Saturday, August 18, 2012

Let Me Count the Ways

Zachary Woolfe has yet another article in the Times about the state of opera. My jaw dropped open around the second or third paragraph, no, wait, when I read the headline. Doesn't somebody bother to read this stuff before it goes into print? And then think, for even thirty seconds, about what they're reading?

Let's start with the headline, which I admit, Woolfe didn't write: "How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera."

My first thought was, duh, movies are attended by millions more people than get to live opera, because, duh, the biggest indoor opera house in the world, the one not far from Times headquarters, holds about four thousand people and can only put on one performance at a time, Ariadne auf Naxos notwithstanding. Movies have been cutting into live performances since the turn of the last century, just as recordings have reduced the need for live musicians in dance clubs, night clubs, all sorts of clubs. This is not a revelation. It's stating the obvious.

Then there's the first film that Woolfe discusses, Kevin Lonergan's Margaret. You may have read about this picture....which had a theatrical release of fifteen minutes before various ugly disputes got it pulled. It's now available on DVD and is supposed to be a masterpiece. I'd like to see it, but its portrayal of opera isn't killing, or even wounding, the form, because nobody has seen it.

He then mentions, almost in passing, that some of the issues he sees in American opera predate the recession by decades, such as the stagnant repertory and stubborn insistence on traditional staging. Again, duh: all you have to do is glance at the on-line archives of San Francisco Opera or the Metropolitan Opera to see that new and unusual works are rarely given more than one run and popular old works cannot be dislodged, ever. (It's a big surprise that, for once, the Met isn't staging La Boheme in its upcoming season. Or was that the season just past?) Opera is expensive; bills have to get paid; yes, you'll see a lot of Traviatas and Bohemes scheduled.

Next, and this is less of a duh: he completely mischaracterizes the role of La Boheme in Moonstruck. Let me make one of my own personal prejudices clear: I consider Moonstruck to be one of the greatest film comedies of the last fifty years. It's beautifully acted and put together like The Marriage of Figaro: the complicated clockwork of the plot works itself out, in the end, with all of the strands tied up nicely. Danny Aiello's double or maybe it's a triple-take in the scene at the end: priceless.

Anyway, no, La Boheme is not an excuse for nostalgia and a nice night out in Moonstruck. Ronnie Cammareri - that's Nicholas Cage - has a deep emotional connection to, and affection for, the opera. That's why he makes Cher listens to it, and why it's a big, big deal for him to take her to the opera. He's serious about the opera.

Next up: films have taught Americans a particular idea of opera. Let's start with this: Pretty Woman is from 1990, Moonstruck from 1987. Are they current, and currently interesting, to younger people? How much did they really influence people who were adults when they saw the movies?

Honestly, our ideas about opera are formed by opera houses themselves and how they present the form, and by rags like the Times, which write about opera every day. And did you notice that in the US, the big opera houses were founded by either the Italian community (San Francisco) or high society snobs (the Met)? And that people of all classes have always gone to the opera?

I'm totally with Woolfe on the timidity of opera production in the U.S. I am not sure how to get around that: it's not as though public TV or profit-making TV is making the work of Herheim and Bieto available on a regular basis. The federal and state governments are not going to suddenly put a billion every year into opera subsidies, freeing our companies from market demands.

But I think Woolfe might consider taking a look at companies that are doing better than the Met (San Francisco Opera will show three 21st c. operas during this coming season, all SFO commissions or co-commissions). And I definitely wish he'd work less hard setting up straw men to knock down.


Anonymous said...

The Hollywood movie that most struck me as revealing of the popular/media image of opera was The Big Broadcast of 1938.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, indeed - and how many people under 40 have seen that one? Or under 70, for that matter?

Anonymous said...

At the time? Quite a few.

I expect that it, and others like it, were tremendously influential in shaping taste. Remember that these were the days when classical concert music, and opera along with it, were being heavily pushed as part of the necessary equipment of the educated person.

Zwölftöner said...

Thanks for this – I must admit I had to think if I was remembering Moonstruck correctly after what Woolfe wrote; now it turns out so having read what you wrote and a similar post made to AMS-L. Reading between the lines the article does seem to be more about artistic stagnation at the Met, though in finding a new hook to hang this non-news on it’s unfortunate he settled on such a spectacularly half-baked one; if only Oestreich actually did some editing once in a while. The gulf between the popular imagination and understanding of opera’s culinary and narcotic aspects strikes me as a rich topic deserving of sober, essay-length enquiry rather than pessimistic sensationalism – maybe such a piece might remind us that the one time when cinemas were undeniably taking audiences away from opera houses and theatres was when, to take Germany as an example, theatres were the most technically advanced in the world, though out of the general despair that cinematic illusion could never be matched even on these stages there came a re-entrenchment of theatrical values and tendency for pared-down productions which did not attempt to compete with cinema on its own terms.

Lisa Hirsch said...

calimac, I meant how many people currently under 40 (or even 70) have seen The Big Broadcast of 1938?

It would be interesting to try to determine its impact on popular taste, for sure!

Zwolftoner, exactly: he's just flailing around and missing his central point about artistic stagnation, and of course not just at the Met. And I really really like your idea for a better / deeper / more thoughtful piece.

Anonymous said...

I knew you meant currently. The thing is, I didn't. Opera's popular image has been created over time. This was a historic datapoint in the creation of that image.

Anonymous said...

Well, I've just seen Margaret, and its depiction of opera is hardly fairly characterized by the teenager's question, "Why are you going to the opera?" Her mother replies she's not a big opera fan either, but she's been invited and maybe she'll go and learn something. She finds Norma beautiful (we get about one full minute of one aria) but the patrons pretentious, mostly because they use the correct Italian forms of "bravi" and "brava" when appropriate. Her date gently informs her that there's nothing pretentious about using words you know correctly, and that's that.

I can't say much about the place in the story of the later appearance of the Barcarolle from Hoffman (shown at much greater length) without summarizing and giving away too much of the plot, except that it's the emotional climax of the movie and this time the characters are driven literally to tears by its beauty.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks! I should have it on DVD from Netflix today, myself; not sure when we'll get to it. But it sounds as though Woolfe is completely off the rails in his article.

Dr.B said...

I've seen the big broadcast but then I'm over 70. I agree that he completely misses the point in Moonstruck. When I scan over an article an see both "opera" and "relevant" I immediately go on to the next thing. What exactly is relevant about movies about cartoon characters? All forms of present day entertainment are in a sorry state while opera remains its wonderful self.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I have seen parts of The Big Broadcast and you know, I'm putting it on my Netflix queue right now.

Paul Pelkonen said...

I still think the best opera movie I've ever seen starred three brothers and Kitty Carlyle.

Joe Barron said...

No, the best use of opera in the movies came in What's Opera Doc and Rabbit of seville. And I think most of us remember them. We can also see them on youtube. hard to believe, after reading your criticism, that Woolfe is supposed to be the great white hope for classical writing at the Times.