I am curious about people's first recordings of opera (I mean the first two or three, not the first thirty). What were they? At what age did you first listen to them? Were they a gift, bought, borrowed, or stolen (OK, you don't have to answer the last one)? What impact did they have on you? How have they held up over the years, as you have heard and learned more?That provoked a (predictable) deluge of responses. Here' ours:
My proper introduction to opera, per se, occurred quite late (viz., when I was in my early 30s) and quite by accident (a double entendre as will presently be made clear). I grew up within a musical milieu peopled by serious-minded musicians, instrumentalists all, who regarded, as did I, the whole domain of opera to be nothing other than fodder fit only for the delectation of musical groundlings and the proper butt of uncharitable jokes. In my younger years I'd occasionally tune into the Texaco Saturday Met opera radio broadcasts (which almost invariably turned out to be something from the Italian or French rep) and despite Milton Cross's enticing intros never managed to last beyond the first half-hour or so of the first act so trashy if superficially pretty and appealing did it all sound to me. Fast-forward to 1970. I've been laid up for the better part of a year courtesy of a near-death-dealing motorcycle accident. Bad business that, but it's not all terrible. I've plenty of time on my hands, and I'm taking full advantage of it by reading like mad and listening to dozens of LPs I'd bought one fevered afternoon of record buying at a Sam Goody 50%-off sale some few years previous but still haven't gotten around to auditioning. (Not as ridiculous as it sounds. I bought over 250 LPs that out-of-control afternoon.) One of the albums I'd plucked from Goody's shelves was the then-new Solti-Decca release of the first _Ring_ opera, _Das Rheingold_ (which I later learned is called a "music-drama"; not at all the same thing as an opera), an opera of which I never before heard so much as a measure and a recording I bought not because I had any intention of listening to the opera itself (what an idea!) but because that then-new recording had quickly gained a reputation among audio freaks, of which I was one, as being a kick-ass test of one's speaker system. So one afternoon of my enforced confinement I pull the still un-played _Rheingold_ album from its place of storage, think to myself, "Forgot about this. Time I gave it a whirl to see just how great these speakers of mine really are," remove its still-intact shrink-wrap, and start the first LP going on the turntable. With hobbling gait I almost make it back to my comfy armchair when the soles of my feet more than my ears become aware of that solitary, 16', four-measure opening E-flat pedal, and my first thought is that something's gone badly awry with my stereo system. I mean, no opera can possibly begin like that. After assuring myself that my stereo system is operating just fine, I start the LP going again, this time no longer intending to test my speakers but intending instead to find out just what sort of opera it is that can begin in such an un-opera-like manner. One-hundred-and-thirty-six measures later (i.e., the full length of the _Rheingold_ prelude) such is my astonishment that I'm struck virtually dumb. I simply can't believe what I've just heard. No composer — not the divine Wolfgang, not even great Bach himself — should be able to do that much with such a paucity of harmonic and melodic material stretched over 136 measures; essentially not much more than a single arpeggiated major triad repeated over and over. Hobbling back to the turntable as quickly as I'm able, I start the LP going again at the beginning, and again listen, more carefully this time. I end up replaying those opening 136 measures some dozen times before I let the first of the three Rheintöchter finish the opening phrase of her song. And when she does, further astonishment. She and her two sisters are bantering among themselves in dramatic real time, their banter sounding as natural as the dialogue of a spoken stage play, but they're all...singing! And the singing is lovely. Not bel canto lovely, but a different kind of sung lovely I've no name for because I've never heard anything like it before. Then a nasty-sounding baritone comes on the scene and interrupts their playful banter with some rather less playful banter of his own, also sung, and his singing, like the singing of the Rheintöchter, is in dramatic real time and as natural as spoken dialogue in a stage play and, in its own jarring way, electrifying. Inseparably intertwined with all this rather than merely accompanying it as it would in any respectable opera is a huge orchestra making rich continuous comment on all the goings-on in the manner of the chorus in a classical Greek drama, enriching and deepening immeasurably both drama and meaning, the gestalt effect positively riveting. At this point it becomes abundantly clear to me that, in terms of opera, I'm not on solid ground anymore but hopelessly adrift in waters wonderful strange and considerably over my head. This is a new and gripping musico-dramatic experience; one which bears but the most superficial resemblance to opera as I understand it. No recitative, no arias, no duets, trios, quartets, or choruses. Nothing from and among the singers but a single continuous stream of back-and-forth natural-as-speech sung dialogue, the whole interwovenly fleshed out and deepened by the huge orchestra acting as the work's principal "voice". As I've said, astonishing. And as I continue listening almost each succeeding new measure brings with it something new to astonish and by _Rheingold_'s end I'm utterly floored by the evocative and eloquent magic of it all. That initial encounter with Wagner and his _Ring_ tetralogy set the stage, so to speak, for my subsequent Wagner attachment, and the deeper I immersed myself in the _Rheingold_, and over the ensuing weeks, months, and years in the entire _Ring_ tetralogy and then deeper still in _Tristan_ and _Parsifal_, that which initially captivated the Wagner-naïve musical snob continued, as it continues still, to captivate the seasoned and informed devotee I became. While in strictly musical terms Bach and Mozart are still my ne plus ultra composers, transcendent geniuses both, in musico-dramatic terms I now know there has never been, nor is there ever again likely to be, a genius as all-encompassing prodigious and transcendent as Richard Wagner.
The new [Met] Ring, I loved it, in the Met and in HD. The sets were fantastic, and elastic. The singing was very good as well. So why exactly are so many against it?To which we replied:
Because it ended up being a Robert Lepage spectacular (actually, a spectacular that failed as a spectacular; but that's quite beside the point) with Wagner's music serving as sound track and Wagner's drama given only lip service. Mr. Lepage's focus seemed to be on what he could get Le Machine to do that would result in some visually arresting effect for its own sake at any particular moment rather than on how the capabilities of the contraption could best be exploited to support, express, or frame the drama moment by moment from work's beginning to end. It's a tail-wagging-the-dog approach that's all but guaranteed to result in shallow (at least attempted) coups de théâtre pretty much every time, precisely as it did in this production.After a repeat viewing of the Met's HD film of the tetralogy (via our HD DVR recordings of the HD PBS telecasts), we saw nothing to alter that opinion. For our comments on each of the music-dramas as telecast, you might want to consult the following S&F entries: Das Rheingold
While I take your point (and it's a reasonable one), saying we ought to accept the lesser of two evils with some measure of gratitude is hardly an answer to the problem. The Lepage staging of the Ring is in every way unacceptable, especially for a company with the prestige and stature of the Met. And what makes it unacceptable is NOT fixable except by doing away with it altogether as it's flawed conceptually. The Lepage staging centrally features Le Machine as the looming, hulking, impotently conspicuous star of the show as it could not otherwise be, and that's utterly and fundamentally perverse. And when I say the staging must be done away with altogether, I mean doing away with both Lepage and his humongous, dead-weight, ill-conceived, Frankenstein contraption to which contraption he's devoted entirely. The ONLY way such a contraption could justify itself is if it were capable of becoming THE ENTIRE STAGE ITSELF, perfectly plastic and malleable, and by so doing become invisible or transparent as a contraption. That's nowhere in the cards with Le Machine, either technically or practically; ergo, it has to go, along with its creator who cares infinitely more for it than for Wagner's great work which work both he and it were supposed to serve.And so it goes.
Riccardo Muti, whose aesthetic preferences are sometimes surprising, chose to inaugurate [the orchestra's] vaunted Manhattan visit with the meretricious claptrap of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. So much for intellectual and/or emotional challenge.On reading this we simultaneously smiled and winced (a neat trick, that), for while we could not help but agree with Mr. Bernheimer's bitingly laconic assessment of the work, we nevertheless harbor "an ongoing, undiminished, and fairly mindless fascination with it," as we've previously remarked here on S&F. As we went on to say:
Its unrelenting ostinati; its primitive, propulsive rhythmic drive; its unsubtle tonic-dominant harmony sans any trace of chromatic coloring — in short, its very "dumbness" — is what seems to attract. It's a sort of invigorating mind-rester: primally engaging, and no thought required. And it's weird. Very weird. The text, I mean, its weirdness sharpened by being written and of course sung mostly in Latin.But as Mr. Bernheimer neatly put it concerning other music on the CSO's program for the following night's concert, "one didn’t have to love the music on this occasion to admire the music-making," so it is with a particularly brilliant reading of Carmina recorded and released on vinyl LP in 1958 by Capitol Records featuring (of all groups!) the Houston Choral, Houston Youth Symphony Boys' Choir, and Houston Symphony Orchestra with the great and inimitable Leopold Stokowski on the podium which recording was subsequently remastered and transferred to CD by EMI. (It's paired on this recording with a reading of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite about which reading the less said the better.) As we wrote about this recorded performance of Carmina:
Lord knows I'm no Stoki fan generally which in my day was enough to get one run out of Philadelphia on a rail were one reckless enough to admit to it in public. But of all the recorded readings of this work of my experience Stoki is the only one to get everything right sans any minuses. He draws from the at that time less than world-class Houston forces performances that the best of the era would have been proud to have produced, and draws from the soloists — Virginia Babikian, Clyde Hager, and Guy Gardner — performances to match. A truly sterling reading. [Our full and more detailed commentary on Carmina and this recorded performance can be read here.]This EMI remastering is a tough-to-impossible CD to find new, but one well worth the search.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these [professional] critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. [...] And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at. Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.RTWT here.
I can distinguish music that is well-made and music that isn't. Yet, what distinguishes well-made music and a masterpiece, that I cannot tell. I won't say that [an objective criterion to distinguish the two] doesn't exist, but I don't know what it is. It all comes down to faith. As I accept God, I accept beauty, I accept emotion. I also accept masterpieces. There are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved, but what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down.Just so. (The above quote was transcribed from a lovely film on Mademoiselle Boulanger by Bruno Monsaingeon which can be viewed here.)
My wonderful former teacher, Geoffrey Hartman, said that most reading was vague and lazy, like girl watching. Feminists gave him the bastinado for that, but he was right. Something similar is true about listening to music. Usually it's about getting your emotions packaged for you, quieting the static inside, fabricating an exciting identity ... to counteract one's commitment to a life of secure banality. Most music listening, like most reading, is passive. It's about girl watching rather than woman wooing, which is a tougher game. Schopenhauer says that most reading is letting other people think your thoughts for you. I'd add that most music listening is about letting other people feel your feelings for you.While I take Dr. Edmundson's point, I think he's rather missed the mark. Music listening can go far deeper than that. A personal experience: I've been on serious dope for a period of time but once in my life: during a one-year recovery from a particularly nasty and should-have-been-fatal motorcycle accident in the early '70s. That experience with dope was an eye-opening and consciousness-raising one which to this day remains unforgettable. The dope was administered intravenously by medical personnel for the first month or so and self-administered orally thereafter for a period of another few months. That first warm rush and the immediately ensuing feeling of transcendent wellbeing after each dose simply has no equal in ordinary life — at least not in my ordinary life. Needless to say, I became hooked on that feeling and slipped into the habit of checking my watch repeatedly to see whether it was permissible to administer another dose without exceeding the safe limit. One day I caught myself actually doing that and it scared me straight. On the spot and cold turkey I ceased taking the stuff and depended thereafter on aspirin alone for whatever pain relief it could offer. While it's not quite the same thing, I today, in the closing years of my life (I've passed the biblically allotted three-score-and-ten and so figure I'm now living on borrowed time), experience much that same feeling of transcendent wellbeing and when the music's over the need for "another dose" every time I listen to a Glenn Gould performance of a Bach keyboard work; the Partitas, the Goldberg, and Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier most especially. Once the CD gets going in the player with the repeat set to ALL, it requires a substantial effort of will on my part to stop it going so that I can get on with other things no matter how long it's been going which at times could be an entire day without break. I've of course attempted many times to analyze and explain this phenomenon to myself, a phenomenon I experience with no other music and performer, and of course always come up with an answer. But in the end, that answer, no matter how well-thought-out and detailed, always turns out to be woefully inadequate and no explanation at all. I know the phenomenon has something to do with Gould's unique and uncanny ability to delineate each voice in the music's dense polyphonic texture with perfect clarity as if he had a separate hand devoted to each yet maintain at all times a perfect horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) contrapuntal coherence in the gestalt and in so doing seems to be inhabiting and giving voice to the very mind of Bach himself which, in turn, seems, in this one respect, the very mind of God. No other so-called "absolute" music and no other keyboardist of my experience comes even close to being able to accomplish that in my case. But, by itself, that's no real explanation either. Am I merely "getting [my] emotions packaged for [me], quieting the static inside [me], fabricating an exciting identity [for myself] ... to counteract [my] commitment to a life of secure banality" by "letting other people feel [my] feelings for [me]" as Dr. Edmundson suggests? I seriously doubt it. But, then, there's always the possibility, no matter how disquieting, that I might be doing just that. If so, I'm content to let it be so — that is, as long as I can always get another dose.