Balloon Flower by Jeff Koons
Photo: mine 2006
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of this
stuff bemoaning the sad condition of opera. In particular, I keep seeing these missives about how arts administrators determined to improve the bottom line are eschewing musical values in favor of whatever appears to be hot, young, sexy, or visually palatable at the expense of musical performance or the art of opera as a whole. Typically, these rants arise when someone’s favorite plus-size soprano or mezzo isn’t on the cast list for the umpteenth performance of the same-old-same-old somewhere around the world. They can also crop when people are busy writing headlines about someone young or relatively inexperienced who dares to do something orchestrated to shock or grab those headlines to begin with.
Oh, please. Now I’m not here to condone discrimination against any performer based on weight or other issues. And certainly, there are people with poor judgment and little minds who have done bad things to colleagues and other performers. But all this hand wringing over the “glamorization” of opera and its negative effects is mostly hogwash. When has opera ever been about anything other than glamour? For centuries, major casting decisions have been made on far more base issues than a pretty face. Roles have been cast and performances have been staged just as frequently based on who’s cheap, who’s sober, who has the “right” political beliefs and who the primary patron was sleeping with at the time. These concerns don’t seem much more noble to me than who’s pretty, who’s skinny, or who’s sleek and sexy. Once all of this big “art” business entered the opera picture things really started to go to pot.
The music? Sure it’s important, but it’s far from the whole picture. The opponents of “glamorization” always hold up the bogeyman of what listeners will be left with under these forces if they simply close their eyes. But frankly if you’ve paid good money for a ticket, why would you want to? I see plenty of audience members with their eyes-closed virtually every time I'm at the opera but the cacophonous snoring suggests it’s not because they’re lost in rapture over the musical qualities of anything. If it weren’t for the staging, there would be little point in seeing an opera at all. Let’s be honest. No one ever really looks forward to a straight concert performance of an opera as anything other than a mere evocation of a greater or more perfectly satisfying evening in the past or one imagined in the future. Opera is in large part theater and if the art form has suffered anything it is a century of well-intentioned purveyors trying to pass off a rapidly decomposing corpse to an audience that will hopefully be impressed by an aura of authority and art like some nightmare version of Weekend at Bernie’s
Yes it’s fashionable for insiders to drone on about the loss of musical artistic values, but I for one think things are happening just as they probably always have, despite all our heavily revised versions of the past. Or, to put it another way, there is immense beauty in the temporary and disposable just as there is in the permanent and enduring. A big shot of pretty and easy-to-swallow may be just what the doctor ordered for all those looking to be “transported” by a world of high art.
Labels: opera rant