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.
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.