Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

In defense of mediocrity

January 28, 2008

Linda Watson and John Treleaven
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

I don’t have the heart to ridicule LA Opera’s current production of Tristan und Isolde. Oh, it could be done. Make no mistake, there are numerous things about the production overall that are mediocre – uninspired but competent vocal performances, silly stage business, etc. Others have detailed fully what some of those issues are. But the reality is, I enjoyed the whole thing very much. In part this is due to the fact that I love Wagner’s operas. I, in particular, love Tristan. And mediocre Wagner is still better than excellent Puccini any day. There are some really good things in this LA outing - Conlon and the orchestra gave a brisk spirited account of the score. The Hockney production is excellent and having him in LA to help with the staging was clearly a benefit over the lackluster presentation his design had in San Francisco last season. (The very notable exception there was the superb Christine Brewer).

My reaction to Tristan got me thinking a lot about how people, including myself, tend to write about opera performance. I mean what is so wrong with Linda Watson or John Treleaven. Sure, they aren't the best in the world and they are far from the best ever. But both deliver mostly competent performances. People seem to dismiss them simply because they aren't "inspiring" or transcendent in some way. Sure it's great to hear the best in the world, but isn't there room for artists who can perform difficult material in a competent way? Frequently, the standard for performers is unrealistically high given the easy to access legendary performances that have been recorded over the course of the 20th century. I think performers get compared, fairly or not, both to everyone we ourselves have heard and to many that we have not due to their continued technological legacy. Soon everyone who doesn’t sound like the two or three best ever Isoldes are just “average” or “competent”. I mean are their really that many more or less artists around today that can sing Isolde than there were over a century ago? If so, how do we actually know that or at least how do we know how good or bad these people sounded outside of subjective second hand written reports at the time?

Still, the necrophiliac tendencies of opera audiences are hard to shake. People love to bitch about artists singing roles that they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” be singing. Netrebko gets heat for not being able to handle the chores of bel canto and virtually everyone is criticized for attempting to sing Norma. But I don’t think this is very realistic or fair. If only two or three performers in the world (or two or three performers ever) can sing a certain role, it doesn’t mean very many people are going to get to hear Norma or at least not very often. Sure, it used to be this way - Norma was an opera that was rarely performed in the first half of the 20th century. But I for one don’t think that is preferable. I don’t want to spend my days waiting for some fantasy once-or-twice-a-century ideal performance to experience seeing some of opera’s great works. So sure, I’ve seen better Tristans and Watson and Treleaven are not exciting – but I got to hear Wagner’s marvelous music and that in some ways is more than enough.

I think that Opera is a living thing meant to be performed and experienced live. Too often critics, both professional and otherwise, tend to forget this. And while I love to hear a standard setting performance in the flesh as much as the next person, I think there is much more to loving opera. Since opera, by its very nature, needs to be performed in order to be enjoyed, that often means working with the performers you have on hand even if they aren't ideal. Baroque composers such as Handel didn't seem to have any trouble getting their heads around this, so what's our problem?



does anyone deny these singers the right to perform? the issue seems to me to be that LA is supposed to be a top-level house. Mediocrity has no place in the best houses where the top ticket price is well over 200 dollars.
I don't really see this as a conversation about rights. Even a cursory review of either Watson or Treleaven's CV indicates that they continue to sing in plenty of top level houses from Bayreuth to Covent Garden. My point is that given the kind of unrealistic standards some people cling to - if they aren't qualified, who is? It can't be a very long list of other names.

Regardless of what you think about the quality of LA Opera or the ticket prices, I would suggest there aren't enough "qualified" performers available to sing all the productions even in the shortest list of only the most exclusive houses.

Sooner or later you have one of two things - fewer performances with only the best singers in only a few places or broader standards with more opportunities for people outside of these few urban centers to experience the art works even with B-listers.
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