Sunday, June 21, 2015

As Callas said about sex ... New Operas Part 2



Fat Callas, Barbieri and ... unknown
I just decided on that title to see if I could get some attention. Leo Lerman knew Maria Callas very well socially and has some funny stories about her. He was the "Arts" person at the various magazines that were acquired by Condé Nast. They're in the book The Grand Surprise, an extensive (actually endless) compilation of journal entries, letters and the short articles and character pieces he wrote over close to fifty years.

But first...

After the run down last week, I promised "reviews" or "impressions" of the new works mentioned. For those who happen to trip over this, like baby's first skate left in the shadows on the stairs -- run!!!!

My twin, Albert Innaurato, worked with a small (tiny?) opera company here in the city of turds and Weh where the idiot who ran it, a mama's boy "conductor" who was a lot like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, agreed that for a few years they could try Albert's idea of doing new work in small productions, and developing other new operas. Albert directed a few new operas and worked with a fair number of composers and librettists.



The Shops, directed by Albert, rehearsal for American premiere
Sadly, with the death of arts in America a lot of idiots run these potentially valuable organizations. They get sprayed with RAID -- I mean REALITY -- but they're like roaches. Bottom's back -- tremble!!

But in working with all kinds of composers and their librettists (when they didn't write their own texts), Albert realized another art form was largely dead.

The theater.

None of these people understood that a stage work has to be dramatized. Even though the music is the most important element of an opera and can cover some faults, the "play" being set, must work somehow as a "dramatic action". Almost none of these people knew much about opera. But (though all were phenomenally well educated musically) 
they and their librettists were totally ignorant about the theater.

They did not understand that in the operas they did know the story was dramatized, not narrated, hinted at or left somewhere in limbo: suspense, revelation, reversal, surprise and resolution happened in front of the audience. 


The question Albert would always ask the composers is "what sings to you in this material?" He was always met with incomprehension. He understood that to mean that the composers had no theatrical instinct. They left it up to the librettist and tried to set what they got.

Nixon in China by John Adams set a ruinous precedent. At least a famous title to these composers and sometimes more, they didn't realize that the pretentious concept of Peter Sellars and the ludicrous text of one, Alice Goodman, wrecked a great idea. Sellars having failed in the spoken theater had no idea how to dramatize a story, substituting the bizarre for revelation. Adams, prodigiously gifted and at his freshest, was sabotaged. It was worse in The Death of Klinghoffer. What should have been a powerful dramatization of what Aristotle would have called "the union of opposites" is an easily misinterpreted mess.

Adams knew too little about how operas really work in a theater and his wonderful musical inventions tended to fall flat in context. The composers we still encounter in the opera house and admire had taken the lead in deciding how to present the story they were setting. (Adams is still among the three most produced American composers of opera in the world, but I think that says more for his gifts than the actual works as a whole).

Philip Glass (the most produced American opera composer in the world) was a huge influence on the younger composers. This was not always for the best. The "minimalism" he developed came from within him after rigorous study along more conventional lines, the influence of that great outsider Morton Feldman, as well as his own firsthand exposure to Indian and Tibetan music.

He worked in the "experimental" theater of his time, one that abandoned the concept of "author" for free-associative and imagistic confrontations with time, memory, "truth" conflicting with "pretense". His decisions were organic and essential to him. When Einstein on the Beach was given at the Metropolitan Opera (not produced by that company) a huge audience had a transcendental/puzzling/thrilling experience.

There was the very long parade onstage of the strange, the crazy, the communicative, the obscure accompanied by a remarkable music which only occasionally took an "articulative" place in the proceedings. In the audience the "downtown" arts scene assembled en masse, hipsters attended to get high and groove, the well-heeled and curious were held fast by horror and shock and opera queens stumbled in to be angry ("what, no high notes? No coloratura?") 

The apparent chaos on stage was mirrored by the real chaos in the vast, gilded auditorium as people came and went, danced, screamed, fought, tranced out. It was an explosion, astonishing in that staid place and exactly what the then remarkable Robert Wilson (the architect of it all) and Glass had wanted. And that was the point: where was the "opera"? On the stage or in the auditorium or both simultaneously?

In an "opera" such as the masterpiece, Satyagraha, Glass focused his talents but avoided "drama" and narrative altogether except for slight hints and saw to it that the focus had to be on sounds by setting glorious music to Sanskrit! 

Since those times, Glass has changed much and even distanced himself a bit from that brilliantly cultivated savage of those early days. The younger Glass was singular, a nuclear blast that mirrored and prefigured a time of rapid change. But he was not someone who founded a school which graduated composers refining and expanding his techniques.

Today, in the new operas that we see, although a straightforward narrative is no longer essential, it is still the most common currency on which a sound "dramatic" structure is erected. So again, even with the few minimalists Albert would ask "how does this technique work for the theater piece you want to make? What sings in you?"

Albert was arrogant enough to think that Verdi in encountering Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse felt that -- in the opera called Rigoletto --he had to set the scene where the venomous jester 
rages furiously against the courtiers who have abducted his virginal daughter, the sole love in his life. He tries to break into the duke's chambers -- to save her from being raped. Amused, they stop him. He wrestles with himself (aloud) and then hating himself for having to do it but loving his daughter more, he begs these despicable pigs for mercy on his daughter.


Rigoletto - Leo Nucci - begs for mercy for his daughter 

I suspect Verdi only had to read that scene to know that the fury and anguish of this outsider throbbed in him and would sing through him. He knew himself as a creator for the theater, and that this strange story, robbed of Hugo's political agenda and multiple ironies could work. And it has for 164 years.

But all of this came from the composer. He bullied his librettist into giving him what he needed, only as many words as would do the job, clarify the situations, re-enforce the characters.

I could multiply examples -- Mozart somehow understood (identified with?) the multiple ambiguities in Cosi fan tutte. Perhaps he knew something about circles where the trading of sexual partners went on?


Mozart defied the bullying Archbishop to whom he was bound and ran to Vienna, facing poverty rather than service, a choice that confronts Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, and yet I bet he also identified with the endlessly randy Cherubino and even with the sexual urges of the count. I think he fell in love with Susanna as Figaro does, understood the nostalgia and sorrow of the Countess. Again, one of the few great writers who could manage librettos, Lorenzo da Ponte, erased the political and autobiographical obsessions of the playwright, Beaumarchais, and omitted a lot of the intrigue in the play. But knowing Mozart he captured the essentials for what would sing through him.

Albert shut up! He (?) will talk your ear off and I'm sure you get the point. In the new operas that have surfaced recently, one finds the same problems that Albert did in that tiny, horribly run company. 


Yardbird was by far the most successful of these recent operas, both with the audiences in Philly and with reviewers. It was a wonderful experience and is a good candidate to have a life beyond its next engagement at the Apollo Theater in New York.


Brownlee and Brown - mother and son in Yardbird

But there were problems with the libretto. Bridgette A. Wimberly, credited with text, did provide singable lines, and the composer, David Schnyder took them and ran. But, where was the drama? If you didn't know anything about Charlie Parker, known as Bird or Yardbird, you were lost. Impressionistic "poetry" touched with sentimentality doesn't tell a story, establish character or motive or add up. Wimberly had no idea how to make clear just who the characters were, and felt no obligation to fashion a dramatic arc leading to an inevitable climax, not just a cliched ending ("you mean we've been seeing Bird's last seconds alive as he, OD-ing, sees his life flashing in front of him? Why, fancy that!").

In our America, I suspect quite a lot of people won't know who Bird was, or about Birdland (the people around me at Opera Philadelphia's Oscar only knew the name, Oscar Wilde.Though well enough off to afford expensive seats and presumably educated, they knew nothing of his life). Many opera-goers may not even have heard of Birdland or know much about the great history of American jazz. 

But somehow Ms. Wimberly and Mr. Schnyder think everyone will know who Charlie Parker was, how he lived his life, how he died and who was important to him. And some fool will say, "but this is opera, we don't need to know". But we do. Opera and theater are both about the immediacy of effect, they are about this second, and the next and the next. If one has to wonder, "who the hell is that?" or "what is going on?" then the opera loses its impact.

This is not a sermon against ambiguity, fantasy, abbreviation, dream sequences, poetic flights. Of course, the life of Bird, like that of Oscar Wilde, would have to be compressed and abbreviated to work in a play, let alone an opera. But just who those white women were and why they had such an interest in Bird is important (and in real life they were interesting people not just female voices to make an ensemble). Why is Bird a junkie, what is his mother doing in the ghostly Birdland? And if you're vague about Charlie Parker are you going to know Dizzy Gillespie? Will you have a notion that they invented bebop, or even know what that is and how it sounds?

Making a libretto, like writing a play, is solving a puzzle. Ms. Wimberly and Mr. Schnyder clearly wanted a tight 100-minute work, one that flowed. So the challenge was to make clear in a theatrical shorthand, what was going on. (The Baroness "Nika" a remarkable jazz age character in New York, is just a lady in a fancy coat in the opera but dramatizing her impact might have made for a richer evening. The scenes between Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were musically wonderful and very well performed but if you aren't really sure who they were and what their relationship was those scenes didn't "land".)

Archetypal scenes work (Bird and his mother -- although the fantastic Lawrence Brownlee and the charismatic Angela Brown may have had something to do with that) and Schnyder's process, licks from Bird worked into musical cells that combine, intersect, invert and a rhythmic certainty that creates a strong forward movement help the emotional "feel" of the piece, stretches of harmonically enriched bebop are gorgeous to hear. But a scene where Bird and some others wander about in straight jackets in a weird light with no explanation at all, despite the powerful musical interlude under it, had some people around me tittering. (Bird was arrested for drug use after he set a hotel room on fire and institutionalized for a time but who knew from this?)

The challenge is to solve a puzzle not create a "well made" play or even a complete narrative, it's being sure that we know precisely what we need to know, no more, and not ever in a wordy way, to enter this world and be moved by the outcome. 

But Schnyder, who is 53, is one of the two composers of new operas who has developed a personal style (the other, very different, is the amazing George Benjamin, at 54 also a mature artist, in Written on Skin). Though influenced by "bop" Schnyder uses his own sense of how to build melodies, use complex chords to enrich them, employ classical forms to unite the work and he can write both soaring vocal lines and "scat" -- seeming to arise spontaneously from the ongoing musical discourse of the 14 instruments in the pit (from which Schnyder elicits gorgeous and surprising textures -- as an ironic gesture he does not use Bird's instrument, the saxophone).

Some flabby transitional moments aside the music is magic and may allow the work a triumphant progress, whatever Albert (and I) may think of the libretto.


Oscar and Bosie in life

Oscar presented earlier by Opera Philadelphia was everything that seems wrong with "new operas" written in America. Albert -- my guest for the evening and too large to fit into the small seats of the beautiful but old-fashioned Academy of Music -- was transported back to the conversations with those composers in the tiny opera company. 

He wanted to ask the composer, Theodore Morrison (at 77 one expects he knows his own mind), what sang to him in the libretto presented to him by the very experienced John Cox (a director but functioning as librettist here)?

The opera started with Walt Whitman. What was he doing there? Well, Oscar made a point of meeting him as did many English Uranians of the time but in the opera we didn't see their meeting (which doesn't seem to have been momentous). Walt was there to narrate -- speaking, not singing (sad that Dwayne Croft got only a few chances to show off a still lovely baritone)!

Now, in a play or an opera this is a bad sign. Yes, "show don't tell" is a cliche but it's true. An audience needs to see transactions between characters and learn from them what the creators want to demonstrate; telling them is not nearly as effective.

The idea was to set Oscar up as a celebrity so his fall would be more painful. So we got David Daniels for whom the part was written speaking the curtain speech Wilde gave after the sensational first night of his play Lady Windermere's Fan. Why? And why all this speaking? Twenty minutes in, one was wondering what the opera was about. 

Yes, one understands, it's theme was the downfall of a celebrity of the time, a homosexual icon. But how interesting is that? Those who know the sad, sordid tale and its awful end hardly need this carrying on and those who don't know much or anything won't care. What would make them care, empathize, even understand Oscar?

Love.

Albert, being full of himself would have pointed out to Mr. Morrison (a very distinguished man) that NOTHING sings like love. And nothing sings more heartrendingly than thwarted or blighted love. Oscar was in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, a younger man. Where was he in this opera?

DANCING!!!

Apparently influenced by Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, Morrison and Cox had decided to make Bosie a dancing role, as Tadzio is in the Britten work. But Tadzio is 14 and he never speaks to his stalker, Aschenbach.

But Bosie was 21 going on 80 when he met Wilde. Unlike the poet, he was a pervert, having come up through the English "public" school system and enormously experienced in the ways of procuring boys for hire, and the homosexual underground that provided ways for men to meet for sex when sex between consenting adult males was against the law and severely punished.

Oscar was married and a father but naive and found himself passionately in love with the empty headed, selfish and sybaritic Bosie whose appalling father would trigger the events that brought Wilde down.

Now, perhaps in a play one might suggest how shallow Bosie was, how spoiled and superficial, though at the same time highly taken with Wilde, like a wild child who has found a teddy bear to cuddle and torment.

That ambiguity is hard to deal with in an opera (that would take a Janacek who wrote his own texts or the Britten of Turn of the Screw supervising a kindred spirit), and perhaps it's not the point Cox and Morrison wanted to make anyway. So why not make Bosie a character who sings, who interacts with Wilde? Why not show their passion, both romantic and sexual? If one is going to show a "past" before Wilde's troubles, why not a love scene between the two men?

Wilde was 37 when they met -- older than Bosie but there would hardly be the awkwardness of his being taken with a young boy. Shouldn't we see at its height the passion that Wilde never denied and which destroyed him? And what calls for music in an opera more than a passionate profession of undying love? Bosie, who lived until 1945, rewrote his life extensively, downplaying both the emotional and physical aspects of his involvement with Wilde. But perhaps at that moment he did respond to Wilde's unquestioning, unconditional love.

Instead, in Oscar, Bosie danced and danced and danced. There were no scenes between him and Wilde. 

The opera jumped to the night before Oscar was to be sentenced. His friend (also notorious but heterosexual) Frank Harris -- sung by the great American tenor William Burden sadly underused here -- advises him to flee to France as many an Englishman in similar straights has done, for the verdict is sure to be guilty and the penalty, brutal. Oscar refuses but advises the dancing Bosie to flee.

But isn't that a scene that invites music? Perhaps Bosie puts up a (pro forma) objection while Oscar genuinely begs him to save himself, promising they will meet again and Bosie agrees to flee, likewise promising to stay faithful to their love.

Yes, Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labor, put in a cruel prison, and the experience ruined him physically, problems resulting from the labor probably killed him a few years later.

In Morrison's opera, we got a half hour of sounds suspiciously like themes from Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. Oh, yes, Bosie in death mask danced through this too during a completely irrelevant execution. But Opera is full of solo prison scenes where an unjustly imprisoned man cries out his grief, terror, hope. 

Not much use was made of the gifted David Daniels but what an opportunity for him would such a prison soliloquy have been!

After serving his full term, Oscar has no choice but to go to Paris. He is destitute. There is a story that Oscar hopelessly walking the streets to see if he could find food saw the coach of the great diva Nellie Melba. He approached her, looking like a bum and said, "Excuse me, Dame Nellie, I used to be Oscar Wilde. I am starving. Can you help me?" Melba, notoriously tight-fisted, gave him all the money she had on her, and some of her jewels and hurried away.

Albert might have told this story to Cox and Mr. Morrison not for them to use but as an example of how one might SHOW Oscar's desperation and the depths to which he had sunk.

There were other opportunities for scenes in Paris: surely, there would be the farewell between Bosie and Oscar, who has never lost his love. In fact Oscar's wife had offered him a modest stipend if he agreed never to see Bosie again, not to "stop" his homosexuality but to get him away from someone she understood all too well. As desperate as he was, Oscar refused. But Bosie had already moved on. They did meet to say goodbye, and I can't understand not wanting to write the scene and music for it of this wrenching farewell. But there was no such scene, nor was there a death scene for Oscar. Cox tried to use as many of Oscar's words as he could, how could he have resisted what some have suggested were Oscar's last words after much suffering: "Either this wallpaper goes or I do?"

Mr. Morrison is distinguished (as is Mr. Cox) but I thought the music lacked variety of color, imagination, a distinctive voice or even (whatever Mr. Morrison might have felt in himself) emotional conviction. It was a clumsy take on an interesting subject, badly and rather stupidly staged, where a fine singing cast and a dancer of remarkable stamina (Reed Luplau giving his all in this bizarre iteration of Bosie), were wasted.

Well, this is Philadelphia where good people come to die (and where the doomed Oscar Wilde met the elderly and rather puzzled Walt Whitman!). So what can you do?

Well, I could end this but I haven't dealt with Matthew Aucoin's Crossing or the work of Nico Muhly, both much younger than the composers I've discussed here.


Antonacci as the beset mother in Two Women
But perhaps we could have a word or two about the "lush" new opera, designed to save people from "musical torture" given in San Francisco: Two Women by Marco Tutino. It was panned by the national reviewers. I can only speak to a few clips sent me by a spy. As is often the case, idiots on line invoked Giancarlo Menotti as an influence or heaven help us the witty, light-fingered Nino Rota. 

But Tutino (61) writes in the style of Renzo Rossellini, the brother of the great director Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini wrote the scores for his brother's famous movies from the mid-1940s, Rome: Open City, Paisan, and others. The score for Paisan goes on and on very loudly. It shows a rich orchestral texture and harmonic procedures of the 1890's with some haunting original melodies plus a few folk tunes adapted to a lush style. He wrote at least 15 operas, many of them given at La Scala. His biggest success was A View from the Bridge, a professional work in a very old fashioned but not ineffective style.

Tutino as far as I could hear proceeds exactly the same way, alternating noisy effusions with "found" music, including a rather haunting folk tune. I can't say more not having seen the work. Rossellini, born in 1908, sounds more spontaneous. Tutino (born 1954) sounds contrived and obvious as far as I could tell. For some well-placed reviewers, the work fell flat. 

The whole endeavor seems naive to me. A creative artist can only write for his or her own time. Parody or pastiche may be amusing but has limited expressive uses in serious, emotional material. 

Rossellini wrote in a style that was old-fashioned and tired but could still possess some immediacy of effect. Tutino is writing camp and unless the work is intended to be a send-up, it becomes irrelevant. That isn't the same thing as "conservative", it's the same thing as pointless.

The flight into the past so typical of opera lovers today is an embrace of death. Schnyder's style, hardly radical and never unapproachable, or Benjamin's somewhat tougher but utterly fascinating approach, are powerful ways to meet the challenge of opera in a world that is spinning away from the cultural norms that supported it for so many years.

And we so must end. If anyone is still reading, next time I will try a few words about those youthful hopes Aucoin and Muhly. For now -- oh wait! Callas speaks:

On page 269 of the book, Lerman quotes Maria Callas, who he adored: "After fifty, singing is like sex, you never know if you'll make it."


14 comments:

  1. Catchy title. Definitely caught my attention. Glad to see that from early this morning when I started reading before I left for work, to this evening when I finished, the gentleman in the picture morphed from Antonino Votto (definitely not) to Ignoto. Either way, both ladies look like they've stepped back a few paces after smelling a skunk. Or perhaps it's the other way around. As usual your analysis, explication, etc. is so detailed and knowledgeable. A pleasure to read and learn. The OSCAR portion in particular is very comprehensive. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks, Paul. I appreciate your reading. It ain't easy to get people to read these things. But it was my accountant (who knows nothing about opera) who advised me to put Callas in the title as what I'm told is called a "click magnet". It worked for a day until people caught on that it was about that most unmentionable subject after Cholly Handelman's body odor, NEW OPERAS and MUSIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  2. Thank you, darling. It’s always fun when you let your mind unravel in long form.

    Opera of the moment is a vexed question indeed. Because I live in St. Paul I get the feed from MN Opera: The Handmaid’s Tale, Dream of Valentino, Doubt, Manchurian Candidate, and, up-coming, The Shining and Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight, etc etc. I always walk in with high hopes; I invariably leave disappointed. Much of it has to do with issues you discuss, but something else is going on. The music is rarely written for the voice, as a sung medium, interestingly, or the composers simply don’t have the juice for sung music, for vocal line.

    But there’s something else…

    I have to travel to see opera. When I lived abroad that was not a problem; now I rely on Youtube or fly somewhere. Maybe I have become provincial. But I’m beginning to wonder…

    Network television is appalling, Hollywood movies are execrable across the board, and everyone knows the best stuff now is made for non-network TV, HBO et al. The Sopranos opened an era. The Wire had the guts to be brilliantly written and acted, with a blistering point of view and ideas worth spending time with. IMHO the finale of season 3 of Orange is the New Black was transcendent— brilliant, original, life-affirming.

    The costs of mounting opera in big houses makes it unaffordable for the young, the “middle class,” students, the “poor.” Creative constraints are often more restrictive than Lady Bracknell’s corset. I don’t think “opera is dead” but I think the whole way we think about opera is. The brilliant stuff on tv is brilliant because it isn’t strangled in the crib and doesn’t require Star Wars budgets. It’s produced outside the Blockbuster-Superhero-Franchise-driven Hollywood Industrial model which suffocates art. But turn on Netflix and you can see something that you could never see in a theater created by brave and fiercely original artists.

    Why aren’t operas being written for streaming media, video operas, with the artists in control, doing whatever the fuck they want to make it as absolutely brilliant as they can within the limitations of a conceptually limitless medium?

    Nothing replaces the immediacy of the live performance. I know that. That’s why I’m paying next years pension to go to Bayreuth this summer. But more people see shit on the little screen than in all the world’s opera houses combined. I see more opera on Youtube than I care to admit, a lot it no more worth watching than reruns of “I Love Lucy” or “Mommy Dearest”. More people saw La Boheme in one night “live from the Met” than had seen it in all performances combined since the Maestro laid down his pen.

    So why don’t composers and librettists, artists and visionaries, seizing the digital free pass which, among writers, is known as self-publishing, and make streaming opera. Put it out there. Promote on social media. The rest follows. Netflix started as a clever delivery system for DVDs. They are now producing art as notable as “Orange is the New Black.”

    Forget big opera bean-counter death squads and midget-minded donors, or little theaters that can only do so much, or so little, and dare do something breathtaking, or cranky, or ironic, a chamber piece, or something so big it can only be done small. We possess the tools for a new renaissance.

    Carpe diem! Eh?

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    1. Interesting proposal...perhaps opera for video might also provide a way to use miked voices at their full potential without the limitations of present-day stage miking (which always looks a little awkward--those headpieces!)

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    2. Larry you raise interesting issues. If America were Germany every major city (and there are many) would have arts subsidies even if there was a requirement that a % of operating costs be raised locally and through box office, an opera company, a symphony orchestra (probably outside NY, San Francisco, and Boston) doubling as the opera's orchestra, a ballet company with its own identity, which none the less worked in tandem with the opera company and a well-funded theater with two stages, a large one for more "commercial work" and a smaller "experimental" space.

      Moreover, there would be smaller subsidies for smaller presenters of opera, specialized orchestras (say for Baroque and late Rennaisence music) and a still more experimental theater or two.

      Subsidy means that employees of all these theaters would have living wages (varying of course), everybody would have health and dental coverage, "artists: extending to composers, playwrights, writers of fiction, choreographers, lower level conductors, directors, painters (who might do design work for opera, ballet, and theater) could apply for supplements to help with rent and living costs. No one would get rich, but there is a difference between dire poverty or the constant struggle to maintain some kind of life especially if one has dependents.

      The citizens of that city and of regions fairly close (who could commute in easily and inexpensively on public transportation) would be able to avail themselves of all these offerings, with only a small % of tickets scaled high.

      The various art entities would be organized into the school system, teaching and performing in schools, which in turn would prepare classes to see performances.

      These might still be "provincial" in the sense that the biggest stars on the circuit would rarely perform, and there might be compromises such as we see in our local companies here in the USA. There are wonderful American singers the Met will never hire, and there are capable but less memorable singers who can get the job done, as is true of actors, conductors, directors, dancers and choreographers,

      The first nights of the major companies in the country would be telecast as well as net streamed as well as broadcast, not only operas, but plays, and orchestral concerts. There would be programs on TV (probably at off hours but able to be recorded) where there would be trailers. discussions and excerpts performed from the major evenings in the season, and where also the controversial or interesting novels and non-fiction works would also be discussed.

      Audiences would be likely to see the arts as a part of life in general and civil life in particular, not as something exotic, bizarre, out of the question or irrelevant, as is now the case in the USA. Students would have arts training from the earliest grades, learning the basic conventions of different arts through making music or doing plays and through seeing them professionally mounted. None of this makes everyone a fan or even a big majority fans, but it means "ordinary" people who would much rather watch sports or monster movies or play video games are not desperately lost at a play, opera, ballet or concert and may even attend a few of those now and again.

      It seems to me that because American is slipping toward second world status, third world in some ways, the alternatives you propose are band-aids that will do little good. The discovery made by 'Net streaming services that do small scale original series is that there are an ENORMOUS number of gifted actors, directors and writers who don't work in America and who will work for very little, partially for the joy of it, and partially for the hope that it will lead somewhere with better pay. The tech equipment is smaller and cheaper than anyone imagined it would be even in 1990, so quality is good.

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    3. PART 2: Yes, some of these shows are off beat but others conform to the usual sitcom standards only with rougher language and no euphemisms. They have short runs, and most are disposable. So the money spent isn't either prohibitive and sometimes profits are turned one way or another. Like the independent movies of 1990-2003 the idea is that one has product for a small amount and that success does not require massive profits. And there is no need for a huge audience.

      When you mention pay cable like HBO and the others, they spend as much as the Networks with fewer opportunities for recovering their investments. They cancel shows right and left, censor them and reject "difficult" material (it seems more radical only by comparison). As long as their subscriber base remains high they have a budget, but they have to careful to lure as many subscribers as possible while alienating as few as possible. Basic Cable TV is not a paradise by any means (and despite the occasional lucky show such as "Mad Men" the shows run 7 to 10 episodes a season, are lousy, as cheap as possible and disappear quickly.

      One way or another large scale TV is always number intensive. So who would watch opera -- you are not talking about a 'Net show with a handful of characters or less, in an easily and cheaply rented studio, shot with a handheld camera. Opera even on a smaller scale will always require more people, more space, more money. It will take investors to afford to do, and enough viewers paying something (or advertisers drawn by the number of viewers) for those investors to continue.

      Anything is possible up to a point, chamber operas with one or two characters and a combo, done with no set and in street clothes could be affordable but I'd be skeptical that you'd get large numbers to watch it.

      I'm not sure what the future will bring. The Met is a hard model to sustain and may well go under eventually. Some regional companies that do less and have shorter seasons, as well as boosters with deep pockets might survive. But ultimately it's an art form that is foreign and bizarre to most Americans. I think European broadcasts that can be gotten either for a small fee or free on the 'Net, YouTube offerings of new productions, the occasional Blu-ray or DVD if one feels passionate enough about a particular opera or performer (and libraries lend them for the curious), university productions and local small companies are the future. But just my opinion. Opera, I believe, I guess, is a "low tech" phenomenon!!!!

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  3. Well, Widder Dearest, you may well be right. Part I is absolutely spot on, and, of course, will never happen here because it's too socialistic and we can't even have a national health service (and that alone makes us barbarians in the eyes of the world at large). And yes, video opera would be very limited until it caught an audience if, in fact, it could. (OK, so I'm an idealist) But we live in a moment that is so technologically explosive I can't help but think I see light at the end of that tunnel. It always presents itself to me like this: how did it feel, in the twelfth century, with a war on every front, disease, greed, maniacs in power, little war lords acting big and big war lords acting little from Gibraltar to Cathay, each Pope more corrupt than the last ad nauseum. Dark is how it must have felt, and somewhat hopeless. Despite that, Giotto found a way to breath life into tempera in wet plaster, Palestrina teased sublime polyphony out of plainchant, and within a hundred years the lost works of Aristotle et al were re-introduced from the East while the brilliance of Avicenna and Averroes flooded western thought and the Renaissance kicked in (although I have to admit that I, like Ruskin, prefer Gothic to Renaissance art). So are we poised at the edge of an abyss? or are we trembling on the brink of something so rich and vast in scope that our puny little brains can barely imagine it. A renaissance to put the Renaissance to shame. Or somewhere else, somehwere in between? Despite Ted Cruz and David Koch et al, I want to be hopeful. I came of age in the sixties. I want to believe there is hope, the preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Hey, Fox fired Sarah Palin. It ain't all bad. And somehow I just have to think that the brilliant potential of our currently squandered media and technology can be realized in a real and life-affirming art rather than the art of making money, a new art teeming with old, revivals and premieres we can scarce conceptualize. Hey, I can't help it. That's why I'm so rich and everybody is fighting to publish my books. ;-) Anyway, thank you for thinking out loud, thank you for thinking, period, thank you for engaging in this dialog, thank you for giving me the opportunity to think out loud. Maybe we can figure something out. Who knows? Somebody's got to.

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    1. Larry, thank you. Of course I am old, so naturally can not imagine a future, save a very short term one. However I would suggest that a single artist who emerges in a time of turmoil against heavy odds, Giotto or Dante is not the same phenomenon as an ORGANIZATION that must by definition require numerous people even on a small scale, who of necessity must be highly skilled, who of course will demand to be paid if only to service their college loans. I have no doubt that great poetry, great novels, wonderful music for small forces or one instrument, or voice and accompanying instrument is being written in this country. But none of those things require a chorus, an oprchestras more than one soloist and a "crew" both technical and administrative. I think it is the communal nature of "big arts", opera, the spoken theater, the ballet, the symphony that is most in peril. They are not only communal because they demand a lot of people to make them happen, but they demand a community of supporters and in America donors. And I don't really think there is much of a fix for that.

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  4. Some of the most engaging and fun opera I ever saw was at Long Beach Opera back in the 80s, when the Alden bros, still in knee pants, were redefining what going to the opera means. The LB Incoronazione di Poppea is still vivid, the crazy Ariadne (original version), a Hoffman, Orfeo, etc. They performed (mostly) in a 600-seat theater-in-the-round with the musicians tucked wherever they fit, and the singers — many of whom went on to Careers — were involved, committed, inspired. That can happen. We know it. And all the singers who get dealt out by the “big” houses for whatever reasons, and who can sing, and want to sing, who are dying to sing, they’re ready, aren’t they!? They’ll travel all over the fucking globe for a chance to sing a great role in a small house with a passionate audience and not much in the way of a fee. What we’re really talking about is creating, or lighting a new fire, under that passionate audience, and that’s where I think “new” media, streaming media, can do some of the heavy lifting, exposing people, creating a curiosity and then an appetite. We know that, it a certain sense, anything is possible. That doesn’t mean it will happen; but it is possible! Make ‘em laugh. Make ‘em cry. Thrill them. Blow their minds. They’ll be back.

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  5. I don't know. I've always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I certainly hope I'm drastically wrong but I don't see much of a long-term future for any sort of classical music, particularly opera, grandiose Met-style, or smaller, experimental, high-tech style in the United States. The art form needs new works from new composers, perhaps appealing to a totally new audience, but so much is stacked against this. The chances of a significant European-style subsidy being granted by any governmental authority here is slim to none. It reeks of the dreaded "socialism" that our clown-car politicians decry and detest. Our entire government, now a "for hire" or bought-and-paid-for institution, is a lost cause, sinking deeper daily into the pockets of the K Street lobbyists, oligarchs and mysterious powers that be. Elections are maintained for show but the slates of allowable candidates and the outcomes seem to be predetermined, or manipulated/adjusted after the fact, as with Bush, Jr. in Florida. Furthermore the country itself has peaked on the timeline of Empire and we are on the inevitable downhill slide, pissing away what treasure we have left to keep the Military Industrial Complex contractors open and buzzing 24/7 with a war here, a war there, as infrastructure at home rusts, rots and collapses. Part of that rot is the massive and I believe deliberate underfunding of Education: a placid, ignorant, undereducated, financially-stressed, electorate is what is wanted by politicians. In the context of Music, Art, Opera, etc. this educational underfunding has a direct and highly negative effect on the viability of any long-term future audience. If the groundwork of music, art, etc. is not laid in the early formative years in elementary school and continued through high school (Orchestra, Band, Chorus, reading or at least listening to good music, etc.) the seed of adult music appreciation is permanently desiccated and never really flowers. Hell, little kids today don't even hear William Tell or Flying Dutchman as familiar background music in cartoons, which I did when I was little. There's no real base or connection to art and music unless the individual parents are extraordinary. I'm not sure modern avenues of technology (Internet, Cable, etc.) will be the savior of some sort of morphed opera/musical art for the younger generation since they are being deprived of any knowledge, appreciation or education of the original forms. Maybe a whole new art form will develop, appreciated by the young ones, who knows? I am doubtful there's some great, new Renaissance just waiting around the corner to dispel the darkness which seems to be descending over our times. Most of the 20-30-40-something people I work with either don't know or maybe just heard the name Beethoven or Mozart, but couldn't identify 2 measures of anything they wrote. Nor would they know who Giotto was, let alone his teacher Cimabue. But young Giotto astonished and ultimately surpassed Cimabue, blazing an entirely new trail, so perhaps there is hope.

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  6. Dear Widder Claggart - please write something about Jon Vickers.

    Francois

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    1. Francois, thank you for being interested. I may write a longer piece about Vickers. But I think he was one of the great opera singers in a generation remarkable for enormous talents. Remember, his was the era of Callas, Tebaldi, Rysanek, Crespin, Price, Vishnevskaya, Farrell, Warren, Merrill, MacNiel, Bastianini, Taddei, Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau, Frick, Crass, Simionato, Cossotto, Barbieri, Arkhipova, Bumbry, Verrett, Ludwig, Sutherland, Nilsson, Moedl, Varnay, Borkh. He sang with many of these. Contemporary tenors included Del Monaco, Di Stefano, Corelli, Tucker, King, Thomas, Windgassen, Wunderlich, Gedda, Kraus, Simoneau. And I have probably forgotten a few people.

      In that amazing context, he was unique, totally unforgettable, astonishing. He was an organic singer, his enormous voice was joined to profound, intense feeling, exceptional musicianship, high interpretive intelligence and the kind of charisma no one can command. He was magic. As with all unique artists of genius he had detractors and some roles were not a perfect fit. But most of the time in my experience he was astonishing as a presence with an amazing sound and a tangible suffering soul. There was no way to forget his Peter Grimes, Siegmund, Florestan, Parsifal, Tristan, Don Jose, Otello, Canio, Aeneas, Samson (Saint-Saëns and Handel) even his Don Alvaro, where he had problems but felt the character's heartbreak so keenly your eyes and ears were nailed to the stage when he was on it. You had to recover from his performances. His truth was so intense it burned you. You couldn't sit back and be comfortable. You understood that in the fate of so many of these characters there was no comfort, no resolution. He was what opera is supposed to be, a voice that is not the beginning or the end but the path to music and to truths beyond music. In that sense, he was an amazing medium. I hope you got to see him, at least a few times. There are some powerful performances captured one way or another. But being in the presence of that fire and fury was a profound experience.

      I will stop there and words will never do him sufficient credit. But thank you again for asking.

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  7. happy new year!!2017
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