In the flurry of information going around on Robert Ashley, I just learned that Dalkey Archives, publisher of Ashley’s libretto for Perfect Lives, has my introduction to the new edition available online. I’ve always been proud of it, and Bob told me at one point that he had read it over and over, because, he said, “it makes me feel good.” Plus, via Carson Cooman, here’s Ashley’s Lullaby for violin and piano written in 2011, from an Australian recording I hadn’t heard before. A fitting memorial and quite a surprise.
There’s been some discussion, a little of it uncharitable, about whether Ashley was as misunderstood and insufficiently recognized as some of his admirers claim. The obvious rejoinder to that is that he wrote his operas for television, and only one of them got produced and broadcast in that medium. The expense was too overwhelming. He was a visionary dreamer at a time when our culture was quickly losing its capacity to dream, and its desire to make dreams come true. Those of us who love his operas are sadly aware that we can’t completely experience them the way he envisioned them,
as a television series, with each episode having some meaning and humor in itself, but ultimately part of a larger something that only makes sense when you come to know it. Television devotees who have watched The Honeymooners for most of their lives finally come to know something that they wouldn’t know if they had only seen one episode. Same for Star Trek. These were my models. I have had to compromise the form of the presentation of my operas, because I was not able to get into television. But they are pure television. They are meant to be heard and seen by two people sitting on a couch, having a drink, occasionally a snack, occasionally going to the toilet, finally giving up and going to bed because of a hard day of work. They are meant to be seen many times. The details pile up, and finally there is a glimmer of the larger idea. This is my idea of opera.
I imagine some more advanced civilization, hundreds of years from now, coming back to Ashley’s operas and finally realizing them in their intended form, the way we revive Baroque opera in detailed technological splendor now.
And then there’s the perennial classical-music snob’s reaction to Ashley, so anticipatable that I reflexively brace for it: “But is that really opera?” A primeval fish watches a lizard learning to scramble around on the dry land, and asks, “But is that really swimming?” “Don’t you love opera enough,” I want to reply, “to get excited about the next step in its evolution?” Bob was a giant, come too late in the sense that the civilization he lived in had quit believing in progress, and too early in the sense that few people could see the future he imagined with such detailed foresight. Even so, I’ve been gratified by all the reports yesterday of how many people are deeply, deeply attached to his music.