Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Despite Steve Smith's prediction to the contrary (not, mind you, that I blame him), Sunday's New York premiere of Ainadamar was most definitely amplified. Not only for effects and emphasis, but some poor soul seemed to be riding the gain on all principals from start to end, lest -- horribile dictu -- the audience inadvertently hear a true piano. I've no idea who (assuming, as I understand it [UPDATE: apparently incorrectly, see below], that the work was originally staged sans mikes) decided on this, but it shows a depressing lack of musical understanding. Even -- particuarly! -- if it was the skilled, well-educated Osvaldo Golijov himself.

But that's not fair: Golijov understands quite well what he's after. That just happens to be, instrumentation notwithstanding, the popular musical aesthetic. Composers have flirted with this before, of course, whether in a libretto or certain stylistic borrowings or whatnot. But such popular elements usually sit uneasily with the more classically high-cultural* parts of the whole. Not here: if Ainadamar was ever done unmiked, it was because the piece had not yet become truly what it is.

[*Not necessarily used to denote value, but, I think, an accurate description of the difference in vantage between the two aesthetics.]

It is no accident that popular music exploded in popularity with the advent of the microphone. Athletic and remarkably well-trained as any particular one may be, the live voice is a limitation: it (with its sibling, the physical stage presence of one body) ensures that characters in opera remain at a recognizably human scale even as they're kings or heroes -- or gods. This fits naturally with the aesthetic of high culture, which characteristically explores the (tragic or amusing) limitedness of individual man, his inability to throw off mortal bonds from even the highest point. (Even Wotan has such problems.) But popular art, which indulges such fantastic desires for the put-upon mass, is less happy in a natural breath. It's become immeasurably more effective as technology's let it scale to not one individual facing his destiny but to the mass audience itself, source and place of its intoxicating energy.

David Henry Hwang's libretto hits the familiar pop-story notes: oppression, freedom, the impermanence of death, oppression, revolution, the long-suffering "people", the glorious future to come, etc. The designated oppressor-figure is, of course, onstage for most of the action but gets not a single word (just menacing gestures with a rifle). After a seemingly-endless death scene, one main character promptly gets back up and sings himself into transcendence. The whole thing is -- like the script of, say, Braveheart -- fairly heady to one caught up by it and entirely ridiculous to one who's not. In either case, it's a purely populist confection.

Of Golijov's music, one bit seemed to call for actual classical performance (minus mikes and gain-riding) -- Lorca's invocation of Mariana Pineda at the first segment's end. The rest? The composer's note states his desire to make a reapproachement between "popular and serious":
Popular is serious on the continent where I was born and raised, where first acts of dictators when seizing power included cutting the fingers of popular guitarists, imprisoning singers, and sending songwriters into exile, among other acts of fear that were answered by some of the most tender and long-lasting music created in the last century.
In that, he's been successful: Ainadamar is popular. It's also serious. But it's not opera.

(And I'd been hoping to hear one of my favorite bloggers in one of those...)

*     *     *

This isn't to say that an opera can't put electronic resources to a high-cultural end. The classic modernist use has been to expand the sonic palette with more alien, denatured tones. But that's very far away here -- for all talk of new emotion or experience, pretty much all one makes out is the roar of an incited crowd.


  1. JSU, a few notes. Ainadamar, for better or worse, has always been miked. The style of vocal writing together with the size and instrumentation of the orchestra made it impossible any other way.

    I absolutely agree that it's not opera. What it is I don't think we have a name for. A "musical drama," maybe? The only character with operatic writing is the student, Nuria, and one character does not an opera make.

    Your Braveheart comparison is spot on. It has been so interesting for me talk with people after the performances, and they either seem to be blown away or totally indifferent! In order for constructs (gimmicks?) to really work, the audience has to be in the palm of your hand. And not everyone can fit.

    When we performed the work in concert in Atlanta, there was a wide consensus the the piece works best in concert form. Less of the drama, more of the music. Still miked, but it's different when it's not "an opera."

    I hope you enjoyed your evening, nonetheless!

  2. Anne-Carolyn: Thanks for the correction! Hope you're enjoying your side of the run.

    The genre classification of this piece -- and I agree it's some yet-to-be-named thing -- doesn't worry me all that much. But the rumored future raises the stakes:

    The Metropolitan Opera in New York wants to give Golijov a commission, but negotiations have been complicated by his fondness for amplified sound.

    Even unmiked, I suspect Golijov's heart is rather far from opera per se.

    Anyway, I hope we get to hear you at the Met before that does or doesn't come to pass.

  3. Mea culpa, JSU. I was most definitely mistaken, having misunderstood something Golijov was trying to explain in our interview with regard to the potential for future productions. I will certainly 'fess up to my error.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.