Il capitano sangue

If you want to know why classical music has receded from our culture, just watch some of Captain Blood, the classic (and wonderfully silly) 1935 pirate film, starring Errol Flynn. It might as well be an opera. Its plot, dialogue, and aesthetic are almost operatic, and so is its score, by Erich Korngold.


Which meant that in 1935 you could go to the opera, and go to the movies, and see practically the same thing. So opera was close to everyday life, in a way that it just can’t be now.

Why not? Because the horizons of our culture have expanded. Last year I saw Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette film, and not long after saw Don Carlo at the Met. Coppola shows the French royal court as a dizzy, corrupt place, full of modern references (dance music from our own time, shoes from our own time), and full of individual aristocrats, each with his or her own personality. Verdi might have been a great composer, but through no fault of his own he lived in the 19th century, and in Don Carlo he shows us the Spanish royal court as the 19th century might have imagined it, formal, a little stilted, and full of aristocrats who (apart from the leading characters) sing anonymously as members of a chorus. You really can’t do that any more. Through no fault of its own (to repeat the phrase), the opera looked like an old movie.

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  1. says

    Greg, I think you have your causality backwards here. Comparing the contemporary social relevance of the plot and characters of a Verdi against a modern film isn’t a fair comparison, but the reason it’s tempting to do so is that opera has been museumized. The reason for this museumization is that, as you say, “classical music has receded from our culture” — as the middle class expanded and brought popular art to prominence, the “high” arts were museumized in order to preserve their status as “high art.” There are contemporary operas that have the same kind of social relevance as contemporary movies, but they don’t generate popular interest either because classical music isn’t popular. And I suspect most people who don’t like opera and classical concert music wouldn’t be able to tell you that the characters in Verdi aren’t socially relevant, because they’ve never gotten close enough to a Verdi opera to find it out.

    I think it’s much simpler than this. The culture around us has evolved; the opera repertoire on the whole hasn’t. So the culture now presents us with things that are greatly different from what the opera house offers. This is one big reason why people who don’t pay attention to classical music can’t tell us anything about Verdi’s characters. The opera world hasn’t given them any reason to care. If most of the operas we see were both modern (not necessarily new, but fitting with our culture) and truly stirring, the way contemporary music and films can be, then old operas would take their place, just as old films have.

    Which doesn’t mean that Don Carlo would be put in a category with Captain Blood. Put it with Citizen Kane — a masterwork, but still one that’s clearly from the past.

  2. BP says

    This reminds me of something I meant to write in response to your post about Handel opera, but didn’t get around to. People tend to adapt art of the past to the aesthetic of their own time. I suspect that the lack of ornamentation in opera isn’t really an expression of puritanism, but of the aesthetic of our time. We moderns don’t go much for frills. We like simplicity and clarity. Unornamented Handel makes more sense to us.

    The entire historically informed performance thing has a lot of this going on. Who knows exactly how they played Bach in the 18th century? Who cares? Of course HIP draws on a lot of scholarship, but the reason it’s caught on is that the results speak to us in the 21st century.

    But aren’t you talking about a kind of modernism that peaked — certainly in classical music and architecture — about a generation ago? “We moderns don’t go much for frills. We like simplicity and clarity.” So now explain Frank Gehry, the beats, Madonna’s videos, Prince, the burlesque revival, lots of current fashion, the summer of love (and all the psychedelic graphics associated with it), the menu at Jean-Georges (an over the top, absolutely wonderful NYC restaurant), and the Marie Antoinette film I mentioned, Seems to me we have just as much taste for excess as we do for clarity. It just depends on what you like, and where you look.

    Or listen to René Jacobs conduct Mozart, for instance on his new recording of Don Giovanni. He makes tempo changes (for instance right at the start of the first scene, in the middle of Leporello’s grousing) that aren’t even remotely marked in the score. Or, even more, his recording of Handel’s Rinaldo, with timpani improvisation, the wildest continuo realization you’ll ever hear, singers scatting along with orchestral ritornellos, and much more. Extravagant vocal ornamentation would fit right in, and it’s curious that Jacobs’ singers don’t do it.

  3. says

    I think you have too myopic a definition of “classical music.” I could use the same analogy to illustrate why Bang on a Can has become so popular, since it captures the same aesthetic qualities as Marie Antoinette.

    Which is a point I always make myself. In my post, I was talking about the classical music mainstream.

  4. Christina says

    This is a bit simplistic of an approach especially as far as Verdi is concerned who wasn’t trying to depuct actual life in the 16th century, but based his Don Carlo mainly on Schiller and his political and intellectual ideals. Moreover I sugest you go and see other more vibrant and exciting productions than the one you saw.


    Love your e-mail address! I take it you’re a mezzo? Your loyalty to the opera reads loud and clear, and bless you for it.

    I don’t think Verdi’s intentions matter very much here. We inside the classical music world understand things like that, and can make allowances. But we often have trouble seeing how classical music looks to the outside world, whose support — since the classical audience has been aging for 50 years — is more and more important, if classical music is going to survive. Whatever Verdi’s intentions were, and however his operas can be understood in the context of his own time, it also matters how they look today, to people who haven’t done the probing you and I have. And they look much like Schiller plays, which you’ll notice aren’t produced much by theater companies. Theater companies in America, in fact, do plays by living playwrights for about half of their productions, which then gives the older classics they produce an understandable context.

    I agree with you about other productions. The Robert Carsen production at the Met of Mefistofele would be a perfect example — something that puts an older work in a chilling modern light. The Butterfly production that opened last season was also wonderfully effective (and modern), though it couldn’t quite rid the work of its faintly faded old- movie air. (At least for me.) I’m looking forward to a production where Butterfly stabs Pinkerton at the end, instead of herself.

  5. Bill Brice says

    I was interested in your observation as to how certain 1930s-vintage movies have that “operatic” quality. I submit that there exist at least some more-or-less contemporary films that lean quite heavily on opera traditions. Specifically, I’m thinking of Coppola’s Godfather (I and II). Both films seem to me to be quite consciously extending the sensibility — even some techniques — of the later Italian verismo opera. What is Don Corleone if not an exemplar of Rustic Chivalry? And, of course, Nino Rota was operating well within his comfort zone as an opera composer.

    To me, this is a wonderful example of how opera can retain its vitality in our time, by influencing other things, and by being reinterpreted. I can imagine (and probably it’s happened) a production of Cavalleria Rusticana influenced by The Godfather.

  6. Lily says

    Captain Blood is not a silly film, It`s one of the best pirate films ever filmed , I think the Pirates of the Caribbean is a really stupid film , with a kind of gay pirate.

    I’m not sure why having a gay pirate should contribute to making a film silly.

    And what about Errol Flynn, whose motto in life (as spoken by himself) was, “If it moves, Flynn fucks it”? Men, apparently, as well as women. I think some of his scenes with men in Captain Blood have a lot more erotic heat than his scenes with Olivia de Havilland. In fact, that’s one of the things that struck me most strongly when I watched the film. Then I looked up Flynn on the Web and fiound out that he’s widely thought to have been bisexual.

  7. says

    In 1935, the world was mired in a depression. New York City Opera didn’t exist, and neither did Chicago’s Lyric Opera. The Met database lists 161 performances that season. (There were 249 in 2005-2006, which suggests there’s a significantly deeper market than 1935-’36.) It seems specious to suggest that people heading to an escapist Errol Flynn swashbuckler were also buying opera tickets with what was left over after selling the flivver. I’d bet the posh audience that attended the opera in that decade didn’t concern itself overly much with whether the talkies comported with what they saw from the Grand Tier.

    Comparisons can be tricky, and I don’t think that the increase in the number of Met performances each year from 1935 to the present tells us anything about the strength of the market for opera in either year. Here are factors to take into account:

    In 1935, high-society patrons were far more important to the Met — financially and socially — than they are now. These people headed out every spring to their summer homes in Newport and elsewhere. They wouldn’t have approved an opera season that continued after they’d left.

    In those days, and in fact up through the 1960s, the Met went on tour at the end of each season. The 1935 tour was short, going only to Boston and Rochester. But still the tour was important, and surely had to be synchronized with the social calendars of wealthy patrons in the cities visited. So it couldn’t take place late in the spring.

    In 1935, the Met didn’t provide year-round employment to its orchestra musicians. Nor did it have any need to reach widely into New York. It had no incentive to extend its season, and also didn’t have the means to do so. It did no marketing, and also didn’t do any systematic fundraising. It didn’t even have an endowment until 1966, the year it moved to Lincoln Center. The interest, in 1935, seemed to be mainly in serving established subscribers (which in essence meant those high-society patrons).

    The population was smaller. The New York metropolitan area was a fragment of what it later became. I don’t have New York-area population figures, but the national population went up 227% between 1935 and 2002 (the last year for which I have figures). If the demand for opera had remained proportionately the same — and all other relevant factors were unchanged, which is a big if, but let’s do the math anyway — if they did 161 performances in 1935, they should now be giving not 249, but 365. Even adjusting for other factors, known and unknown (such as the rise of City Opera, which appeals to a largely different audience, but let that be), the growth from 161 to 249 now doesn’t look quite as large as it did.

    The Met now gets a significant part of its audience from people visiting New York. In 1935, with trains as the main means of land transportation, and a coast-to-coast trip taking a couple of days, there were surely fewer tourists from the rest of the US. And with steamboats the main way to visit from abroad, there must have been fewer foreign tourists, too. So in our time the Met has a market segment that didn’t exist to nearly the same extent in 1935, regardless of how the demand for opera has or hasn’t changed.

    Re your last paragraph, Marc, I wasn’t saying that there had to be any active crossover between the opera audience and the people who went to Captain Blood. My point wasn’t as specific as that. It was simply that the comparative similarity between movies and opera in those days — as compared to now — shows that opera (elite as it was) lay closer to the mainstream of American culture.

    One reason the opera season wasn’t as long in 1935 as it is now is very simple. This applied to orchestras, too. The patrons who supported big classical music institutions all headed off to their summer homes in Newport and elsewheree at a certain date, and wouldn’t allow the opera or symphony seasons to extend past that.

    If you’re making comparisons between that era and this one, you also need to count the performances the Met did on tour. I believe they toured back then, if the Depression didn’t curtail it. Certainly they did later.

  8. says

    Is the problem here the development of a canon of works over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries in the classical music world? I mean, when Verdi was writing his operas, the tradition was that the opera was a place to go to hear/see new dramatic works; to my knowledge, it wasn’t until later that it became common for companies to re-do a small collection of great works. (Likewise in the concert hall, not incidentally). This canon-building process is great for developing symbolic/cultural capital, but seems bad for maintaining a vibrant, relevant culture around the art.

    I don’t think I know the causality here, though. That is, did, for instance, film take over for opera because opera stopped being relevant, or did opera develop this other survival mechanism (canonization) because other forms were threatening its cultural centrality?

    Also FWIW, Why didn’t film become a medium for opera? When I think about, for instance, what Berlioz says he wanted to do with Les Troyens, or what Wagner seemed to want to do with all the Ring and post-Ring operas, I think, “if film were a viable medium then, they would have made films.” Or, perhaps more credibly, Film is an excellent medium for creating the sort of things they seemd to want to create.


    The canonization of classical music, including opera, took place gradually over the 19th century. But it really hit home in the 20th century, in conjunction with the more or less simultaneous rise of popular culture (which gave high art competition, and a reason to insist on how lofty it was) and modernism (which made the most vital new classical works largely unpalatable to the classical audience). It’s easy to see how canonization is a useful strategy in those circumstances, though it surely wasn’t a conscious one. It asserts the specialness of classical music, and (remembering strongly here your earlier point about how classical music can justify its funding, if we no longer think it the exclusive home of musical art) makes it possible to argue even more strongly that classical music needs financial and social support. And, at the same time, canonization provides a defense against the horrors of modern music, which included not just dissonant sounds, but at least to some degree unpleasant subjects. Strauss’s Salomé was banished from the Metropolitan Opera, because it was too shocking. In the face of that, one could fall back on the sacred (and above all unthreatening) tradition of capital A art.

    As for film, I suspect there was no rush to make films into operas because the movie studios correctly judged that the market would be too small. In any case, that market had already developed before sound films emerged, and opera films became possible. The studios may have reasoned (if they bothered to think about this at all), ‘Why try opera? We’re doing fine without taking that risk?”

    This said, opera and film (or, more generally, classical music and film) were a lot closer than they are now. Geraldine Farrar, a diva of the early decades of the 20th century, became a silent film star. Her popularity in opera lay the basis for her film career, but her roles generally had nothing to do with what she did on the opera stage. Other opera stars went to Hollywood, for instance Lauritz Melchior, the leading Wagnerian tenor of (approximately) the era between the two world wars, who played delightful roles in feature films. Beniamino Gigli, one of the leading Italian tenors, made films in Italy. Operas and classical concerts often featured importantly in movies — Citizen Kane, The Man Who Knew Too Much, A Night at the Opera, and so many, many others.

  9. says

    “It’s easy to see how canonization is a useful strategy in those circumstances, though it surely wasn’t a conscious one.”

    Yes, this is a salutary point. I’m often failing to point out that things that happen are not always purposeful. Still, what I’m meaning is to say that the canonization process–which I think people carried out semi-consciously and entirely in good faith, may have turned out to have had bad and unintended consequences for classical music.

    Perhaps this bothers me and seems worth pointing out because the music I’m most committed to, jazz, is in the process of canonization at least to some degree, using classical music as a model. (note, for instance: the university where I work has had a jazz festival every summer for the past four–and every single one was based on big concerts re-creating one or another classic recording; shudder). I worry about the unintended consequences.


  10. bill says

    Greg – Any opinions on the example of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings Symphony (movie music presented in classical music venues)? Maybe a good model for working classical music back into mainstream psyche?

    Bill, good question, and it’s hard to answer. Maybe we’ll just have to see what happens. The sound of classical music seems to have a comfortable place in the mainstream psyche, in part thanks to movie scores. What those Lord of the Rings performances do — apart from making money for orchestras, which is no small thing — is get people used to hearing this sound live, and coming to a concert hall. Whether that then makes them want to hear an orchestra’s regular concerts is another story. I guess I’m inclined to think the Lord of the Rings audience won’t want that. The music and ambience will be pretty far from the film score. What might be interesting would be for orchestras to invent programming that lay somewhere in the middle — halfway between a film score program and a normal one.

  11. says

    Lord of the Blings

    We are pleased to have attended the world premiere of Fifty Cent’s new symphony which premiered last night at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. Mr. Cent, himself, conducted the work fresh from his triumph on prime time television where he conducted an excerpt of his work as well as part of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in a water commercial. Mr. Cent’s latest symphonic piece, entitled “Fifty Cent is the Future of Classical Music”, was markedly different from his usual work, which involves constant repetition of a percussive nature overlaid with a kind of chanting. The new work, ably presented by the New York Philharmonic, was more in the vein of Harold Shore’s “Lord of the Rings Symphony” in that it assumed a more traditional form without burdening the listener with too much complexity or depth. This ensured that the audience was numerous; in fact, people were clamoring to get in long after it was announced that the hall was full.

    Although Mr. Cent’s “Future” symphony was well received by the assembled multitude, it became clear that there was some disgruntlement. Unlike the Shore work, which was quite easy to understand, especially by those who dislike such classical behemoths as Bach or Beethoven, the Cent piece had some passages that could only be described as moderately difficult. Some overtaxed listeners were heard to complain that they didn’t pay sixty bucks to have to strain their brains when, for three dollars they could download some really easy music to their iPod. The new touch iPod having just come out, this sentiment was, unfortunately, particularly widespread. This all but dashed the hopes of the concert promoters who had hoped that by dumbing down the repertoire they could attract the kind of people who never go to classical music concerts, which is just about everyone.

    On emerging from Fisher Hall the crowd was somewhat amused by the sight of one of the promoters, a Mr. Sandow, who was forced to make a hasty departure pursued by a pack of rappers.

    Roger Rudenstein

    September 18, 2007

    This is ridiculous. Why would I produce crap like this? My idea of something contemporary in classical music was this year’s Bang on a Can marathon, which is about as far from Fifty Cent as Roger is from making any sense.

  12. says

    Lamentation of the Senseless

    He wasn’t making sense, no sense at all. The very idea that a certain commentator would actually produce a crappy concert featuring the symphonic work of a rapper was either simply insane or a satirical exaggeration based on a statement the commentator had made in which he suggested that orchestras should invent programming that lay somewhere between a film score and, say, Beethoven in order to draw in classical-music haters. Clearly this idea had never been expressed and so a satirical exaggeration based on it was completely unwarranted. And if it was expressed, well it was just an idea and those are a dime a dozen, anyway…just look at the Internet. It’s full of people saying this and saying that and none of it is taken very seriously unless it’s a revelation about a celebrity, in which case it will make its way into prime time in a heartbeat.

    Clearly, it made no sense to even suggest that, just because someone was a pop music celebrity, someone’s feeble attempt at classical music production would be debuted in the sacred precincts of Lincoln Center. And that bit about the rappers chasing the producer down Columbus Avenue is a nasty bit of work and makes as much sense as just about anything else in the piece.

    But what we need now is not the senseless ravings of fiction writers, but a new theory, one that will unite such disparate elements as the reputed gayness of Captain Blood with the failure of Erich Korngold and many, many other composers to keep their hands off the Hollywood gelt. Done right this theory will allow us to produce music that can stir the classical music lovers who still exist into some kind of pride of ownership. Hopefully, that theory will solve all our problems and return us to the golden age. Hopefully, fiction will play a big role in this lofty plan.

    Also, the point about Don Carlo looking stilted today whereas a ditzy costume film with modern references looks contemporary was well taken and more about that anon.

    Roger Rudenstein

  13. bill says

    I used Howard Shore as an example because of the process that was used. Get people to associate the music with something they love and that will bring them in. I don’t think that’s ‘dumbing down’, I think that’s a very smart artistic/marketing move.