an important distinction. Also, please admit there is a loveable screwball comedy in the part where...well this one friend of mine told me about a recital in High School where she couldn't remember the words to one of the "24 Rather Moldy Italian Art Songs" and had to start making up Italian words. I always wondered what that would look like, and now, to my delight, I know.

P.S. (!) while one is momentarily asserting one's presence in the blogosphere, one really ought to take a moment to congratulate La Cieca on being quite the It Girl, everywhere but the goddamn cover of Time lately!


La Cowntessa said...

The point of publicizing opera isn't so much that seeing Sheryl Crow sing with Pavarotti is going to bring in tons of people, it's about putting the CONCEPT of opera into peoples' minds.

(And, for what it's worth, don't diss the Pavarotti effect -- when he came to my home city on a stadium tour, there was 25,000 people there to see him, and subscriptions at the local opera company DID go up that year.)

Anyway, the point is -- there are people who go to the theatre, and people who don't. Sometimes, people who don't are lured into and become people who DO go, but live theatre is sort of a mindset. No sort of marketing for anything other than, say, Mama Mia! is going to bring people to the theatre that aren't already theatre attendees.

The goal, therefore, is to make people aware of opera so that if they are live theatre attendees, when they see advertising for a show that looks intriguing, seeing an opera becomes an *option*.

That was no more in evidence on the last night of the Orfeo at the Met. The audience was about 75% "new attendees." Families, hipsters, teenagers, even a couple of guys in baggy-tastic jeans. That's a new audience, and they didn't just magically appear there. The audience was there because it had been made a viable, interesting option to people already inclined to attend theatre.

The name of the game is familiarity. The more familiar something is, the more likely someone is to attend. The more foreign it is, the less likely you are to get someone new.

Opera in the gossip pages, opera on TV, opera stars on TV, Jay-Z showing up on the red carpet? That is the sort of stuff that makes opera feel familiar.

La Cowntessa said...

(And let me also add, that was 25,000 people there for Pavarotti in a city where the Grand Ol' Opry is more of a likely choice for its citizens than Opera...)

La Cowntessa said...

And because I can't shut up on this topic, the classical music community, starting in the late 70's on through, has really been intent on shooting themselves in the foot almost constantly.

Not just opera, but all forms of it, allowed the advance of technology and culture to leave it behind. Instead of finding a way to incorporate the new technologies and ideas into the field, classical music has allowed itself to become culturally irrelevant, thanks to the combined efforts of snottily looking down on "pop" music, dragging 10+ years behind in technology, refusing to use new tools offered to them in marketing, et al.

If the classical music business had made any sort of effort at all to stay in the public consciousness during the 70's, 80's and 90's, we would not be nearly in the shape we are now.

And I know, I know, no one actually *wants* the unwashed masses to, you know, spoil the little bubble by showing up and, horror of horrors, maybe applauding at the wrong time. But the price of snotty elitism in any art form is eventual death.

So it goes.

David said...

A Decca lady assured me that sales of the complete Sutherland/Caballe/Pavarotti Turandot soared after Big L sang 'Nessun dorma' in the stadiums. And what better way in than Puccini-in-the-round?

I've met folk on the tube (subway) after the Met-instigated cinema screenings of opera who'd been convinced simply by the medium to come along and were hooked.

And so on.

armerjacquino said...

I kind of agree and disagree. (I'm either very zen or I'm indecisive, I can't decide). On the one hand, I think you're right in saying that the Rufus fans (and their boyfriends) who go to see Prima Donna aren't exactly going to be queueing round the block next time there's a production of Parsifal in town. On the other, I do think that familiarity can sometimes breed curiosity. When 'Nessun Dorma' was suddenly everywhere over here in 1990 (it was the theme music to the World Cup which also brought us the three tenors gig in Rome) most people bought the single. But some people bought 'the best of Puccini' and some adventurous types, as David suggests, even bought Turandot. I've said it before, but there are pop songs I don't like which I know word for word, just because they've been played at me so much- and some of them, especially those from my adolescence, I have now decided I do like, for no reason other than their madeleine- ness. It's the alien-ness of opera that turns people off, I think- unnatural singing, foreign words, 200 year old music (and, of course, high prices and stuffy audiences, as often as not).

A lot of the people watching Renee in Trafalgar Square recently weren't in any sense what I would call opera fans- hadn't heard of Calleja or Hampson or even RF herself, didn't know Traviata as a work, etc etc... but they were THERE, and that has to count for something. I'm not sure what, but something.

armerjacquino said...

Oh, and I forgot to say that Anonymous Soprano's third comment had me standing on my chair and applauding (figuratively speaking, I mean. I'm not insane).

David said...

You'd be in a Parterre minority of one or two, then, AJ (sorry, I don't do arf arf smileys).

Unknown said...

Wow, a chorus of optimists! Let me chime in.

First: great post.

Second: opera's really not going anywhere. The reason opera keeps turning up in all these embarrassing pop-culture bastardizations is that it achieves something that can't be achieved by any other art form.

Third, I have to confess, in front of all you good people, that when I was an impressionable youth, I watched The Three Tuxedos on Pledge Week and was dazzled by Nessun dorma—I'd never heard it before!—and granted, I was a classical music lover already, in a house full of classical music, but that tawdry, puffed up performance made me go and listen to my brother's CD of Turandot, and tah-dah, I became aware, really aware, of Puccini.

Some crossovers will lure listeners to opera, some won't. At the shop where I work, I've sold the hilites from Figaro to a non-opera-person based on that scene in Shawshank Redemption—somebody could go home with that and say and say, oh hey this overture is fun too, and Dov'e sono is really pretty! (If you're tallying my demerits, I also bought The Very Best of Maria Callas after seeing Philadelphia, which is wrong in so many ways.)

But I also had somebody come in the other day and say, "You got anything like The Fifth Element? Opera, yknow, but with BEATS?"


The guy who <3's Paul Potts—maybe he won't have the patience to listen to a whole opera on CD, at least at first, but it's a very short step from digging Nessun dorma to downloading Pavarotti's Greatest Hits and being wowed by what a real singer can accomplish. Potts's appeal is all about narrative, yes, but don't forget that the enormous beauty of Puccini's melodies is an essential part of that narrative: an ordinary guy like you and me is secretly in touch with something sublimely gorgeous. It doesn't work if he gets up and sings "Funkytown." Which will, nevertheless, be stuck in my head all day now.

Fourth: I don't know if this Rufus thing is going to be good for opera. I honestly think RW's love of opera may inspire young queens by example. But he might serve the art better by (a) continuing to supply valuable lip-service to his favorite Gluck or what-have-you or (b) entering the medium in a less hilariously boneheaded fashion. I wish him the best in this endeavor, and he may yet surprise us all, but I suspect he should have listened to the people who said, "In French? Really? With an orchestra bigger than Wagner's?? Really??" Certainly, a great pop composer can write a great opera if he works very, very hard (Porgy), and there is a place for tune-driven opera on the modern stage. Who knows.

I'm rambling. Does any of this make sense.

David said...

No, you make perfect sense. And nothing wrong with getting an excerpted Callas fix from seeing and hearing her 'La mamma morta' in Philadelphia. I'd forgotten that: the all-time great turn-on to hyper emotional opera in film, whether it embarrasses you or not.

La Cowntessa said...

I don't understand why liking any music should be embarrassing. Sure, it may be something that's not to my personal taste or that I find a little cheesy, but what I listen to, someone else might find cheesy, too!

I wish people didn't have to apologize for getting pleasure from an art form, regardless of what style it is.

Pelleas said...

While it's nice that sales of Puccini got a bump from the 3Ts performance, I think it's a bit misleading to translate that into an increase in the audience for opera. Putting on a nice aria to listen to largely as background music isn't quite the same thing as HEARING opera, unless I'm being asked to believe that everyone who bought that Turandot followed the entire performance with the libretto and found out what was going on.

As for inspiring young queens, well...actual young queens aren't quite his audience anymore (but as someone who falls more into his age demographic, I appreciate the effort at preserving my vanity). I just don't understand what it's supposed to inspire, to be honest. He's been on about his love of opera for some time, way back to the days when he was mostly known for public misbehavior in the EV. And I don't know that I ever heard anyone, even friends of mine who went to that Judy show at Carnegie, and who qualify as steady fans, say that they were inspired to give a listen to opera because of it.

I understand that we're constantly shown images of people blindly following trends started by their celebrity idols, but I think Maury's idea applies: they're not doing things completely out of keeping with their own likes, dislikes, and desires. The only opera fan "made" by RW is the opera fan who'd probably have come around in a year or so anyway.

Maury D'annato said...

Argh my first entry to get any responses in fortnights and I am iPhone only for a few days and can't really respond well. But I will.

David said...

What I meant, AS, was that some people I know find that scene deeply embarrassing AND don't particularly like the aria. Such extreme emotion can either be responded to open-heartedly or frightens people back in their shells.

In fact, it's the only bit of Andrea Chenier I listen to, though the final duet can be stonking.

Unknown said...

I was quite put off by opera until my dentist made me listen to the Licht cycle while he performed 7 successive root canal procedures on me. Now I can't get enough.

Actually, that's not how it happened at all, but the point is that while the genre may be discrete (I had to read that one twice to get it), people are more, er, Gaussian. And those curious souls on the fringes are the ones likely to discover they like opera by random encounters through other cross-over media, be it Rufus, 3 Tenors, etc. I, too, imagine that only a fraction of those who bought the Turandot set closely listened. But hey, that's a start. Maybe a fraction thereof went to discover other works by Puccini. And a fraction thereof to discover works by Wagner. Etc. It's like spam: you have to send one billion emails, but eventually there's one sucker that wires some money to Nigeria.

(Ah, and maybe off-topic, but since you brought it up: what bothers us, language preservationists, about language death is not that it happens, for indeed it is quite natural. But, at least for me, when it happens in 2 ways that have no analogue to the opera case: (1) it's sad if this natural death happens before the language has had a chance to be documented in some form, to get a snapshot of this form of human knowledge, and (2) it's sad when this death isn't gradual, in a way that allows it to diachronically evolve, but happens abruptly; kinda like when they fell those trees in the Amazon and 25 bug species go extinct overnight (except those are bugs, so I care less).)

Phil Fried said...

It is true that Josh Grobin help raise money from Congress for the NEA. For some he is an opera singer, but not for everyone. The problem with the Wainwright and others like him is that he represents a triumph of personality over product, all sizzle no steak (sorry for this analogy my vegetarian friends). Anyway he is not the first or the last of the glamorous being commissioned to compose opera. The bigger question is why are trained composers being ignored? The thing that may be bothering you is this; Mr. Wainwright seems so very calculated.

How can a song writer who writes songs in English compose an opera in French when his stated purpose is to popularize? Perhaps he thinks only the French speaking world will buy in? Anyway this is a miscalculation as removing the text from understanding puts all the pressure on the music and I'm afraid you need a composer for that.

Phil Fried said...

more detailed comments here


Maury D'annato said...

Too much to respond to, oy. I guess one thing that's on my mind is that I remember subjectively the difference between liking an aria and liking an opera, early in my own days of liking this stuff. I found certain things I would later love (Boheme, Rosenkavalier) tedious and hard to get the shape of, and only warmed up to them through a sort of determination to do so.

So in fact I think it might be more helpful, if making new fans is indeed the goal, that Rufus W. likes opera and says so, and it is the nature of fanboiishness to emulate one's idols through any amount of tedium, than that he wrote an opera that his fans will be interested in, in a way that is less likely to be generalized.

Let me see what else I meant to say, if anyone's still around.

Pelleas said...

"it is the nature of fanboiishness to emulate one's idols through any amount of tedium"

Really? I mean, fanbois of a certain age, okay, but I don't know that we're talking about them here; rather adults who are probably a little past the point of emulating idols. Frankly, I don't think RW's got enough chic at this point in his career to make this more than a transient novelty. Evidence: the love of the Times. So edgeless.

armerjacquino said...

There are a few comments on the online version of the London Times review along the lines of 'I don't know anything about opera but I went to this because I love Rufus'. Now, this may have been an overzealous PR, or it may have been a real fan.

What I don't quite understand- and I know this is slightly off topic- is the vitriol in some quarters, which translates to 'How DARE he'? There's a sense that it is in some way disgraceful or insulting for someone like RW even to attempt an opera. There are so many valid artistic arguments against such a point of view that my brain is exploding even attempting to list them.

Alex said...

Nicely put. On some level, anxiety about the need to bait people into liking opera seems borne of a very simple misunderstanding. The population of the world in 2009 is vastly greater than the population in the 19th century, which means there are a lot more people walking around the earth that don't care for opera.

One way to look at this is to freak out, point to this sea of alleged philistines and try desperately to find some way to get them in the boat. Another way is to realize that a larger number of people, if a smaller proportion of the whole, enjoy opera today than ever have in its history. And the world over they are paying for and enjoying opera in cities large and small. As they get richer along with the rest of the world, they are choosing to pay for even more of it.

So some opera companies have trouble, and especially lately given the economic climate. A) It is to be expected (welcome to being a nonprofit in the 21st century) and B) it changes nothing about the audience's fundamental preferences.

As Maury says, liking opera might make you a more interesting person in some regard, but it hardly makes you a better person. It's not a smallpox vaccine. So we can afford to let people go who aren't interested. The little corner of the globe dedicated to creating and receiving opera will get its fix somehow, rest assured.

David said...

That's all true, Alex; I just wish that those who wouldn't touch opera with a bargepole didn't hate us so much: there's a lot of hostility out there, and folk from the world of popular culture like RW could help to diminish it a bit.

When faced with the 'snobbery' aspect, I've always said that opera and football both have their lunatic fringes: the hooligans of football who spoil it for everyone else, and the corporates/wealthy individuals who bray their way around the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne. Again, not that I'm implying that there aren't many wealthy individuals who are also extremely cultured - I met some at Grange Park, and while we wouldn't agree on politics or the state of the world, they're delightful people.

Henry Holland said...

What I don't quite understand is the vitriol in some quarters, which translates to 'How DARE he'?

I think Phil Fried hinted at a good reason: here's a man who only got the commission because of who he is, not because he has a track record of writing operas (yes, he has to start somewhere, of course) or because he's demonstrated that he can compose music that's more harmonically advanced than a pop song and is structurally more complex than verse-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-verse-chorus-outro.

It's Parterre, so large grains of salt are involved in anything written there, but it's claimed that the reason the Met turned down the commission wasn't because it was in French but because they saw the sketches and bailed.

I can imagine there's some bitterness from composers who were practicing piano 4 hours a day while their friends were outside playing and who started taking composition lessons at 12 and went through the hyper-competitive Julliard/Royal College of Music/Curtis thing seeing a pop musician with no classical training getting splashy commissions from the Met.

I don't blame them.

Anonymous said...

The Dessay/Zimmerman La Sonnambula is on Channel 13 tonight.

I recall Maury D being a fan of the staging. While I hated it several months ago, I find myself, while watching it on TV, finding it even more horrible.

Then I discovered that there is a joy of a well-sung, badly-staged opera on TV. You can turn the TV off and still hear the music! It's like heaven! And turning the TV off is so much easier than going to the theater and closing one's eyes.

(A new trick for those who have grown to find the MET stagings intolerable: get a front-row box seat and watch the orchestra. You never even have to look at the singers. Plus, if you stare out into the abyss over the Parterre seats, your ears focus on this sound that emerges in the geographic middle of the house which is an amaglamation of voices/instruments in the most perfect balance that seems like it is from heaven!)

Maury D'annato said...

This continues to make me laugh. I had mixed feelings about the staging, but got classified as a fan because I wasn't calling for the death of Mary Zimmerman.