Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"Eurotrash", TV, a bit of art history and the survival of "opera"

I notice on the idiotic Opera Smell there is the refrain about how bad (or sometimes, good)Eurotrash productions are for opera. This term, a stupid cliche, means something one of the fools who still is fighting the Tebaldi vs. Callas vs. Milanov battles of FIFTY YEARS AGO, takes as a desecration doncha know of something they've seen, oh, I don't know, EIGHT THOUSAND times. You mean, they say, in so many words, some Pig wants me to have to THINK about an opera? No one has quoted Wieland Wagner: "Wagner literature written before 1950 should be burned," he once said, "together with the old Wagnerians. For living theater, there can only be one style - that of its own period."

"Living theater" is an important concept. Humans go to the theater to live, and to see life 'imitated' (mimesis). Yet there is reality in the imitation. The actors are living in front of you, drawing breath -- and can die right there (if you've gone to the theater enough, you have seen that happen). Even in the simplest production of the most restrained play, actors fall, injure themselves, faint, throw up, forget lines and on and on. Audiences instinctively know they are bearing witness to actual as well as fictional "life" in the theater.

"Living theater" also means the drive by individuals to participate in communal activity. In fact the origins of Western Theater were a public affirmation of community. Arthur Miller said, "the poor in the seats upstairs can look down on the rich enjoying themselves, and feel equal for a while." An audience is affirming that it belongs to a community and seeks to have a 'universal' experience. That is why it is said that performance art can change lives, exalt the public, inebriate a large group (there is nothing more intoxicating than an audience laughing riotously, spontaneously), profoundly move and haunt a large public.

It is the experience of the "real thing", the live thing, that draws people to see performances, to spend unwisely to see them, to go back, over and over, to what they have loved. Abraham Lincoln saw 100 plays a year. Lincoln most certainly didn't see "realism" or "naturalism" the 'barn burner' acting troops of the 19th century may have altered their bombast depending on the likely sophistication and experience of a given audience, but illustrations and descriptions suggest "theatricality" not "reality" in presentation. If a character said, "so, this is the Athens of Plato," then we were in the Athens of Plato regardless of how the sets looked or how he or she was dressed.

Shakespeare's plays have been invoked here. The performances at the Globe recently, carefully researched, show no sets, "contemporary" costumes (of Shakespeare's time), heightened sometimes and occasionally doctored to 'suggest' the garb of classical times. Further, men played women. The first Juliet was probably a 20 year old boy (it has been shown that the onset of puberty began much later then, that lad was probably not fully pubescent and could still manage an unforced, natural sounding high voice), the first nurse was probably a middle aged -- old man who specialized in comic parts. All the men playing women would have used conventionalized gestures to signal femininity but there's no evidence that they were drag performers.

An audience much less educated (?) and worldly than most members of this list could juggle in their heads two simultaneous realities. They were watching a girl suffer because her beloved was an enemy of her family, they wept at her "banished" speech, and they were perfectly aware that "she" was male.

Yes, these opera queens are so desensitized by the unreality of mechanized performance (TV, movie, "reality show") that they cannot make believe, as simple people have been able to make believe throughout Western history (Antigone was no doubt a middle aged man, Creon might have been any age, they both wore masks and conventionalized costumes, they probably used a 'heightened' intonation in delivering their lines, perhaps rising sometimes to song, yet according to Aristotle, audiences were overwhelmed with emotion by plays presented in that manner, able to understand that they were seeing a fiction presented in a highly conventionalized way, yet swept into the powerful emotional 'reality' of the plays.)

Moreover, the life long TV watcher has his/her experiences in isolation. Just as ratings systems show, TV audiences are not members of a community but separate and sometimes warring 'demographics'; the 'product' -- movie or TV or video game -- does not affirm a community living life 'together', and mystified by it, by the turns of fate, by the terrors in waiting, but instead, is aimed as a sales tool at people found by research, inundated by corporate culture who've been shown to buy more, understand more about pop culture, spend more time on line and so on. The "power" of a given opera has everything to do with the music (rarely discussed here), and the archetypal impact of the narrative as expressed by that music, and much less to do with scenic contrivances (or the seduction of a particular demographic).. In Traviata and Rigoletto the archetypal themes of betrayal, thwarted love, impulsive sacrifice and the cruelty of fate are far more powerfully expressed by the music than by any given setting. The audience must juggle a dual reality -- people don't wander through life singing everything accompanied by a fifty piece orchestra so it's not 'real' -- yet the music in these works if well realized, compels our emotions to the point that what is happening becomes very real indeed. To the TV watchers that dominate our culture even the "opera lovers" must be added the record collectors whose primary experience of the form has been onanistic; solitary, excited by their own fantasies, who it seems in so many cases listen to music as background noise, stopping only occasionally to listen to Zinka's or Leontyne's sharp, amplified high note.

So why should a bunch of fools be taken seriously (they certainly take themselves seriously!!!). No one sensible, as read by me, has ever attempted a TOTAL theory of ALL OPERA productions on the 'Net. Some productions are so bad that, yes, they're distracting, that is as true of literal presentations with tired, bored performers who don't know the style and uninspiring conductors -- and I'm going to stop there. Because I think those productions are far more typical in America than "innovative" production attempts, some of which, naturally, are better thought through and more persuasive than others.

One unspoken question runs through all this though: it's obvious that in the last seventy years there has not emerged a standard repertory of new operas. There are a few works that have survived, and then a large number of operas that have simply been forgotten after a few seasons. Yet in the seventy years between 1830-1900 ALL the Wagner and Verdi operas were written, as was most of the French and Russian rep that is important in the standard rep. Puccini had written Manon Lescaut, La Boheme and begun Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci and Andrea Chenier had been written -- the verismo movement was in full swing -- Debussy was writing Pelleas, Richard Strauss had launched his career (Elektra came in 1906). But the most recently composed familiar operas are one hundred and more years old -- where is our life? Where are our terrors? Where are the threats that endanger us? How opera was produced varied, sometimes commercially as at the Met, where box office ruled (but Otto Kahn and other socialites were around just in case debt loomed), sometimes subsidized and often a mixture of subsidy and commerce. Without records to familiarize them with new music (La boheme was considered a 'tuneless sewer' by reviewers in New York) people went anyway and went back, learning to hear the tunes. In participating in any art form there is risk -- one may hate it. But the adventure pulls the true lover who may even be quickly bored by the over familiar, preferring to endure the suspense of off putting stories and hard to hear music on the chance that a thrilling surprise lay in wait, an unpredictable joy, even an ecstasy one didn't anticipate going in. Joy and ecstasy are part, the essential part, of an artistic experience -- and great art expands our sense of what those words connote.

This is another problem of TV culture; sitcoms are all predictable, the form was set up to be formulaic and palliative. All of our widely distributed popular entertainment is palliative, numbing, predictable -- Hansel and Gretel is a hit movie, the familiar fairy tale given the novel spin of being told in a horrifically violent way. Our most popular movies are sequels, remakes, imitations, bled of character and consciousness. The gamer knows that s/he will be safe and can simply pull the plug. But in the first audiences, who knew how Death of a Salesman, or Streetcar would end? Who felt at ease in Streetcar when the heroine who is so vulnerable and pathetic is revealed simultaneously to be a liar, a sometime prostitute who contributed to the death of her gay husband? There is something dangerous and risky in that play and it's view of sexuality -- but who today wants to feel those things? We want to know at the opera that the high notes will be there, the vocal volume will be loud and of course we know the music at least superficially, and can go home happy or not because somebody cracked or nailed an unwritten high note, never moved, disturbed, shocked, alarmed -- and without those risks, never truly ecstatic either. The biggest Not for Profits in this Country will go on of course, somehow -- but who will care? And those who are among the most valuable humans, the great living creators, will languish broke and die unknown. This list can rest in peace, the many wealthy morons here have won.

pix: Mascagni with his favorite Santuzza, the schizophrenic Lina Bruna Rasa, and my twin, Felia Litvinne.

1 comment:

  1. From my own perspective there really is not such thing as Eurotrash. There are just good and bad productions. Most folks who object to more innovative productions (mainly coming out of Europe) tend to have closed minds and they should really stick to radio streams and CDs. I'm too tired of posting to Opera-L on this topic and constantly refer people to Tom Sutcliffe's fine book "Believing in Opera" (alas no longer in print but used copies can be easily found).

    Keep up the thoughtful work on this blog!