Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Things I didn't mean

I half-expected to be rebuked for implying some of the following in my last post, but as usual I've drawn rather less criticism than anticipated. (Whether this shows agreement, apathy, impenetrability, or something else I'm not sure.) Still, clarifications might help.

First, I have little to say on the superiority or inferiority of high versus popular culture. They're different, and while they may serve the same general purpose for humanity, the different means by which they go about it make their appeal and specific role different too.

Second, while resources and venue now tend to reflect the needs of a particular cultural mode, I don't think they necessarily form the border between the two. (Remember "Wellington's Victory"? -- The reverse, high-cultural expression in pop clothing, is also possible if beyond the scope of this blog.) For example, despite concert-hall presentation, DG record deal, and skillful writing for classical instruments and voices, Osvaldo Golijov is quite clearly a popular musician. That is to say: opera being 99% a high-cultural genre, if you're looking for a savior (or future) of "opera", Golijov isn't it. I'd go so far as to say that unless he's been looking to change his aesthetic tune for a while, the Met shouldn't be spending its limited new-music resources on him.

Third, obviously this and the preceding post are not a complete theory of cultural modes. More tidbits do turn up if you search the blog for "popular"...

UPDATE (8/2/07): A commenter notes this possibly-apropos review.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The road to...

I usually don't blog this sort of thing, but when a reader brought this recent article to my attention, I thought I might -- for once.

It's mostly an honest personal history of the author's love of music. For decades he was into the new currents on the popular side, and in fact became a journalist in that field. But when his brother died,
I stopped listening to music altogether. It was not that I didn't want to listen to music, simply that I couldn't.
The main thing that woke him from the stupor?
When I first heard it, it pinned me against the wall. It was Beniamino Gigli singing 'Mi par d'udir ancora' from Bizet's opera, The Pearl Fishers. [...] Some might say Gigli is a bit of a ham, but there is nothing in rock'n'roll that compares with his rendition of 'Mi par d'udir ancora' for sheer emotion, not even Van Morrison's young voice on 'Astral Weeks', or James Carr's majestically stoical delivery of 'The Dark End of the Street'. No, 'Mi par d'udir ancora' is something else entirely, something uncanny and almost overwhelming in its powerful fragility.
So he ventured into this new world. And there he offers a familiar sort of complaint:
I have problems, too, with the air of elitism that surrounds classical music. I would even go as far as to say the main problem with classical music - the same goes for opera and theatre - is its audience. And, before the letters start flooding in about my inverted snobbery, let me just say that anyone who still thinks classical music is not elitist should take a look around them when they next take their seat at a live performance.
*     *     *

Now it is certainly true that the perceived "elitist" stuffiness (though I think it's more the latter than the former) of the form is a large element of what keeps many individuals out of concert halls and opera houses. But what exactly should be done?

The answer, I think, is "very little". The matter is not simply of demographics or mores but what the mores mean. High and popular art audiences show different behaviors because the relations between and among artists and audience members are different. High art is and aims to be experienced by each hearer/reader/viewer as a mortal individual: the fact of the mass (and, to the extent one identifies with a protagonist, one's own inclusion in that mass), where it appears, is a source of terror, released in tragic disaster or comic laughter. Popular art works otherwise, experienced by each as part of the ever present-tense and therefore immortal "people", in whose unity and triumph one finds bliss.

So of course an opera or concert audience is formalized, a bit distant, and stiff: it cannot be otherwise and still function. In their contents we're reminded we are at risk, dangerous to each other and ourselves -- the necessary context to that uncanny blend of abandon and fragility the author heard in Gigli. Such an audience simply won't (at least not before the climactic final resolution) show the same openness and camaraderie as one bathed from the start in the comfort and triumph of belonging, for whom danger and disaster are neatly outsourced to the oppressive villain.

This means, then, that a certain amount of formality (if not necessarily the exact brand now existing) is not only unavoidable in non-popular art audiences but essential: without love, rules are necessary. So one danger is that attempts to "demystify" and "unstuff" the concert experience will just encourage boorish behaviour -- and I think this has, to some extent, already happened.

*     *     *

But the more important fact is that between high and popular art, the audience members' experience is truly different -- different things are asked, different expected, different relationships created. It is, for most in this day and age, a strange and wholly novel mode of listening (or watching, etc.) and interacting, to which one must be motivated to adjust. The writer here found motivation in his dissatisfaction with his old options, and in the epiphany with Gigli. And so...

I'm reminded of this months-past post by Kim Witman:
If our hip cyber-efforts don’t bear any real relationship to the product, we won’t keep a single new recruit past the first performance. Even if we get the attention of a new patron, and s/he buys a ticket, if the experience doesn’t live up to the promise of the über-sexy marketing, we’ve won the battle but lost the war. This by no means makes any of the many kinds of satisfying opera experiences inferior. Just incongruous with some of the hype that's beginning to be generated. Sell opera for what it is, and neither apologize for nor mislead folks about what it isn't.
The observation seems dead on, but I would go further. To sell opera for what it is means realizing that it's not part of the common entertainment spectrum, best marketable as "just another" Hollywood movie, or Broadway show, or whatever. (Sure the Paul Potts video -- which has now spawned a pre-release #1 album -- has had explosive viral popularity, but absolutely essential to that was the classic pop-culture triumph-of-the-underdog frame in which it was presented. Though exposure helps, the desire to experience Nessun Dorma inside the actual high-culture context is quite separate, and still about where it was.) It means converting people, not away from their current likes but into something new and incongruous (not just the art, but high art altogether), which means getting new patrons into the shows most likely to trigger conversion experiences.

This may be what frustrated me most about Gelb year one. Is he trying to recruit a young, vibrant audience or the fuddy-duddies of the future? Because between Mattila and Silja (and Silvasti, and Belohlavek) in Jenufa and a wretchedly-sung Puritani, who could better taste the sublimity and visceral grip of opera from the latter? And yet... which got zero promotion, and which endless hype?

*     *     *

Incidentally, I hope the author of this article is finding his way often to Wigmore Hall (though unfortunately Dorothea Röschmann doesn't seem to be scheduled next season). For the melancholiac, nothing beats a good lieder recital.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Klaus Florian Vogt watch

Tomorrow morning (Eastern Time), the most remarkable Wagnerian tenor I've ever heard will sing Walther in Meistersinger, live from Bayreuth.

Who's Amanda Mace?

UPDATE (7/25): Is Sachs clacking away on a typewriter? (Must be... Hence the booing.)

UPDATE 2 (7/27): Uh oh -- check out Vogt's present schedule. Is this wise? The instrument he has is hugely precious and surely already enough in demand for him to turn down excess engagements.

Ring, second half

If cycle one of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ring didn't really start until midway into Valkyrie, it was for a while debatable whether it would actually ever finish. Despite some game performances by a mostly overtaxed cast (under pressure, Siegfried Leonid Zakhozhaev was swamped and Brünnhilde Olga Sergeeva pitch-wild, though both were otherwise fairly appealing), Friday's performance of Siegfried never really went anywhere. Tanovitsky's Wanderer was fairly symptomatic, reverting to the low-impact vocalism and aimless gesturing he used in Rheingold.

Matters weren't helped by the very worst set of the production. Gergiev's Ring basically turns cheesy unspecificity into a virtue, and it's the agonizing clumsiness of the Act 3 Siegfried set -- featuring a central statue surrounded by giant wriggling sperm -- that made it bomb. (The decision to costume the Valkyries as skunk-haired goths throughout made its worst impact here.)

But Götterdämmerung belongs to the orchestra, and the Ring's second half finally got its star turn the next day. From the opening measures through Siegfried's deal with the Gibichungs, Valery Gergiev finally took command. Exulting, as if on first discovery, in the expanded sonic palette Wagner offers in this last installment, he led the orchestra in as electric and dramatically charged a performance as I have heard from him. Though the rest of the night never again reached that height of focus, it was a most satisfying evening of music.

The cast did better all around too, from Sergeeva -- a bit steadier at climaxes, and with plenty of strength at the end -- to Evgeny Nikitin (Pogner in the latest Met Meistersingers) as a memorable Gunther to the new Siegfried, Victor Lutsuk, whose voice had a real power and virility (but not much subtlety). And the production, though, as Maury complained, blank at the end, showed well with a very archaic/tribal look for the Gibuchungs.

Afterthoughts later.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ring, first half

In some important sense the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ring's first cycle this summer at the Met didn't start until partway into Act 2 of Die Walküre: Fricka's entrance, to be exact. Larissa Diadkova's mesmerizing performance of her argument -- the first real star turn of the cycle -- seemed to energize not only the rest of the cast but Gergiev himself. The remainder of Walküre demanded the more-than-polite attention it got: a real triumph.

The production, for better and worse, doesn't demand much attention. Based on some rearrangeable long archaic "stone" statues (sometimes decor, sometimes plot landmarks -- Hunding's tree, Brünnhilde's rock -- and positioned every way including overhead), matching light-up rock-like things, and groovy '70s lighting, the physical design is neither difficult to transport, grimly everyday-looking, nor based on any obvious and irritating conceit. On the other hand, the lack of a strong directorial hand (the production is credited to Gergiev and set designer George Tsypin) has its drawbacks: for one thing, the singers look pretty much on their own, going about stage business in various and not-entirely-congruent styles. In fact the most remarkable thing about Diadkova's Walküre bit might have been that it inspired the first convincing and focused stretch of physical reaction from Wotan (the young Alexei Tanovitsky), which actually lasted halfway into his dialog with Brünnhilde.

Tanovitsky, though his voice could use more heft, actually did well from this point, far better than most feared after the low-energy low-impact Wotan of the previous night. More betrayed by vocal lightness was Oleg Balashov (Siegmund), who despite a generally pleasant sound failed to register at climaxes ("Wälse!" was essentially inaudible). The women, led by the aforementioned Diadkova, did well -- Mlada Khudoley (Sieglinde), new to me, seems a bit unpolished but had plenty of force on top, and her willingness to emote might be seen to better effect with actual direction. More on the singers, perhaps, when the cycle concludes.

Gergiev's orchestra is so far quite responsive, thundering, wailing, and raging at his command. As one might expect, they don't sing with the same sweetness as Levine's Met Orchestra (or even Gergiev's Met Orchestra), but despite some stray horn-pitch issues it's an interesting change.

*     *     *

I have much to say on the piece itself, but next week.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Word from out west 2

This is several weeks late, but still quite relevant. Another correspondent (different from this one) attended San Francisco Opera's June performances and, by a stroke of fortune, was able to report on an unexpected contrast.
I was surprised to find that they use amplification. I hadn't known that before I arrived, although I remember there was a big brou-ha-ha about something like this on Opera-l a few years ago. By amplified I mean that there were 3 microphones suspended over the orchestra pit at various heights (but I have no depth of field vision, so I can't really vouch for exact placement). Funny thing: the amplification was not working/used on 6/13 so I had the chance to hear both an amplified and an unamplified Don Giovanni. The air conditioning was also broken, so we in the audience got to commiserate with the performers.

The house is about 1/2 – 2/3rds the size of the Met and I had seats in various sections of the balcony (right, left, and center—rows 1- 10). The sightlines were generally pretty good, but if you're on the sides, about 1/3 of the stage is truncated. Also, that high up, part of the back stage is out of view.

As for the sound: without amplification the balcony sounded quite a bit like Dress Circle seating at the Met. There were dead spots on stage where you couldn't hear the singers, and other spots where the orchestra tended to swamp the singers even if they could be heard.

The amplification tended to alleviate this. I asked one of the ushers about this, and he said it was put in to compensate for the acoustics (I still don't credit that "all the other houses do it," as he said though—but I suspect it's a sticky subject for them). With the sound boosted, my ability to hear everyone was much better, and I think it flattered rather than actually distorted the singers; voices were all pretty much where you expected them to be and in correct proportion to each other—they got quieter the farther back on stage the singer. I suspect one can thank some good technicians for that.
(Emphases mine.) Why, I wonder, had I never before heard of this? Has it been well covered in the Bay Area local press?

Yesterday's news

Anne-Carolyn Bird has a terrific post about the awful Jerry Hadley news (which I'd hitherto missed).

It may sound callous or dull to note this, but it's odd that the tragic finality a singer (often) portrays onstage must, for success and life, be so carefully deferred off. On the other hand, one finishes and dies nonetheless, in the end...

Doings far away

A correspondent in Moscow sends notice of young (~25) Russian soprano Anna Aglatova's triumph as Liu in yesterday's Bolshoi performance of Turandot. No clips seem to exist of that role, but here she is in a bit of the Jewel Song:

A more substantial video -- "Tornami a vagheggiar", from a 2005 competition -- can be seen here.

Most Russian imports here seem to be through the Gergiev pipeline, but who knows?

Monday, July 09, 2007

With my speaw and magic hewmet...

The Toronto Star notes that we've hit the 50th anniversary of "What's Opera, Doc?":

No word on whether this provided inspiration for Gergiev and company.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Looking forward

The Mariinsky (Kirov) Ring begins next Friday. I'll be there, with mixed expectations.

Jay Nordlinger already offers a curtain-raiser.