Any Fool Can Start Over

What does it take to produce an old work well?

Is it like being the person who restores great art? The person who scrapes off years of dirt and soot, cleaning and repairing, maybe even re-painting certain areas or restoring the canvas? The restorers do this so that the public can see the great work as the artist intended it to be seen, so that it’s greatness can continue on for generations.

Have you ever wondered why no one has put Venus di Milo’s arms back? They’ve been gone for a long time, right? Why hasn’t someone “fixed up” the Parthenon? We know how it was built and how to make it new again. Why not?

The mentality about what gets “fixed”, what gets left alone and what gets invisibly restored is one that the art world discusses, sometimes with controversy.

We don’t see that so much, however, with music and dance. Somehow, it seems as if certain works can be “redone” with impunity. Perhaps no one has as yet had the gaul to rewrite Mozart’s notes, or Wagner’s, but many people have completely thrown out all of the meaning of the story, it’s characters and it’s power just to be “different”. The idea that this shows creativity or someone sheds new light on the works in question in simply stupid. Would it be helpful to repaint Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” with the men in modern dress so young people could “relate to it better”!

It takes quite a bit of thought, of insight, of humility, really, to approach a work that has been seen by many people for a long time that it has become “a classic”. It means that you are entering into a rarified atmosphere, one where you are joining with others who have been perceived as being “great”. If you are to align yourself with that which has make a work endure, should you not do so with a feeling of respect, maybe even reverence for the work itself? It takes much more skill and a truly unique approach to do what has been done many times in the same way others have done it, but with a fresh attitude. That’s not the same as changing the work itself to “express yourself”.

How would it be if someone came along to “re-choreograph” the work of George Balanchine? The idea of “upgrading” Mr. B because his work is “out of step with the times” would horrify most ballet fans. Why is it then that no one says boo to “Eurotrash” productions of operas, or of “revisions” of Broadway shows that make the original shows almost unrecognizable?

Audiences for classical music have been dwindling for at least a generation. If you go to a classical concert, there are many grey heads in the audience. The companies, big and small, all struggle to stay afloat financially and many have just disappeared. The lament is that young people do not want to attend these performances and that may indeed be the case. Classical (or any kind) of music education has been partially or totally eliminated from many schools. No one thinks we need to appreciate it, so no one teaches people how to appreciate it. It should come as no surprise then that the audiences who are still in the seats are the folks who are old enough to have gotten that same education in school.

If arts organizations are to flourish, they need to do only a few things. One is to make sure that the works they present are respected by the directors, set designers, costume and lighting designers and the conductors. Two is to make sure that the people who are cast are REALLY REALLY good, either actors or singers, and that THEY are respected. Three is that the audience should be offered before EVERY SINGLE PERFORMANCE of an opera or concert, some kind of educational lecture (optionally), to make sure they can learn to appreciate what is being presented, so that they will want to return.

If the “money people” (the ones who do the hiring, and the boards who do the fund raising) continue to approach the performing arts as if “starting over” is a good thing, they should not be surprised when people stay away in droves. Any fool can start over, doing whatever he or she wants, with the idea that their own ego-tainted brilliance will coat the classic works with their particular “genius”. When the standards are thrown out the window, when there is no one to say “this is awful”, when anyone can do just about anything to an opera, a Broadway musical or any other work of music, things are in terrible decline. The audiences are NOT fools, and the being in charge should be paying to that if they want to stay in business.

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