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.
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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.

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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?

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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.


  1. Curious that the term epiphany (or to be more precise "personal epiphany") often comes up when discussing how one discovered high art. The ones who have one are often the ones who stay, IMO.

    I think that if one comes to high art through buzz about a superstar or event (ex: "Three Tenors") one is less likely to stay after the novelty wears off.

    And by stay, I mean become a patron of sorts-- whether humbly, by making a hobby of exploring the repertory outside that initial phase, whether humbly through recordings, or elaborately by paying top dollar for the best seats at the best houses wherever in the word, or anywhere in between.

    Not unlikely mind you. Just less likely.

  2. 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.

    I nearly killed some people during the Kirov Ring opera I saw for this very reason. There needs to be some way of communicating concert etiquette as something polite and with good reasons behind it, instead of making it into something thought of as socially imposing, etc. etc.

  3. "I nearly killed some people during the Kirov Ring"

    You weren't the only one. There were a couple of near-fights that broke out during, I believe, the first Valkyrie.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.