Tag Archives: Opera

A Guide to Gay Opera

OSCR_3405Very happy to see The New Republic has posted my latest review. In June I went to St. Louis and saw the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, and in August I took in Theodore Morrison’s Oscar in Santa Fe. Both deal with main characters who are gay, and that becomes a prompt for a longer piece about how gay issues are treated in media today. I find a distressing tendency to sentimentality and bathos, especially in Morrison’s opera about Oscar Wilde: 

The result is a passive, amiable, mildly likable vision of one of the most tart, acerbic, brilliant, and intellectually preposterous men of his age; and even Wilde’s likability is known not through what he says or does on stage, but by frequent assurances by secondary characters that he is a great and good man. He has no tragic flaw. In the end, he is simply a victim of intolerance. This is the source of the opera’s excruciating sentimentality, the reduction of Wilde’s tragedy to a fable of bigotry and victimization (with, of course, that happy Parnassian ending). The emotional arc is so familiar from so many bad films that one suspects a bit of creative treachery: gay subject matter may be in vogue because it is just edgy enough (but not too edgy!) to allow composers and librettists to pass off the old as new.

That last line–gay subject matter may be in vogue because it is just edgy enough (but not too edgy!) to allow composers and librettists to pass off the old as new–also goes for a lot of theater, fiction, television drama and art.

Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera: David Daniels as Oscar Wilde and Reed Luplau as Bosie; Photo by Ken Howard.

 

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The Met’s Onegin and Gergiev’s Cultural Politics

                An online petition asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin “to support LGTB people” seeks to connect the Met’s scheduling of Russian artists in a classic Russian opera with an ugly, and terrifying Russian law passed in a political climate of xenophobia and cynicism. Three potential culprits are singled out: The Met, the conductor of the performance (Valery Gergiev) and the soprano (Anna Netrebko). Citing Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality (repressed, indulged but never openly embraced by the composer), and Russia’s law effectively criminalizing any public support of gay people, the online petition argues that the September 23rd gala evening “dishonors” Tchaikovsky’s legacy. But it’s worth noting that opera schedules are worked out years in advance, and Onegin was certainly on the books long before Putin put his pen to the homophobic law.

            The Met and Netrebko have effectively answered the charge that they are participating in anything that dishonors Tchaikovsky. Peter Gelb, head of the Met, noted the company wants to stay focused on art, not politics, and that the institution is committed to treating all people equally. Critics can quibble with whether or not the Met has always been apolitical, and whether it was historically a comfortable place for openly gay people. And large cultural institutions can’t claim blanket immunity from the symbolism of cultural politics. There’s no single or simple rule that determines when an artist or an arts institution should take a stand on a moral or political issue, but there are three factors to weigh: The gravity of the moral abuse, the proximity to the question and the relative importance of the artist or arts group.

           But these days, the Met isn’t anti-gay and its only engagement with Russian politics is tangential at best. It’s certainly understandable why they don’t want to start hanging banners before every performance.  Netrebko, who like Gergiev supported Putin in 2012, issued a statement on Facebook earlier this month affirming her views on tolerance: “As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.” So there’s no need to bully any further the Met and its reigning star soprano.

            Gergiev, however, should be heard from. He is a major player in Russian cultural politics and a towering figure in Western classical music. A New York Times blog entry says he hasn’t responded to calls for comment. Last October, at the Library of Congress, he was asked about his views on the Pussy Riot situation (a politically oriented punk group jailed for using an Orthodox Church as a setting for an anti-Putin song) and he defended the artists’ imprisonment. So Gergiev is already on record for rather illiberal views of artistic freedom, he is more than a casual supporter of Putin and beholden to the Russian government for huge amounts of support for his opera company in St. Petersburg. If nothing else, perhaps this petition will force Gergiev to be clearer about his moral views, his accommodation with dangerous political actors, and his basic commitment to an open, tolerant and free society. One might ask him: If Tchaikovsky were alive today, and open about his homosexuality, should he be arrested, fined or imprisoned?

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Fit for a Tsar

    When I visited St. Petersburg last May, the Mariinsky 2 was still a work zone. Now it’s open. The new building is undistinguished and even quite ugly from the outside. I haven’t seen the inside yet. But I did write about the controversy over its site, cost and design in this month’s issue of Opera News. A chance to look at the deep authoritarian habits of mind that still rule so much of Russian culture.

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The Future of Opera

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the future of opera, whether it’s trending to a diminished state, with major companies economizing and falling back on a limited repertory of war horses, or thriving in new formats, new venues and new companies, in a post-Grand Opera sort of way. I’m in Santa Fe right now for the opera season, which is spectacular in the way I remember opera could be spectacular when I first fell in love with the art form: great repertoire, great singing, smart direction and passionate audiences. But I do fear we are entering an age in which the serious opera lover finds less and less to delight him, unless he goes to places such as Santa Fe or a handful of other companies where commitment to serious opera is pursued without embarrassment. I tackled some of these issues in a piece for Opera News, which the magazine has kindly posted online. Here’s a nugget of my futurist musings:

Indeed, one can imagine both futures simultaneously, a two-tiered opera world in which the vast majority of the population knows the form only in its digital simulacrum, while an eccentric elite of antiquarians persists in the old ways.

Photo credit: Robert Reck (Courtesy Santa Fe Opera)

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Wagner’s Genius for Self-perpetuation

In  last month’s issue of Opera News, I took up the issue of interpreting Wagner, in particular, the mania for ever more far-fetched ideological reinterpretations. I argue that Wagner locked future audiences into a rigidly “avant garde”-centric relationship to his art, and it’s now become a matter of diminishing returns:

[Wagner] created the intellectual construct for the ongoing reinterpretation of his work. Die Meistersinger isn’t just a comedy; it creates a template for how audiences should relate to Wagner’s music. In a conflict between philistinism and innovation, the opera invites us to identify with Walther’s brand of artistic progressivism. The conflicts in the Ring between Siegmund and Hunding, and Siegfried and Wotan, echo this basic appeal, enlisting audience sympathies on the side of rebellion and iconoclasm. Wagner, in effect, drafts us into the ongoing drama of his art — the notion that to love Wagner appropriately is to hate artistic complacency, traditionalism and bourgeois ideas about entertainment.

What to do about it? I borrow ideas from Susan Sontag and raise the possibility (far-fetched, I’m sure) of staging the Ring cycle without a director:

It would also be a more profoundly democratic Ring, a Ring developed by consensus. Chamber musicians regularly work this way, and even some orchestras have developed means for “interpreting” through consensus. Singers, of course, don’t have time for this kind of work, and the results could easily be a crazy quilt of discordant ideas. But it would be a fascinating exercise — a Ring developed not through the old, autocratic means of the director’s oversight (an antiquated model of leadership in almost all walks of life that don’t involve art or actual political tyranny) but through new, horizontal and socially networked avenues of decision-making.

Don’t hold your breath of course. It costs too much to stage the Ring to take any real risks.

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Newt Gingrich: Opera Lover

    As Newt Gingrich rises in the polls, it’s worth putting one little item on the table of public discourse: He loves opera. In Washington, lots of people love opera, but it’s rare for politicians with national ambitions to love it so publicly and openly as Gingrich has in the past. As anyone who attends the Washington National Opera–now the official opera company of the Kennedy Center for the Arts–can attest, he’s often there, especially on big gala occasions. That puts him in company with several Supreme Court justices, including Antonin Scalia and Ruther Bader Ginsburg. But Supremes have lifetime appointments, which makes it considerably safer to love opera in the open. Gingrich is still looking for benediction from the national electorate, which makes his embrace of the Irrational Art Form all the more daring. How will it play out? When someone asks the inevitable question about what kind of music he likes, will Gingrich say Verdi, Puccini and Mozart? Or will he and his people attempt to sequester the opera lovin’ data point in the same category as the former Speaker’s taste for big ticket items at Tiffanys?

It’s also possible that his love of opera could reinforce his public persona as an intellectual. Opera is for smart people, of course. Not likely. The base probably doesn’t much care about Rigoletto, Rheingold or Radamisto, and there’s a difference between seeming smart (having ideas) and seeming cultured.

The real question, for opera lovers, is what kind of opera does Gingrich love. Italian? German? French? Early Instruments? Regietheatre? Or classic old-guard production? Is he a soprano man? Or more inclined to the bass and baritone roles? These questions matter.

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Educating the privileged elite

Opera News has very kindly given web access to a story  I wrote for their July issue, in which I compare fanboy culture to opera culture:

Fanboys are not always boys, and they’re not exclusively male. They are fanatical, deeply knowledgeable about their obsessions (sci-fi, video games, anime, comics), and when they talk shop, they do not suffer fools gladly. They are the warrior-elites of what is often called “geek culture,” which is not, in the end, all that different from the culture of opera-lovers.

 And I find a few things that opera educators might envy about the more contentious, wild and vibrant world of fanboys:

 I don’t hold up fanboy culture as an ideal. But there are two valuable beliefs innate to their world that seem to have leeched out of the opera world: they equate knowledge with participation and pleasure; and they don’t expect anyone to educate them. The professional opera world often seems devoted to the very opposite of these two propositions.

This leads to a discussion of how people “self-educate,” and whether opera educators might learn from existing patterns of self-education, rather than try to institute old educational models. You can find the whole thing here.

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