Here's another brilliant bit of opera commentary from the pen of the almost always on-target Heather Mac Donald. This about the jaded, perverted way of seeing Dvorák’s fairytale opera through the eyes of today's Brechtian-poisoned, postmodern "smart set" generally, and about the equally jaded and perverted critical response by two of New York's most Eurotrash-besotted mainstream media opera critics, James Jorden and Zachary Woolfe, to the Met's revival this past winter of the 1993 fairytale-magical and fairytale-lovely quasi-naturalistic production of the same work by director Otto Schenk and designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen.
We make no further comment preferring to let Ms. Mac Donald's piece speak for itself entirely as it says all that's pertinent.
In a piece titled "Classical Music 101a: Why There's Nothing to Worry About" written for the HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors The Blog, John Mauceri, former Chancellor of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Founding Director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, had this to say in part:
[The language of the music of ancient Greece] is a uniquely simple language but one that can find endless possibilities of development. It easily accepts external influences - a new color, a new combination of intervals, a rhythmic pattern - and it has the capacity of continually renewing itself. Those composers who bought into the theory that this ever-evolving system was dead at the beginning of the 20th century were enthusiastic and passionate adolescents, almost all of whom later recanted and got back to writing music, having passed through their tantrum phase. Hindemith, Weill, Copland, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Bartok, Shostakovich - they all ended up in a very different place from their bang-on-a-can, yell-in-your-face entrance onto the international stage.
We don't teach that version of history [today], mind you. We are meant to believe that classical music just got more and more complex and experimental — and continues to. But the only way to accept that idea is to eliminate the data, since this explanation of the 20th century describes a fraction of the music actually composed and listened to. If you were a physicist, and proposed a theory of the Universe that simply ignored 99% of perceivable information, you would be laughed out of the Academy.
In a brilliant essay titled "Against Aesthetics", the poet, literary critic, and essayist William Logan (whose writings and even whose name were previously unknown to us) writes what ought to be a fundamental instruction manual for critics of all the arts. He writes primarily as a critic of poetry but, mutatis mutandis, everything he says is equally valid for critics of classical music and opera as well. Writes Mr. Logan:
A stranger asks me to write an Aesthetic Statement. He demands my notion of the ideal poem, so he’ll know the secret of my love of some poems and my distaste for others. I feel his pain. Perhaps he wants to prosecute me should I praise a poet who deviates from my Platonic ideal. An aesthetic statement is of little use to a critic unless he’s a lover of manifestos, a maker of quarrels, or a host who treats his guests like Procrustes. Aesthetics is a rational profession for the philosopher, but for the working critic it’s a mug’s game. To write about your aesthetics is no better than revealing your secrets if you’re a magician, or returning a mark’s stolen wallet if you’re a pickpocket.
This is must-read stuff — for MSM professionals as well as for us mere blogger amateurs.
Amust-read article for the magazine New Republic by Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott on America's orchestras in crisis and how they got to be that way. Eye-opening commentary and for us a wakeup call that we really need to get out more. We had no clue, for instance, that the imbecile ideas at the root of and perpetuating the problem had actually been put into practice.
Gripped by and in the throes of the spirit of "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore", Early Music critic Brian Robins aims an unrestrained but still eloquent Jeremiad at Eurotrash (Konzept) Regietheater (although, as a European, he understandably does not use the term Eurotrash) on his website Early Music World.
How have we allowed this to come about? How has one of mankind’s most glorious achievements [viz., opera] fallen into the hands of this freakish band of directors that seeks only to demean the form in its own narcissistic, solipsistic image? How have we come to be beholden to such as one of the most outré of this ill-begotten breed who can trenchantly assert that he is ‘faithful to Mozart’, a claim that carries as much validity as would Richard Dawkins declaring he is faithful to God? It is my firm conviction that no part of the operatic world, from administrators, to conductors, to singers, critics and audiences can escape censure.*
The essay is well worth one's time reading in full.
(Our thanks to Opera-L member Peter Bollard for the above Early Music World link.)* To which compare our,
And what sort of respect should be shown singers and musicians — the sine qua non (literally) of an opera performance — who were too cowardly to adamantly refuse to take part in such butcheries? That's right. None at all. They deserve to share the full weight of our censure along with the butchers initially and ultimately responsible for the butchery.
Since the 2004 inception of Sounds & Fury we've argued vigorously against the perniciously perverse notion — a notion preached unrelentingly by its High Priest Greg Sandow — that in order to gain new audiences for classical music, classical music concerts must alter both their content and their presentation to be more in line and more consonant with our present-day culture our argument against expressed most fully in one of S&F's 2004 inaugural entries titled "An Audience For Classical Music" and a follow-up 2008 S&F entry titled "New Audience For Classical Music Redux".
In terms of influence, there was (and remains) a problem with our two entries: they were written by a mere blogger; moreover, a mere blogger with no professional credentials and one who, by choice, has been off The Street, so to speak, for the past several decades and so is open to the charge of being woefully out of touch with present-day culture.
Not so Bill Eddins, Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, who took it upon himself to rebut a recent blog entry by the above named High Priest, Maestro Eddins's rebuttal amusingly titled "I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ‘Bout Listenin’ To Mozart, Ms. Scarlett!" which rebuttal echoes, in part, the sense of what we had to say in our two above linked S&F entries.
We think Maestro Eddins's article well worth your time reading.
John Simon, the often reviled but brilliant literary, theater, music, and film critic whose acerbic, barb-tongued, (too-)often just plain nasty commentary has appeared in such wide-ranging publications as The Hudson Review, The New Leader, The New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, The Weekly Standard, and Bloomberg News and who now writes his own blog Uncensored John Simon has up on that blog a new article titled "Whither Art?" the "art" of the title referring to the fine arts generally but painting in particular.
As we read the article it struck us that were one to substitute classical music along with mutatis mutandis adjustments everywhere painting is referred to, pretty much everything Mr. Simon has to say would read just as on-point. (In fact Mr. Simon himself suggests just that in one brief sentence in one brief paragraph: "The problem for most arts is that so very much has already been done in them, propelling more recent practitioners into horrible distortions, obscure byways, or downright dead ends. This is true also in music, otherwise we would have been spared Stockhausen, Cage, Glass and their likes." See also our August 2004 S&F entry titled "Whither Genuine Art?".)
Writes Mr. Simon:
As I have often said and sometimes written, the history of art extends from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered to where only the name in the signature does.
What reminds me of this is a reproduction in The New York Times (10/16/12) of an untitled painting by Franz Kline, which, at the forthcoming auction, “is expected to bring $20 million to $30 million” and make me sick to my stomach. I recall a time, long ago, when Kline yelled at me at a party, “You are full of shit!”, and I replied, “Maybe, but at least I don’t smear it on canvas and peddle it as art.”
Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don’t know what to do with their money, and all the people who don’t know anything about art. And why shouldn’t it fetch that much when the article about the Kline painting notes that one by Clyfford Still, resonantly entitled “1949-A-No. 1” went for $61.7 million? Even Clyfford with a Y should raise a cautionary eyebrow.
The excellent Wagner-dedicated website The Wagnerian has up a chapter excerpt from author David Littlejohn's 1992 book The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera titled "Whatever Became of the Breastplates?" that comments in brief on stagings of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen from Wagner's own staging at Bayreuth in 1876 down to the present day (or rather, the present day as of 1992). For Ring newcomers especially (but by no means exclusively) the chapter makes for most interesting reading and closes with the following thought, even more salient today than when it was written:
Chaos, as Wagner himself sometimes suggested, is likely to be the rule, rather than the exception, in our world (and in productions of Der Ring des Nibelungen that try to reflect or comment on that world) until another cruel divine order emerges to force things back into unity. Rings devoted to the evils and collapse of Eastern European communism are surely on the drafting boards already, now that Rings devoted to the evils and collapse of capitalism and fascism are becoming routine. Be grateful if you have the opportunity to see a contemporary Ring that is as compelling to look at as it is to listen to; thoughtfully (not narrowly or spitefully) of our time; on the whole generous to Wagner, rather than mean-minded and reductive; one that makes provocative sense, and still seems to grow out of the music, which is (fortunately) larger than all of these postmodern Konzepts put together.
Although it hardly meets the burden of its title, Alex Ross's newly posted article for The New Yorker's Culture Desk section, "The Case For Wagner In Israel", is a brief but incisive commentary that ought to be read by all whose understanding of Wagner is mired in the pop image of this complex artist as a composer of music characterized by "grandiosity, bombast, anything that makes a loud noise and goes on for a very long time," as Mr. Ross put it, and that he was Hitler’s favorite composer.
The artist who fired the imaginations of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Mann, Cather, Kandinsky, Isadora Duncan, and Eisenstein, among hundreds of others, cannot be summed up in a few adjectives.
Wagner must take some of the blame for the reductionist image that prevails in the public mind. It was his spiteful anti-Semitism that has caused so many people to draw a straight line from the “Ring of the Nibelung” to Hitler.
Next month marks the centennial of the birth of one of the world's all-time great conductors: Georg Solti. To mark the occasion the Brit daily The Guardian ran a fine (if a bit overstated in places) 5000-word tribute by writer Ed Vulliamy titled "Georg Solti: The Making Of A Musical Colossus" (can you imagine our National Newspaper Of Record — or any major American daily, for that matter — devoting that many column-inches to such a subject in their regular pages?).
Next month marks the centenary of the birth of the conductor, musician, visionary, jester, husband and father who bore witness to, and embodies, his time, the core of the 20th century, and whose genius — a word too liberally used nowadays — not only towered over the music-making of his lifetime but radically changed it in ways that are only now becoming clear.
[H]e made music of magic and quality, entwining power and clarity, that no other interpreter of his time — not even Karajan, Jansons, Ancerl, Böhm or Bernstein, in what is rightly considered music's golden age — could match. In the studio, Solti revolutionised the science and art of recorded music so as to democratise it at the highest — still unsurpassed — level of atmosphere and sound quality. And in concert, Solti is the only name one can speak in the same breath as those that dominated the generation that preceded him — astride both the second world war and the iron curtain — Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad and Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin. Solti was the true heir to their legacy on record, and their way of electrifying live performance through blending restless and rigorous perfectionism with explosive spontaneity.
When thinker and writer Heather Mac Donald feels moved to write a piece on opera classical music-lovers are sure to be richly rewarded by its reading even if, going in, one has no interest at all in whatever particular thing Ms. Mac Donald has chosen to write about (on coming out we assure you one's interest will be more than a little aroused whatever that particular thing may be).
This time, for the quarterly magazine City Journal, Ms. Mac Donald has chosen to write about two opera productions given in New York earlier this year: Telemann's Orpheus presented by New York City Opera, and a new original pasticcio opera titled Enchanted Island put together for the Metropolitan Opera by British playwright Jeremy Sams who also wrote the English libretto for the new work. Wrote Ms. Mac Donald about these two productions:
Few Baroque operas (and all by Handel) have clawed their way from oblivion to the margins of the standard repertoire, a source of chagrin to anyone who loves the period or simply hungers for broader musical experience. The Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera offered radically different solutions to this lacuna earlier this year. NYCO revived an unknown opera by Georg Philipp Telemann in a beautiful and expertly performed production at El Museo del Barrio. The Metropolitan Opera crafted an entirely new work from music by eight Baroque composers, set to a new libretto in English.
The Met’s venture was the riskier proposition, bound to trigger grumbling among Baroque aficionados who resented the missed opportunity to stage an historical work. But while the revival of existing operas such as Telemann’s Orpheus at NYCO contributes more to our musical knowledge in the long run, the Met’s Enchanted Island must also be counted a resounding (and insufficiently appreciated) success.
We've just come across a posting by theater critic, playwright, and author George Hunka on his blog Superfluities Redux titled "The Complete Critic’s Qualifications" wherein he reiterates theater and drama critic Harold Clurman’s 1964 list of the so-called "12 commandments" for theatre and drama critics and comments on same. It struck us that those 12 commandments are equally valid for classical music critics (classical music including opera of course) and so herewith reprint that list below, mutatis mutandis.
Besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of all classical musics:
1. The critic should know the greater part of historical and contemporary classical music as written and performed. Added to this, he must be conversant with general literature: novels, poetry, essays of wide scope.
2. He should know the history of classical music from its origins to the present.
3. He should have a long and broad concert- and opera-going experience — of native and foreign ensembles.
4. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, theater, architecture and the dance.
5. He should have worked in classical music organizations in some capacity (apart from criticism).
6. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
7. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
8. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
9. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
10. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
11. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
12. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff.
Mr. Hunka remarks of the original list that "of contemporary critics, and judging only by what they publish under the guise of criticism, I can count the number of both online and print reviewers who meet [these] qualifications on the fingers of one hand."
Word!, re, the above list.
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 10:49 AM Eastern on 21 Apr to reinstate in the opening graf a critical conditional clause mysteriously gone missing.]
In our long-running and continuing war against Eurotrash Regietheater, we've often remarked, both here and elsewhere, that at the root of the problem when the staging goes bad in those rare cases where the Regie is actually making an honest effort to reimagine the concept of the opera's creator rather than blatantly foisting his or her own pea-brained Konzept on an innocent public while hijacking the opera creator's music and text to his or her own purpose is that the Regie is taking his cues from the opera's text rather than its music, and that such a process is a lethal error on the Regie's part. It was therefore gratifying to read the following from stellar singer-actor and intelligent musician Jonas Kaufmann in a piece today for The New York Times by classical music critic, book author, and opera scholar Peter G. Davis:
Too many directors arrive at the opera house these days knowing little or nothing about music. Most come from the spoken theater, focus only on the text and don’t understand how to give the music its space [we would have said, "give the music its due"]. It may seem obvious to you and me, but a brilliant theater director does not automatically translate into a brilliant opera director. If I am a crack racecar driver, that doesn’t qualify me to be an ace pilot as well.
I sometimes feel that directors devise all these elaborate concepts because they don’t trust the power of the music and are terrified of boring the audience. Opera is a truly magical art, but the magic originates primarily in the music that we singers [we would have added, "and the conductor and orchestra"] work so hard to communicate.
In a piece for The New York Times this past Tuesday, Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini reported on an interview he had with Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, the interview carried out at Mr. Gelb's invitation. In that interview, Mr. Gelb yet once again defended the Robert Lepage staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen:
Peter Gelb has both raised expectations and invited criticism by calling Robert Lepage’s $16 million production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera revolutionary. He used the word again in a recent interview at his office, as he spoke of the “trials and tribulations” of executing Mr. Lepage’s “superhuman,” technically daunting concept in a repertory theater “against amazing odds.”
Despite the technical problems and the stinging barbs the production has received from many critics, Mr. Gelb sees the Lepage Ring as emblematic of his mission to bring the latest theatrical thinking and technology to the Met. “Over all for me, on balance, I think it’s a remarkable experience,” he said. Yet even he is a little worried: “I reserve final assessment until I see how it all works out technically, when presented complete in the space of a week.”
To be fair to Mr. Gelb in the matter of his defenses of the Lepage Ring, he at present finds himself in a seriously difficult position: he has to defend his original decision on this staging against the reality of now having on his hands a clear white elephant — a multi-million-dollar white elephant; by far the most costly production in Met history.
Back at the planning stages of the project, the Lepage staging must have looked like it would be THE perfect solution for the Met: a staging that used spectacular — yes, even "revolutionary" — new technology to present Wagner's Ring the way Wagner himself conceived it. In one fell swoop, Mr. Gelb must have thought, it would satisfy both "progressives" and "traditionalists" and the Met would be the beneficiary in terms of critical accolades and ticket sales. Unhappily, things didn't work out that way. Neither "progressives" nor "traditionalists" were satisfied, and the critical response from all quarters — both print and digital, professional and amateur — was largely anything but enthusiastic.
The problem Mr. Gelb faced in the planning stage was that, because of the nature of the staging, it was difficult, if not entirely impossible, to make anything even approaching a trustworthy assessment of the staging until it was fully a fait accompli, and so, at the time, he had to rely almost exclusively on how the thing looked on paper, so to speak; a hugely risky gamble given the costs involved; a gamble that, as things turned out, Mr. Gelb lost — big time. But, as always in the arts, and particularly in the performing arts, no risks taken is a prescription for stagnation, and so perhaps we all — and that very much includes us — should cut Mr. Gelb just a modicum of slack when it concerns his desperate if impotent defenses of this failed staging. We all can afford to give him that much.
I so do want to believe that Christopher Hitchens did in fact dictate this postmortem piece to Washington Monthly editor Art Levine. It's positively delicious and, in spirit (NPI), pure Hitchens.
At the end, the manner of my “passing,” as the pious so delicately refer to death, was as much a disappointment to the dewy-eyed acolytes of god-worship as it was to me, although for rather different reasons. For more than a year after I publicly announced in June 2010 that I would begin chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, the stupidest of the faithful either gloated on their subliterate Web sites that my illness was a sign of “God’s revenge” for having blasphemed their Lord and Master, or prayed that I would abandon my contempt for their nonsensical beliefs by undergoing a deathbed conversion. The vulgarity of the idea that a vengeful deity would somehow stoop to inflicting a cancer on me still boggles the mind, especially in the face of the ready explanation supplied for my illness by my long, happy, and prodigious career as a smoker of cigarettes and drinker of spirits
Somewhere, Christopher must be smiling — on several counts.
New York magazine's classical music critic Justin Davidson tries his hand(s) out on the podium as a conductor and writes about it in an article for New York titled, What Does a Conductor Do?. In that article Mr. Davidson quotes trenchant advice to conductors from world-renowned Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink; advice that, laconic as it is, should be taken by every conductor as his(her) Prime Directive when standing in front of an orchestra in either rehearsal or performance. It says that conductors should always remember when waving their arms and hands about on the podium that "the musicians are very busy with playing. You should not distract them."
Sage advice indeed.
Here is a marvelous — and considering the venue (a major mainstream newspaper: The Philadelphia Inquirer), astonishing — multimedia feature on Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, among the most demanding and exclusive music conservatories in the world and easily the most demanding and exclusive in the nation. The feature is entitled, "The Curtis Factor", and it can be read and viewed here.
Well worth your time.
Heather Mac Donald (no, that's not a typo; that's how she spells her name) — perhaps the best writer on opera on the planet and an inveterate enemy of Regietheater as it's mostly practiced today in opera houses worldwide (see her previously S&F-linked 2007 article, "The Abduction of Opera") — has nailed the critical idiocy surrounding the Met's new production of Don Giovanni and given what is easily the most detailed and trenchant review of that production extant.
The Metropolitan Opera has just opened a searingly erotic Don Giovanni, yet the New York Times has dismissed the new production for its “timidity.” Other members of the New York press corps are even more contemptuous. The New York Observer sneers that the “new Don Giovanni is worse than bad: it’s nothing.” And the New York Post calls the staging “dreck.” What has inspired such critical contumely? The riveting production is a faithful rendering of the opera’s music and libretto.
Beethoven was a great, great composer, whom I admire enormously. But for me, music history basically begins with Gregorian chant then goes to the end of 1750 with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Then it goes on without me paying much attention until Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok and so on. The entire classical and Romantic period is filled with geniuses that I don't listen to and from whom I've learned absolutely nothing.