The Opera Singers

Two opera singers were staying at my place last month and we went out for drinks a few times. These were great people–I didn’t know them (my wife and I do the airbnb thing). The man was recently an Artist in Resident around here, and was flying out for auditions in New York later that week. The woman, it turned out, had reached the finals of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions and her debut as a performer at the Met was coming up soon. She received a call while I was with her from an orchestra wanting to fly her out that night to sing in Pittsburgh. Instead, they stayed in MN and went out for a drink with me. I asked them if I could turn on the recorder.

Here we’re talking about why talking about opera is hard, how the Germans really let loose on the operatic stage, and why we need more theater burning down. You can listen to the audio below.

Woman: Can I have…I’m not going to drink booze today.

Man: You’re not?

Woman: No… But I will have a club soda with lime please? Thank you.

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Woman: I think the other thing that plagues classical music–of course we’re talking very broad strokes, right?–but I think the other thing that sorta–

Man: Sorry, I’m starving. I need to eat something.

Woman: That’s no problem. What’s difficult for classical music in America, is that classical music, as we know it–again, overly generalizing here–is in essence a Western European art form, right? And so because of our history we are sort of inclined to be suspicious of this Western European art form that aligned with aristocracy, monarchy, you know, all of the historical implications–we as American revolutionaries, you know, the sort of–we’re suspicious of that. We find it to be…and that’s where some of the eliticism accusations come into play. And then, on a more practical level, if you go to see an opera, there are not many operas in English. Most of the operas that you’re going to see at the major houses are going to be in German, French or Italian. And you know, it’s not very accessible to them. When you go to Germany, even a taxi driver can sing you lines from The Magic Flute–it’s that much in their DNA.

You know, I was coming from a festival, the Yehudi Menuhin festival, a fabulous violinist. It was a festival in Switzerland. I didn’t even know really anything about him, even though he was quite famous. And I was taking a taxi back from Basil, Switzerland to the airport and he was asking me what I was doing, and I said, oh I was doing this Menuhin festival, and he was like, oh Menuhin, the violin, and I was like how do you know this? You’re a cab driver. No cab driver in the United States gonna to know what that is. You know. Most of itelligentsia doesn’t even know. I didn’t know who he was.

Some of the challenges that we’re talking about, with regard to classical music, opera specifically, are very much American problems. They’re not necessarily pertinent in western Europe, though they are also losing their audience to a certain degree. Pop culture’s a very powerful thing.

We’re kinda digressing from our personal connections…but I think it’s interesting that Johnathon and I, coming from very normal–air quotes around that–sort of working middle class, American families–we were drawn to this. And I mean, my mom’s a nurse, my dad builds houses. They were not listening to classical music when I was a kid. I sort of out of nowhere…they recognized that I sort of was drawn to the piano, they got me into piano lessons. But they knew nothing about it. They still know nothing about it.

Man: It’s like saying: I don’t like movies.

Me: Sure.

Man: Well, what kind of movies? Well, I just don’t like any movies. Well, have you seen a movie? Well…I–I used to watch TV. This is the analogy I’m using because this is what people would say, if we talked to them about opera. Oh, are you going to come to the opera or something? I’m going to be in it. Ahh, I don’t really like opera. Have you seen an opera? Ah, well, I saw Cats.

Woman: This happens a lot. If you’ve never seen an opera before but you’ve heard La Traviata is like one of–you know that, you recognize that, right, so you go, you want to take your girlfriend out for a nice night and you get all dress up and you want to go see what you think is an Italian opera, you know–some girl dying at the end, and you know, some sort of short round tenor singing ardently about his love and he says the words I love you 700 times…Alright. So, there is a place for that. You see traditional 19th century costuming. But because–

Man: And that place is Sarasota, Florida.

Woman: –right. So there are some companies who really cater to that audience. So I want to see La Traviata, I want to see it the way it was done in 1880-ba-ba-ba, but more and more we’re in an age of what we call in German, Regietheater, director theater, where, you know, we got, you know, Henkrick Schmit or something coming from Berlin who’s decided..he’s been hired to do a production of La Traviata but he’s interested–he’s seen Traviata a thousand times in the 19th century costumes–he’s interested in like how could we do this like in the 1940s, or like 1930s Weimar Republic Germany, and what if we do this in a sort of stripped down set with like one beam of red light across the stage the whole time. And so all of a sudden you have like Joe and Kate who thought they were sorta coming for this like grand opera experience and —

Man: Clearly they’ve never been to Germany because EVERY production is like that.

Woman: Right. They’ve come to Minnesota Opera to see what they think opera is and they sit down and they’re like…why is she bleeding? Or like: why are there men with dildos running around the stage? Which happens regularly.

Me: This is a regular thing?

Man: Yes. In the US, not so much. And here’s the reason. The reason it doesn’t happen here is that the people paying for the opera are also attending the operas. In Germany the people paying for the opera are the people of Germany, the government. And so they have a lot of artistic freedom because of that. Here they sort of have to cater–

Me: So what they do with their artistic freedom is put dildos on men?

Woman: OH yes.

Man: That is mild.

Woman: You’ll have some tenor–

Man: –fellatio on stage.

Woman: Fellatio on stage. Some tenor standing, you know, with his junk hanging out, surrounding by girls.

Me: Like real junk?

Woman: Oh yeah. Like real junk. Like–

Man: Anything can happen in Germany. Really. If you can think of it–like Bob Saget, whose got a disgusting mind I’ve heard, could think of something really terrible, it’s probably been done on an operatic stage in Germany.

Woman: Oh yeah. Like there’s scatological stuff happening. You know, and we’re talking like the Marriage of Figaro. You think you’re going to see people in 19th century peasant costume and…

Man: Figaro is raping Cherubino. It’s like really crazy stuff.

Woman: Right. So the European director idea about opera right now is like extremely conceptual, sort of deconstructing, and-and and really trying–and some people would argue–to squeeze whatever opera they’re doing into their concepts.

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Woman: One thing that I’m always thinking about in our field is art versus entertainment.

Me: Sure.

Woman: And I think one dangerous thing that a lot of classical organizations are obsessed with these days are becoming solely about entertainment. And I–I’m not saying that art and entertainment can’t be together. There’s this example of this piece they did last year… [unintelligible]. But they don’t always have to be. I’m not interested in being an entertainer. If I wanted to be an entertainer, I would have gone on Broadway. With all due respect to that field. I didn’t go into that field. I’m not going to be singing and dancing like Chita Rivera on stage. She’s an entertainer. I’m not. I like to entertain to people. I hope they’re captivated. I’m sort of–

Me: The experience should be more cathartic.

Woman: Yes. I think so. And also I think entertainment implies that people, you want to bring enjoyment to your audience, and I don’t believe that art always does that. I think art should make you feel uncomfortable. Maybe uncomfortably happy, maybe uncomfortably enjoyable. You know, but I think it should also piss you off sometimes. And that doesn’t mean it’s bad. This is something that I’m always dealing with because I’m doing more avant-garde projects and you have the old sort of meat and potatoes blue hairs coming and saying this ugly. I didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t beautiful. Well, art doesn’t always have to be beautiful. It’s okay. It’s okay if it made you mad, at least it made you feel something. We’re so concerned about making people happy and sort of, again, catering to the lowest common denominator, and getting people just in the door and so you know, what that means is that we’re programming really safe things, only programming Brahms’ 4–and hey, I think Brahms’ Four is an unbelievable symphony, I think everyone should experience that piece, but hey, then let’s put on this new piece by Joe Blah-de-Blah who’s right now living in San Francisco writing some electronica sorta mixed with…you know, mixed media sort of project that’s really interesting. And maybe it’s not great art, maybe it’s not going to stand the test of time, but don’t we have a responsibility to at least give that guy a platform, you know, and give our audience members an education to see what’s happening. I think that’s important. And I don’t care if they walk out, quite frankly.

Me: Right, right.

Woman: When Stravinsky premiered the Rite of Spring in Paris, there were riots. I mean that’s the thing. Can you imagine that happening now? No. That’s sad. Cause that’s what–that’s what art should do.

Front page image by ben.chaney.archive

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