Heresy — Shostakovich, Handel, High Art, Peter Grimes

In a takehome exam that ends my “Classical Music in an Age of Pop” course, I asked my Juilliard students to tell me what the place of the standard classical repertoire should be, in a world where people under 40 (and plenty of people older than that) don’t make any distinction between high art and the rest of culture. I’d assigned the students reading that describes how this works, from John Seabrook’s book Nobrow.

Some people, of course, will be shocked. “He’s saying that Shostakovich is now the same as Mariah Carey!”

No. We can still make distinctions. We can still say that some things in culture are stronger, deeper, more honest — more profound and important — than others. Popular culture does that routinely. Nobody thinks Bjork or Bruce Springsteen do the same thing Mariah Carey does.

And in fact I think we gain a lot. We’ve removed an obstacle. Now people can come to Shostakovich without worshiping at the altar of art, without thinking they might not be smart enough, educated enough, informed enough, or, for God’s sake, well-dressed enough. Or that they might not know the proper rules for behavior at a concert. The music can stand forth on its own, and make its points as directly as Bob Dylan does. Or, come to think of it, as indirectly as Dylan does, since both Dylan and Shostakovich are layered, tricky, and complex.

And we gain something else, too. We can make distinctions between one classical masterwork (oops; I slipped into the old high art way of speaking) and another. I love Shostakovich. His twists, his complexity, his misery, his layers of sardonic adaptation, and his sorrow — all these things speak to me. But not long ago I listened, while I was driving back and forth between New York and my country place, to Handel’s Solomon. I like to check in with Handel sometimes, to see exactly what I think of him; musically, he’s a master, but I never care as much as I sometimes think I should.

But now, maybe, I understand why that is. Solomon seemed bourgeois to me, polished and highly contented, even pleased with itself, in a bourgeois way. It radiated Handel’s sense of himself as a member of the British establishment of his time. I could see exactly why, in the generation after his death, Handel became canonic art in Britain, someone who could speak to diverse political and religious factions who otherwise disagreed on just about everything else. (For more on this, see William Weber’s terrific book, The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology.)

Which didn’t mean I didn’t hear the music. Solomon is wonderfully crafted, put together by a master musician and master dramatist. Sometimes it’s touching. But the drama — or, more deeply, the meaning of the piece — doesn’t speak to me. I can appreciate art that affirms the status quo, but it’s just not my thing.

Peter Grimes. It was on public TV tonight, from the Met. I found it, flipping channels, stayed with it a while, then returned to it later. I had two quick reactions. First, the English subtitles. Really now — the piece is in English. We speak English in the US. We should be able to understand what they’re singing.

And yes, I know very well that there are English titles these days in live performances, too, and that opera singers can be hard to understand. But I’m thinking of this from the point of view of some smart, cultured person who’s not in the classical music orbit, and happens to run into Peter Grimes just as I did, channel hopping. The English subtitles for a work in English are bound to look weird. Do screaming rock bands on TV have subtitles? When I’ve told people not in the classical music world that I’ve written operas, they’ll often say, “What language are they in?” They seem, as they ask that, to understand that my operas are probably in English, since that’s my language. But still they have to check, because their gut understanding is that operas are in foreign languages.

And when they see those titles on TV, that understanding is confirmed. Operas are in foreign languages. Even when they’re in English! Because when it’s sung in an opera, English becomes a foreign language.

When I hear Italian singers sing Italian opera, I can make out nearly every word. Same with French singers in French opera. So what’s the problem with English? Patricia Racette, musing on this at intermission, talked about the dipthongs as troublesome for singers. Not for Frank Sinatra! Not for Ella Fitzgerald. Not for Pete Seeger, or Richard Dyer-Bennet, or John Jacob Niles. Not for Billie Holiday.

I thought the closeups of the singers might also be a problem for outsiders. They just weren’t convincing, even from Racette or Anthony Dean Griffey, who both have reputations as powerful actors on the opera stage. The expressions on their faces seemed half-formed. Likewise for the rest of the cast, except for Felicity Palmer, who as Mrs. Sedley rivaled any stage or film acrress. Many of the singers, in closeup, clearly were pretending. They couldn’t internalize their acting, so they imitated, very much on the surface, whatever their character was supposed to be.

Cut now to Bloodrayne 2 on the SciFi Channel, where I hopped (so sue me) when I got tired of Peter Grimes. Every face, in closeup, was convincing. I’ll happily concede that this movie…oh, you know. Junk culture. But it’s perfectly realized, for what it is, and in closeup, on TV, is convincing in ways that Peter Grimes couldn’t touch, no matter how deep its music and its drama are. It does the simple things right, and opera often doesn’t.

The message of this, at least for me: Opera, in our time, is going to work best if it’s stylized. Realism, given all the competition, seems beside the point. See also my post about Rachel Weisz in My Blueberry Nights.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says


    Very interesting comments on Peter Grimes. Having seen it in the theater on the original live broadcast, my impression was probably more favorable than yours – I thought it was a very exciting performance. And in general I think the English subtitles are very helpful even when a work is in English – I can hardly make out the lyrics to a Gilbert & Sullivan piece without them – but I think that Britten and Menotti, for example, are examples of composers who did a superior job of fitting the English into their orchestration in such a way that it was easier for the listener to follow along.

    But I think you make a very good point on the problem with the close-up in televised opera (although, again, I didn’t notice it so much in Grimes). In her book on Television Opera, Jennifer Barnes points out TV directors such as Kirk Browning early on discovered that using close-ups in a telecast could be dicey. The close-up magnified the singer’s technique, which could be distracting to the viewer; the camera could pick up the initial nervousness of a performer, which would largely be invisible to someone sitting in the audience; and it often provided enough detail to shatter the illusion that the singer/actor was trying to create. Barnes felt that the close-up probably worked best with children, as in Menotti’s Amahl, where the technique could elicit the audience’s empahty with the character. Her account of how Browning and Menotti staged the telecast of Amahl with infrequent close-ups shows how the medium has to make allowances for the kinds of things you point out. Interesting that this has been identified as a concern for over 50 years, and yet it still continues to challenge.

  2. robert berger says

    With all due respect,aren’t you just setting up a strawman and comparing apples and

    oranges? Nobody who loves classical music is

    “worshipping at a temple”.They just love classical music.Fans of Mariah Carey and other

    famous pop singers have every right to be

    fans of those stars;those who love classical

    music should never look down on them for

    their tastes.But people should not assume that

    classical fans are just a bunch of elitist


    I saw the Peter Grimes telecast and could not

    not disagree more.I thought it was superbly acted utterly believable as drama,as well

    as being musically of the highest quality.

    Robert, if you don’t know people who think that going to a classical concert is like worshipping at a temple, then you’re lucky.I’ve heard quite a number of people say things like that, and not criticallyl. This is one of the things they like about classical music. I’ve read similar things, too, and maybe worst of all, I’ve heard classical musicians talk in that way about their performances. At one conference I attended recently, involving a number of orchestras, many people kept referring to “our great art form,” in reverent voices. To judge from their tone, you might have thought they were devout Christians talking about the Holy Trinity.

    Of course pop stars have adoring fans, but the tone of the adoration in that part of the cultural world is quite a lot lighter. Nobody thinks Mariah Carey is doing something of great spiritual significance. Her fans, much more simply, just love her, without any grand cultural or ethical theories about it. I’ve worked in both classical music and pop, and I can assure you that the tone of voice among fans is very different on the two sides of the fence.

  3. robert berger says

    You compare great singers such as Sinatra

    singing English comprehensibly to opera

    singers.But those singers never had to sing

    without microphones in large opera house

    over a large orchestra, and Britten’s vocal

    writing is much more difficult than Jazz or

    Pop music.The writing is not so straight-

    forwardly melodic;it is often much more


    Thanks for raising this point, Robert. It’s something I didn’t explain as clearly as I might have. Of course it’s easier to convey words when you have a microphone. My point, though, was that Italian singers, singing Italian oepra, are often clearly understandable. Remember all that fuss in the ’60s over Joan Sutherland’s mushy diction? One reason for complaining about it was that other sopranos really could be understood.

    I’ve heard two arguments made to support the need (or alleged need) for titles even when a work is sung in English. The first argument is about sopranos, who for reasons rooted in physics have to change vowels on their high notes. So, yes, their words might not be clear, for the duration of the high note. But the same applies in other languages, so if Italian sopranos can be understandable, despite momentary distortions on high notes, why not American sopranos singing in English? (It’s usually easy, in any case, to fill in the distorted sounds from their context.)

    The second argument, which Patricia Racette really did make during an intermission feature in the broadcast, was that English has dipthongs that are tricky to sing. Which is true! But this is where the Sinatra comparison comes into force. Sinatra sings the same dipthongs, but he’s easy to understand. It’s very hard to see why opera singers should have so much trouble with them.

    As for angular singing, there’s a lot of that in jazz. Listen to Sarah Vaughn, swooping and sliding over a gigantic range. You can hear every word. And, you know, if Britten really did set English words to music in a ways that no singer could make clear (which I don’t for a moment believe), then he wouldn’t — at least in this aspect of his work — be all that good a composer.

  4. says

    Looks like a great class — I enjoyed looking at the syllabus. What were the most intersting student responses?

    Thanks, David. I could type for hours, answering your questions. And it changes every year! Each new group of students responds in its own way. This year, some of the most wonderful thoughts came from a student with more conservative views than mine, who kept coming up with vivid ideas about why classical music matters. Students also can be very interesting when they talk about limits in their musical education — how, for instance, they feel they’re restricted in the ways they can express themselves (though not every student thinks that).

    I’m also impressed by the ideas they come up with for new kinds of concerts. But the highlight of the course is always the presentations the students give at the end, when i ask them to describe a piece that they themselves play (or sing, or have composed), in very personal ways that would reach people who don’t know anything about classical music. The conviction and originality of what the students say — just about every one of them — is impressive in ways that go far beyond music. It’s a great tribute to the power of being human, to the originality all of us have inside us.

  5. Daniel McBride says

    “Nobody thinks Mariah Carey is doing something of great spiritual significance. Her fans, much more simply, just love her, without any grand cultural or ethical theories about it.”

    I think this might be a bit reductive.

    Here is an anecdote [from wikipedia (so sue me)] that is kind of ironic in this context:

    “[Carey] began singing at around the age of three, when her mother began to teach her after Carey imitated her mother practicing Verdi’s opera Rigoletto in Italian.”

    Or to put your comment differently — we should all beware of simple generalizations. Though I’m not sure what Rigoletto has to do with spiritual significance.

    And, you know, Celine Dion’s fans do think she’s saying something important. Maybe Carey’s fans think the same of Carey, but there can be truth even in a too-quick summary.

  6. says

    Sorry for the huge review, but I’m really loving the new Zune, and hope this, as well as the excellent reviews some other people have written, will help you decide if it’s the right choice for you.