Just came back from the Met (Opera), where my friend, Robert, and I attended “Jenufa” starring Karita Mattila. The opera’s music was lovely, the orchestra played nicely, the singing ranged from not-to-hot to wonderful but the set was frighteningly awful. Ugly, very steeply raked, bare, and bizaare. It was not only useless, it was an obstruction. The second act of the home of Jenufa in the little country village was a huge grey rodent-shaped tub (15 feet tall). That was the only thing on the stage that was so steep the singers should have had on sneakers. Some person (I chose not to look at who), was paid a LOT of money to design this monstrosity, and this kind of set/production isn’t rare. Opera News recently wrote about an “updated” production of “E’lisir d’Amore” in a 50s style diner with Nemorino as a James Dean type hood and Norina as a waitress. PLEASE. How about the “Don Giovanni” where the Don was in the mafia. PU-LEEZE!
What if someone decided to “redesign” and “update” Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch”, to make it “more contemporary” and “accessible”. First, we repaint the Dutch Guildmasters by taking them out of their garb and putting them in three piece pinstripe suits and then we take out some of the other things, and put in a TV and maybe a bottle of Bud or Merlot. How about making one of the guys hold a cigarette, with smoke curling out, and another guy could be looking at a beat-up copy of the Wall Street Journal (just to make it more topical). It should be lit with rotating purple and green spotlights and a background of “cool jazz” should be playing to add “atmosphere”. That would do it, you know? It would be so DIFFERENT, RELEVANT and SIGNIFICANT.
Clearly, to go back to respect, we don’t do that to Rembrandts (thankfully). I guess they cost too much. But an opera, well, that’s not in the same catagory as a “Piece of ART” as is a fine painting, right? Why should that be left alone when each new person can bring their own significant spin to enhance it?
You can hear my teeth grinding.
There’s more, though.
How about hiring singers who actually sound good? Not just loud, not just convincing, but GOOD. (OK, how can you tell what “good” is, when these things are so SUBJECTIVE). For one, you can get a pair of EARS. Most people wouldn’t call a donkey bray a pretty sound, and that doesn’t require a degree in music. The average person can tell the difference between a shreik, a wail, and a shout, so why can’t the person who is in charge of casting at one of the world’s most important opera houses hear the difference? This is not, by a long shot, the first time I have been to the Met to hear all manner of warbling, wobbling, screeching and swallowing up on that stage. To have someone like Ms. Mattila, who is not only a superb singer with a gorgeous voice but a powerful actress, standing on stage with some others who just didn’t cut it vocally was sad. Don’t tell me there aren’t enough good singers. I can think of 10 in my own small life here in New York who easily sing well enough to be there, and have the training and experience to back it up, but they will never get the chance to audition, let alone sing. The process of getting an audition at the Met is like climbing Mt. Everest, pretty hard to accomplish even if you know what you are up against.
No, it is the same thing. Not enough respect for singing, for it’s own sake. If folks are going to rant about how awful CCM is, that the singing is noisy and ugly, and then claim that opera singing is “Bel Canto” when some of the pop singers have really beautiful voices under all circumstances and some (not all) of the opera singers sound like the people we heard tonight, then we are facing yet again “ga-ga land” thinking. Beautiful singing is beautiful singing and what’s ugly is just that.
Beauty is inspiring, moving, heart-opening, touching, uplifting, lasting and rooted deeply in our human nature. Children are beautiful, pristine nature is beautiful, kindness is beautiful. What is “artistic” may be something that cannot so easily be pinned down, but it certainly isn’t someone expressing themselves just because they can. That produces not-so-“bel” music that just can’t. OH-OH!