Sometimes people are thrown into situations in which they have no experience. For various reasons, sometimes it falls to an individual to deal with something they have not encountered before and have no training to address. Sometimes, particularly if it only involves the person and no one else, and the endeavor isn’t harmful, addressing this challenge can be exciting and it can turn out to be a teaching tool, providing expertise that is valuable indeed. If, however, others are involved, and those others are vulnerable to the result of the person’s lack of experience, that’s a bad situation.
Facing this situation, someone with integrity would quit, withdraw or seek outside help. That would be the thing to do to avoid having others pay the consequences of your lack of experience. More realistically, though, if the situation were a job and you needed the money, you might not withdraw under any circumstances, because you would rather jump in and do whatever you can than be without the security the job seems to be offering. Understandable but not good.
Life being what it is, there are plenty of times when people are asked to do something for which they are completely unqualified. If only it were so that the people who were doing any specific job were always the best, most qualified people to do it. Right.
The Metropolitan Opera has decided the way to get new audiences is to bring in people from outside the opera world who have “new” eyes and “fresh” vision. Unfortunately, some of these people don’t even want to know about the traditions of opera, or about singers or singing, they want to “do their thing”, regardless, and most of the new productions at the Met reflect that lack of sensibility of deep understanding of all things opera. It shows and not in a good way. The same is true of Broadway, where composers who have no experience with trained singers are invited to write musicals because they are successful in other areas of the music business. Sometimes they write music that is almost unsingable, sometimes they write songs that sound like first year compositions of college students, but if they have made a lot of money elsewhere, no one seems to care.
Recently Stephen Schwartz was asked to write an opera (Seance On A Wet Afternoon). By his own admission, he didn’t bother to find out about the “passaggio” that singers “don’t like” until after the work was already written. Oh. How about some research, Mr. Schwartz? You who wrote a piece like “Defying Gravity” which could have been subtitled “Defying Vocal Fold Behavior”. Does it not occur to you that some investigation into how singers sing is warranted?
I had spoken to another present day classical composer who was commission by San Francisco Opera a few years ago. He informed me that he knew more about singing than any of the singers he worked with because he had sung “for years” in a chorus. He said that singers were “too afraid” to really sing. Unfortunately, the music this man wrote was not appropriate to the traditional parameters of the very skilled, excellent and experienced classical vocalists he hired. They were justifiably “afraid”. He knew more than they did. Oh.
Now, I have to say this and I know it sounds bad, but most of the time I am talking here about men. There are still far fewer women composers in either classical music or on Broadway and very few successful female conductors. There are a few women directors and choreographers, but the majority of the positions of power, at the top levels of the business across the board in terms of style, are still occupied by men. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but I can’t help but wonder how different things would be if the proportion was the other way around.
And, I dream about going to shows or concerts or opera where the people in them can all really sing and act or play, where the conductor understands how to keep the orchestra from drowning out the singers, where the production doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience or the dignity of the performers, where the music is heartfelt and not written by a robotic or formulaic dolt and where the production values have something to do with (a) the plot, (b) common sense, (c) imagination, (d) communication and (e) respect for the audience and the artists.
One way that things would be improved is for people who are asked to do something that will effect others for which they have neither natural aptitude nor experience or training is for them to decline to take positions of responsibility, for the sake of everyone else. Such unselfishness and courageous honesty would be a boon for the rest of us.
I know, I’m being silly, as we know that life is never that way. Still, I had to say it anyway, as I just came from a production of a musical that was pretty unsatisfying because the people in charge had not much idea of what they were doing. That didn’t stop them from charging money to the young people performing in the show. (It’s an annual “summer festival” for which the performers pay). My guess is that the same director will be back again next year doing this again. Why? Because he is already there and is surrounded by youngsters who don’t know the difference. Clearly, the people who hired him don’t know the difference either. Big sigh.