Things change. Resisting change is futile. You can’t keep something static for very long, as sooner or later entropy sets in. Even the sun is going to die one day in the distant future.
Nevertheless, human beings seems to like the comfort of the known and the constant. We speak admirably about loyalty and dedication and consistency and continuity. We like to know that what was will still be, particularly if we like it.
The rebellious souls of the world have ever chaffed against the status quo, seeking to shake things up and create something that has never been. The traditionalists maintain the through line to the past, keeping things from falling apart, blowing up and (heaven forbid) disappearing altogether.
There are a few folks who respect the past and honor the new at the same time. I would say John Williams is one of those people. His is not considered a “serious” composer by the likes of Mr. Gilbert of the NY Phil or Mr. Dudamel of the LA Phil, and I doubt these organizations give concerts of his works. He does, however, write in a style that is instantly recognizable as his own and sounds pretty “classical”(at least to me). Just because the music has traditional melodic and harmonic roots doesn’t mean there isn’t anything about it that’s new or good. It’s expressive, it’s memorable and it appeals to a broad audience. Most current classical composers would give their eye teeth to have those things said about their work, but since they don’t write for a broad audience, they write for the elite and their peers, those comments are few and far between.
You can find artists like this in dance, in theater, and in fine arts. Thomas Kinkade is someone who was enormously successful. His paintings are also denigrated by the “art world” but lots of people bought them, paying a good deal of money for the originals. He laughed all the way to the bank. There are others in this niche.
It has always been so that some artists and some artistic work was aimed at educated people with sophisticated tastes, many of whom were also wealthy. Not all of the people who supported the arts over the centuries were or are educated about the arts specifically. In fact many of them made money in other endeavors, and for some of them, having “fine art” or supporting “the performing arts” was a way to show their peers that they had “good taste”. Is it a bad thing when someone who would not know good from bad from the proverbial hole in the ground buys a painting or commissions an opera just to show that he or she is “sophisticated”? The artists probably wouldn’t say so.
We live in a time of great change. Those who hold to the “old ways” are terrified of the enormous changes that are taking place all over the world. Things as they were for most of the last several centuries have been slowly changing but the pace is greatly accelerated now, if for no other reason than the planet has now about 7 billion inhabitants. Many people deny the changes that are quite apparent. Perhaps it makes them feel safer. Others would hasten the changes because they believe that things will be better once the period of transformation is over.
We have had classical music for decades that is hard to listen to and hard to perform. It resists staying in the mind, it resists fitting into a box, it resists all sorts of things. The audience for classical music continues to shrink world wide and artist managements are at a loss as to how to increase audiences and revenues. They encourage new artists to come in and give things a shift in perspective, thinking that this is the magic answer, but it has rarely been successful.
The boundaries between what’s new and what’s old are transitory. The boundaries between what is appealing to a mass audience and what appeals only to a small group of very elite afficionados is also quite wobbly. The shifts taking place are both good and not so good. It’s a tough time all the way around.
You can’t nail down what will arise out of the death of the old and the birth of the new, and going through the transition is usually not pleasant. It is inevitable, however, and resisting it only makes it more disconcerting.
The new production of “Maria Stuarda” currently at the Met has been heralded this week as a model of Bel Canto style and singing and is very successful for all involved. It allows new artists to sing in a very old model but with present moment adaptations. A nice blend of old and new. The NY Times had this to say:
“Directed by David McVicar, this production takes a traditional approach, but with some vivid colors and stark imagery to lend a contemporary touch to the period sets and costumes by John Macfarlane.”
We could find, however, productions in which the opera’s time frame has been changed, the location has been changed, the attitudes of the main characters have been changed and the costumes reflect those changes. The music might be the same, but nothing else of the old remains. Sometimes these productions succeed and sometimes they are awful. You can’t decide without going to see for yourself.
This is true of Broadway productions. Sometimes they are faithfully revived, sometimes there are changes, even big changes. Sometimes that works and sometimes is it a disaster (like the recent revival of “On A Clear Day” which was changed a lot and failed, a lot).
I believe that singing should have its roots in the past and its trunk in the present and its branches in the future. I believe that all styles of singing should be respected and honored for what they were at their beginnings even if they have changed and evolved over time. I believe that traditions should be studied and understood before someone decides that change for change’s sake is a good thing. I believe you don’t really have the right to break with a past you don’t even know existed.
Food for thought, folks. Food for thought.