Not quite pop

Yes, the border — porous, shifting, maybe even nonexistent — between art and popular culture is tricky to understand. Yes, the role of pop culture in art (and of art in pop culture) is worth debating.

But please, let’s be clear about which is which. With near shock today I read this in Musical America, a website (once, in the distant past, a magazine), which I and many others turn to every day for news about the classical music world:

For all the talk of Riccardo Muti’s resistance to popular culture at La Scala, the conductor is in talks with Oscar-winning film director Pedro Almodóvar to stage “Così fan Tutte” at the famed opera house in 2006.

The original story came from The Guardian in England, but this summary was written for Musical America, and the pop culture comment (which doesn’t appear in The Guardian) is just plain addled. Almodóvar may be a film director, and film may be a popular art, but Almodóvar’s films are hardly popular culture. They’re art house films, and as serious as any art around. In fact, isn’t Almodóvar a far more serious artist than Muti? Muti, glamorous, safe, spends all his time with works from the past; Almodóvar takes chances with every film, and probes deep into uneasy realities. Muti lives in a hall of mirrors, an unchallenging fairyland; Almodóvar, if he succeeds as an opera director, might bring depth to La Scala. And his steady gaze into the whirlpool of men and women could do wonders for the ambiguous passion that makes Così so hard to understand.

We have to know what pop culture is before we can wisely talk about how it dances with classical music. And we should never assume that classical music — simply by being classical music — is automatically serious art.

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