On January 8 I spoke on a panel at the National Opera Association convention. This was a panel of very diverse composers — myself, Ned Rorem, John Eaton, Eric Salzman, and Jack Beeson. I don’t want to diminish what anyone said (Ned, as always, was adorably Ned; Jack was wonderfully witty; Eric had forceful things to say about music theater that isn’t opera, and doesn’t use operatic singing), but I was especially taken with John, whom, alone of this group, I’d never met before. His presentation fell into three parts. First a fetching anecdote about a priest who didn’t want him to play electronic music in church, because “God doesn’t like it.”
“You talk as if God has rigid taste,” said John.
“He does!” said the priest.
Then, without warning, John presented his views on microtonal music, which he’s written extensively. And then he played excerpts from two of his operas. It was quite wonderful to hear music, actual music, on a music business panel. And, as I said at the start of my own remarks, if by playing his music John was doing self-promotion, bravo! Composers need all the help they can get.
I talked about my own return to composition, and also to the opera world, which in the 1980s I was very much part of. But then I left it, first to be a pop critic, and then to concentrate on new music and orchestras. Recently I’ve returned, now and then, and can spend very happy times with singers and conductors, dishing the opera world (especially the Met), and (of course) promoting my own work.
But I also see the opera world from outside. I had to drive into New York from my country place to be on this panel, and on the drive I listened to Jonathan Schwarz’s show on WNYC, New York’s public radio station. (It’s also on Sirius satellite radio.) Schwarz is a New York radio legend, and I’m very late in discovering him for myself. I could say that he plays pop standards, but that would be like saying Mozart wrote a few tunes. On the afternoon of my panel, Schwarz played part of a Sinatra recording session, including a first take of “Days of Wine and Roses” that sounded just about as good as anyone could be, and then a second take that, for sheer craft, artistry, ease, and attitude, wiped the first take out.
Then, to celebrate what would have been Harold Arlen’s 100th birthday, Schwarz played Aretha Franklin singing an Arlen song — breathtaking, sassy, triumphant — with expert jazz piano accompaniment, recorded live. And then, to celebrate Sondheim’s 75th birthday, the beginnings of three Sondheim shows, each indelible, each different from the others. Then Dolly Parton (!), some world music Schwarz heard on John Schaefer’s “Soundcheck” show on WNYC, Peggy Lee and Judy Garland singing a duet on TV…all this singing, I said on the panel, was so much sharper, both rhythmically and in the way the singers handled words, than opera singing. I’d rather have my music sung this way than the way opera singers — with their often measured, portentous tread — usually sing it.
Then, I said, we could look at opera’s past, at the way opera seria was performed in 18th century Italy. We imagine that Baroque music was restrained and dignified, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because, I said, nobody would believe me if I described in my own words what opera seria was like, I quoted Richard Taruskin, from his new, formidable, and feisty Oxford History of Western Music. Here’s some of what Taruskin says:
The liberties singers were expected to take with the written music, and had to take or lose all respect, would be thought a virtually inconceivably desecration today. But that was the very least of it. [One castrato] was actually arrested and imprisoned…for “disturbing the other performers, acting in a manner bordering on lasciviousness (on stage) with one of the female singers, conversing with the spectators in the boxes from the stage, ironically echoing whichever member of the company was singing an aria”…
[The] audience…was famed throughout Europe for its sublime inattention.… [As one writer reports] “noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked who meals, talked, played [at cards[, and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box.…
There is no comparable genre in classical music today. The modern counterpart of the opera seria castrato is the improvising jazz (“scat”) or pop singer.…However inattentive during recitatives…the audience sprang to attention when the primo uomo held forth, egging him on with applause and spontaneous shots of encouragement at each vocal feat.
I wasn’t saying all this to make a sensation, I said. Instead I wanted to suggest that if opera was more like this today, then things would be better for composers. Opera would be more informal and more contemporary. It would be more popular; there would be much more of it; and no matter how populist the operatic mainstream might be, there would be plenty of room on the fringes for art (just as there is in pop music today).