Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Opera's Relevance and Korngold

Greg Sandow's posting today about what's wrong with Don Carlo put me in mind of a posting of his from a couple of years back, in which he claimed Doctor Atomic wasn't really very relevant to today; we should all watch The Sopranos instead. Note this passage:
So again, with all respect to Peter and to John, if you want to know why new operas tend to be irrelevant, look no further than this supposedly relevant one. Opera simply isn't an art form anybody looks to for discussion of important issues. Sure, the Adams/Sellars Kinghoffer caused a stir, but not because any large number of even cultured, intellectual people took it seriously as a look at burning current concerns, but only because it broke what some people thought was a taboo.
I meant to blog about this back in 2005, but I find I did not. First things: Doctor Atomic sold out. Apparently some people thought it was worth seeing. Next thing: Did Greg truly not find an opera concerned with weapons of mass destruction and scientists' ethical and moral dilemmas relevant to the modern world?

Matthew Guerrieri has a very fine rant posted about Greg's Don Carlo comments. But I have to respond to this claim:
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.
I can't quite get a handle on exactly what Greg means here: surely not, as Matthew asks, that everybody carried rapiers and dueled on ships in the 1930s. Maybe he means that entertainment forms converged more than they do now? Or is he implying that you could go to the opera house and see lots of Korngold there? (You couldn't, as a look at the archives of any U.S. opera house will tell you.)

I guess what I'm wondering is why it's important that opera and movies should be similar ("close to everyday life" isn't quite what he means). And which operas is he talking about, anyway? The Met's repertory for the 1934-35 season included Aida, Hansel und Gretel, Die Walkuere, Manon, La Gioconda, Siegfried, Lucia di Lammermoor, Faust, La Boheme, Tannhauser, Mignon, La forza del destino, Linda di Chamonix (!), La Traviata, Lohengrin, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra (the house premiere), Cav, Pag, Der Rosenkavalier, Tristan und Isolde, Don Giovanni, In the Pasha's Garden, Goetterdaemmerung, Romeo et Juliette, Madama Butterfly, Die Meistersinger, Das Rheingold, Il Trovatore, Parsifal, Lakme, La Serva Padrona, Don Pasquale, Peter Ibbetson, La Sonnambula, Pelleas et Melisande, and Tosca. (Whew.) How were those operas any more or less like movies then? The staging would have been far more stilted than today, when we are more concerned with naturalism and real acting. Stand-and-sing was more the style in 1935 than now, and you wouldn't have found that style in many films.

Lawrence Tibbett was athletic and might have been able to pull off some Flynn-like stunts, although of course Flynn may have had stunt doubles. But Lauritz Melchior wasn't going to be singing Tristan while swinging from the booms, and anyway, the big news of the season was the debut of a new soprano from Norway, one Kirsten Flagstad, singing in the highly irrelevant operas of Richard Wagner, which, of course, have nothing to teach us about the world, power, or nature.


A.C. Douglas said...

I meant to blog about this back in 2005, but I find I did not.

But I did (surprise!).

Right here


Lisa Hirsch said...

Indeed you did!

David B said...

While I'm more in agreement with you and Matthew than with Greg, I think you misread his Don Carlo post by viewing it through the lens of his Doctor Atomic post. It seems to me they're making separate points: the point isn't that Captain Blood was contemporarily relevant the way The Sopranos is, it's that Captain Blood felt rathe rlike an opera in terms of "plot, dialogue, and aesthetic ... [and] score." He didn't say anything about choreography, so the prevalence of "stand-and-sing" opera staging at the Met is irrelevant to his point. I don't think the fact that the operas at the Met weren't by Korngold is relevant either.

The whole point is about cultural language and familiarity, not political relevance. So any lack of political relevance of either Captain Blood or the 1935 Met season cancel each other out. This isn't about the problems he sees with Don Carlo; that was a different point.

The way to disprove Greg's argument that things have changed since then is not to find other 1935 movies that are less opera-like, but to find movies of today that are opera-like, not necessarily in the same way but in some ways; or at least have some kind of similar grounding in traditional high culture.

David B said...

Sorry, I meant:

"This isn't about the problems he saw with Doctor Atomic; that was a different point.

rootlesscosmo said...

Sandow's in his sixties, as I am; unlike me, he seems to chafe at this. A few years ago he recounted passing a concert hall with a younger woman he called Joanna, who, seeing the tottering ancients who made up the audience, asked wonderingly "Who are these people?" He seemed to think this was a good question, rather than a piece of insufferable bad manners. (The answer, of course, is "Why, honey-lamb, they're you in not too many years, should a wise Providence spare you to us so long.") I think he wants to be young, or anyway to feel welcomed by the young, and his desperate sliming of concert music is no more than a degrading--and, sorry Greg, hopeless--effort to win their favor.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Replying very, very belatedly (and who knows if anyone will SEE these...the mail-followup-comment-to-me feature is newish) -

David, maybe; I would have to re-read everything to see if I agree.

rootlesscosmo, those are good points! I got into a fight with him last year some time after he quoted a 20-year-old student at Eastman who felt "oppressed" by dressing up to attend concerts. I felt like she was pretty much parroting what he wanted her to say; I mean, I haven't dressed up to speak of in a loooong time. Yeah, I dispense with jeans & t-shirts, but I don't wear dresses unless I'm wearing a gown.