Monday, March 31, 2014

800 Words: How to End a TV Show

Read no further if you want to preserve the mystery of How I Met Your Mother ends, but if, like me, you suspected the odds of a downer ending were nearly 1-to-1, you can’t help but admire the balls it takes to do it, even if you still view it as a terrible copout. True to form, this mainstream sitcom grinded millions of noses in the shit of what life really is - even if it can’t help but shout at the top of its lungs that that’s where it’s grinding your nose. How I Met Your Mother is, from beginning to end, the greatest shitcom ever made. But it’s still a shitcom.

HIMYM wanted it both ways, it wanted to be a fairy tale about how a romantic finally met the perfect woman after a decade’s agonized search, yet it also wanted to be true to real life and show that life is full of suffering, awkwardness, and boredom. It’s truly astounding how well it managed to stride those two worlds, and perhaps a more sympathetic viewer than I would say that it’s not a problem. But it’s a problem.

The mother was never, for even a moment, a real character. She was an apparition, a tantalizingly conjured dream of a dream woman with no wishes and needs of her own - kept off the screen for every possible moment to preserve her perfection in Ted’s (and our) eyes, kept mostly chaste in her backstory while Ted ran around with 40 other women, showed only enough times we can see so that her only role on the show is to be Ted’s destiny, then killed off before we could gain any insight into whom she truly was. If their goal was to create a dream woman, they succeeded brilliantly. Of course, if we saw the mother in three-dimensions, she would disappoint us all. But that’s precisely what we needed - we needed to see a relationship with disappointments, leading to a marriage with disappointments, with children who disappoint them both, leading to a decision of whether or not to preserve the marriage in spite of the disappointments. Half of every human relationship is defined by how we disappoint each other (probably much more...), and true disappointment is what How I Met Your Mother always evaded. There was always another huge romantic gesture to cover up life's brutality, and no allowance that most people’s lives contain more agony than joy. Their evasions were astoundingly skillful, and even now, our picture of the Mother fits like a perfect piece to a jigsaw puzzle. Nobody can say that HIMYM avoids life’s disappointments after this series finale, but it's all far too neat. The resolution of this show is no more than a jigsaw puzzle version of how life really is that’s meant to appease both the rom-com audience and the critical one. Sure, Ted experiences terrible agony and unfairness, and Marshall and Lilly have unresolved issues in their marriage which will pull it downhill, but their real suffering is in the future, off-screen and after the series ends.

Otherwise, it was a pretty good finale - admitting what we all knew, that Barney couldn’t stop being a lothario and Robin would pine after Ted, that these friendships could not possibly last for any longer than they already did, that Marshall and Lily would have to clean up after everybody else’s messes, but also that these people were family, and nothing could keep them apart for life’s greatest and worst moments. But if HIMYM were really true to life, Ted and Robin would never have another opportunity to get together. It it would be the unfortunate 'what if' of both their disappointing lives. Ted would have met Tracy give years earlier, and we'd see their relationshp play out. They would be the ones tempted to divorce, and it would be Barney who’d meet an unfortunate end as so many people who live too hard do too early. Maybe Barney was still shacking up with bimbos and fooling Robin into thinking he was a faithful husband, perhaps he got drunk and had a heart attack during sex with a stripper, or crashed his car into the East River and drowned both himself and Robin's intern while his pants were down. But ‘lifeness’ was never HIMYM’s goal, their goal was to give us just enough realism to let us escape from reality.

A TV finale is a declaration of principles. In movies or plays, the ending is a third of the artwork itself - the conflict is raised, wrestled with, then resolved. But TV, like novels, must have a resolution which is true to the spirit of the show, and while a series finale can disappoint (I’m looking at you Larry David), it can’t help but shed light on what this long story was about. We already know the characters, we already know the story, all that’s left to do is to sum up why we undertook this journey. Seinfeld’s finale was famously reviled, but it was utterly true to the show - as devastatingly nihilistic and antisocial as the entire series was. Opinion on The Sopranos’ finale was divided, but like the show itself, it was meant as a challenge, meant to make us think on a level which no TV show had ever before done. Breaking Bad’s finale (yes, I watched out of sequence and ahead…) was an almost universally applauded realistic end that could also be interpreted as the final flashes of imagination within a man who freezes to death - summing up a show that worked both an exciting pot boiler and a brain teaser. Some finales, like Six Feet Under, are more well-praised than the show itself, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a show about death would be extremely well-prepared to have a great ending. But to me, the greatest TV finale I’ve ever seen was to Big Love, a flawed but vastly underrated show to the very end, in which the series finale seemed to demonstrate that the show’s point was to document the founding of an entire religion, and not a single TV critic noticed...

Nobody is ever going to be completely satisfied with the ending of a great TV show or book, and you can find thousands of Amazon reviews from readers who complain that ‘the ending of this novel was arbitrary.’ To a huge extent, a great play or movie is its ending - we only know its characters for long enough for us to define them by what happens to them. But a great novel or TV show can still have a terrible ending and be a great work of art, because we live and breathe with these characters for as much time as we spend with our friends and family. Life can be disappointing, and so can the ways we part with our favorite characters within them, so why can’t TV shows have disappointing finales too?

800 Words: Vladimir Putin - The World's Most Incompetent Leader

For nearly seventy years after World War II, America intervened in all parts of the world with a heavy hand. We are a world-dominating empire in all but name, with the number of worldwide military bases extending to 662 overseas military bases in 38 foreign countries. Burgeoning powers like Japan, China, India and the EU can pretend they have risen on anything but the back of American power, but none would be scarcely more than bombed-out remains without American finance, American models, American education, and American security. And because of their dependence, they by and large view us with nothing but contempt - and not without reason. The average American perceives threats from China and Russia, and perhaps correctly, but none of these factors is a percentage point as demonstrably large a threat to their way of life as America is to the average person in China or Russia.

‘I suspect most citizens of the world would rather live in an American empire than in just about any other, but an Empire we are nevertheless. Under President Obama and his new Defense Secretary, Chuck Hegel, the United States government is beginning perhaps its first serious attempt to draw down its military obligations. May they have much success - rulers exist to be loathed, and the more America controls, the more loathed it becomes, and the more retribution is demanded. But nature abhors a vacuum. The more America draws down, the more ambitious world powers like Russia and China ascend. America is loathed, but Russia and China will be feared.

Unless Russia rigs the polling in their country, Vladimir Putin is the most popular of all eminent world leaders - earning his country’s jack-booted approval in a manner no American president ever could within our country's messy and dysfunctional democratic process. Imagine any American president who could earn an 82% approval rating after being president for twelve years. And imagine any American president who could earn that approval rating in spite of an economy which makes the rest of the world look amazing in comparison. Food prices have gone up 25% since the beginning of the year, and $70 billion of Russia's already paltry foreign investment has left in the first quarter of the year. The S&P may lower Russia’s bond status at any moment, foreign investment is nearly nothing, economic growth is at a tortoise pace, and perhaps 15% of Russia’s GDP is lost to corruption. The country’s sole wealth comes from its gas and oil, and without it, Russia’s debt to GDP ratio would be higher than any first-world country. Russia’s sole reliable export is oil, and the control of it has largely been re nationalized, so whoever is profiting from Russia’s oil industry can’t even declare the income - and because of their guaranteed income, they feel no need to keep up with private competitors through fracking, a potential that’s almost completely unrealized in Russia. Furthermore, Putin's "anti-decadence" policies are causing Russia to have a brain-drain; with his anti-homosexuality stance, his persecution of NGO’s and dismissal of high tech jobs, Putin is causing his country’s educated elite to move westward and eliminating the possibility of attaining significant foreign investment for the foreseeable future. If European countries shop for oil elsewhere, the national disaster would be on par with any point in Russia’s history.

It’s foolish to believe that Putin will be satisfied with Crimea. The invasion was a spectacular strategic blunder made because Putin felt the need to smash something after his Olympic Triumph was shattered by Ukrainian rebellion; and Putin can only cover up his incompetence with still more blunders. Kiev, not Moscow, is the cradle of Russian civilization, because it’s where the Russian Orthodox Church was born. There are ‘only’ 1.45 million Russians in Crimea, there are roughly 7 million more in the rest of Ukraine. And without the Russian majority of Crimea, there are enough Russians to be an oppressed minority, but it just became that much harder for Russians (only 15% of Ukraine now) to influence a Ukrainian election. If Ukraine elects a replacement of Yanukovich that is pro-EU , Putin would be sorely tempted to intervene.

Putin’s incursion into the Ukraine accelerated Georgia's application to the EU, a country Putin already invaded to keep within his sphere of influence, and seeing Georgia’s progress, every country with a significant Russian minority will now be desperate for EU membership. Furthermore, Putin’s backward policies have raised a generation of uneducated right-wingers who hate Russia's Muslim minority which Orthodox Russians perceive as taking their jobs. To formerly USSR countries with Muslim majorities like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, this xenophobia is the worst possible sentiment to keep them in line with Russia’s interests. To keep these predominantly Muslim countries within Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin will now have to raid his country’s coffers to make still more bribes of stolen Russian money and cheap oil. And if money doesn’t work, what’s his next step?...

In a sense, Putin has some extremely legitimate points about Western behavior. If America can intervene to maintain the power of corrupt dictators within their sphere of influence, then why can’t Russia intervene when a corrupt but democratically elected leader sympathetic to their interests is deposed? For hundreds of years, Russia’s ability to trade with Mediterranean countries has depended on Crimea’s warm water ports. So long as Ukraine remained in Russia’s sphere of influence, its business interests are unthreatened. But if Ukraine joined the EU, Russia’s only connection to the Mediterranean Sea and its sole warm water naval base in Sevastpol is gone. Without it, Russia cannot maintain its arm shipments to Syria (and probably Iran too). From Putin’s point of view, this is precisely what “successful Western” leaders like Nixon and Reagan would have done to protect their interests, and he’s exactly right.

It’s commented endlessly that Putin views the fall of the Soviet Union as the biggest disaster in modern Russian history. Less commented upon is that most Russians feel the same way. To a certain extent, it’s not hard to see why. The transition to wholesale capitalism was immediate, and resulted in a few men well-connected within Russian intelligence to seize control of Russia’s natural resources and re-create themselves as Robber Barons. Putin, and all those who think like him, see the Western model as intolerably decadent and inevitably leading to disaster like that which befell Russia when they first embraced capitalism. They’re not right, but one can see why they believe what they do.

For Nixon to W, American policy was governed by Republican stupidity and delusions of grandeur - an expansion of the American Imperium that left economic and statecraft considerations at the doorway. The price for these delusions is The Great Recession, which is now in year six and shows only modest signs of recovery. How much worse will be the price for the legacy of Putin and his successors? He’s practically delivered potential Russian allies into Western hands, and if he wants to accomplish his goals, he now can only achieve them through military means - military means which will only embolden potential emperors in other world powers to do the same. It would only be a matter of time before the empires rub up against each other. Putin may well leave Russia with vastly expanded territory, a vastly expanded Russian population, ethnic minorities that bristle ever more under Russian rule, and no means of supporting any of them. He will go down in history as one of three types of leaders - a monster of history like Stalin and Ivan the Terrible before him, a man who lead Russia to economic ruin as great as that under Yeltsin, or a man who paved the way for a renewed Empire for his country, with all the terrible headaches that will entail. And still worse for his legacy, he could yet be all three.

Monday, March 10, 2014

800 Words: Gerard Mortier and the Plight of Opera In Our Time


With the possible partial exception of chamber music, classical music as completely autocratic an artform as exists. Composers dictate to instrumentalists, solo instrumentalists dictate to conductors, conductors dictate to orchestras and choruses, section leaders dictate to rank-and-file members, rank-and-file members dictate to their students, who then grow up to take their place in the same hierarchy, or to leave the field altogether.

But there is a dictator even above the composer, and that dictator is money - whoever can provide the money, whoever can locate the money, whoever can charm or bully the money out of those who already have money. The human imagination is limitless, but reality has very precise limits on what we can make, and those limits are determined by what we can spend. In some artforms, we call them producers, in others, we call them artistic administrators. Either way, they are the true dictators of the arts - they may not be immortal creators, but only a Medici can make a Michelangelo possible.

The Peter Principle dictates that most people are vastly unqualified for the jobs they occupy. And it’s a fairly practical rule of thumb that most artistic administrators are vastly, vastly underqualified to fill the positions they have, and some even use the power they amass simply for their own personal gain. Just think of Hollywood. Even in today’s corrupted, hollow American film culture, which has debased the world’s most powerful cultural institution into a morass of computer effects, explosions, and dumb romantic comedies, there are still a few great film producers like Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin and Tim Bevan and Irwin Winkler - moneymen of foresight and vision whose main goal is to provide the public with great art. If these businessmen lose a little bit of money on the bottom line, it doesn’t matter, because they have a faithful, even if relatively small, audience of people who want to see a better product than most of the crap Hollywood churns out. And even if they occasionally make startling errors in judgement, it’s better to have people like them in the positions of ultimate power than it is to have other, more selfish, types of people.

Through the centuries, the world of politics has become more democratic, but the world of business, and especially the world of art, remains a dictatorship. Human expression may be freer in our century than ever before, but the possibilities of human expression is still a slave to whoever controls the profit margins - be it in the world of artistic expression, or be it in the world of living wages.

Without the Medicis or Pope Julius, there’s no Michelangelo, without Razumovsky and Lobkowitz, there’s no Beethoven, without Irwin Winkler and Roger Corman, there’s no Martin Scorsese. And imagine what further glories might have resulted if Mozart, or Van Gogh, or Kafka, or Orson Welles, found a faithful benefactor whose support could have nursed them through the more fallow periods. But nevertheless, are there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of film operatives whose main interest is in exploiting the art of film for their own personal benefit. The evidence that they exist is that there isn’t more great work.

(The Player… the ultimate movie on this phenomenon)


Twice in the last two months, I’ve run into a friend-of-a-friend in my favorite Baltimore bar - an interesting person certainly. She’s an art historian at the Maryland Institute College of Art who grew up in Brussels, her American father being a vocal coach at La Monnaie and then at the Dresden Semperoper when she was older. She literally grew up in Gerard Mortier’s La Monnaie. I kept trying to pry her about the experience of growing up in the opera world, a dream childhood for the kid I was, but it was an experience she was clearly loathe to talk about.

The first time I met her was right as I’d begun to direct Figaro. The second time was the night before the second performance. Certainly, my attitude to the project and the possibilities of doing great things with opera in general had soured enormously in the elapsing time. There were all sorts of things in my staging that weren’t working theatrically in that production, I knew it, the cast knew it, the producer certainly did. But I felt extremely defensive about it - at least I was trying to create something different and new in an artform that has no future and only a past from which it can’t escape and most of whose audiences always yawn with indifference. Just a little more tolerance from a few of them might have made all the difference and let us arrive at something which would have made everybody happy - myself included - because the audience might have sat with something other than respectful silence. The staging certainly felt better on the second night - at least the audience laughed sometimes. But even on the much more successful second night, there were periods when I could feel the audience’s energy draining, its patience wearing thin. Their patience might have worn still thinner had I gotten carte-blanche to retool things in the unorthodox way I saw fit, but then again, it might not have… Opera as it’s generally practiced, at least in America, is just a snobbified version of music theater. In both worlds, too many singers (though hardly all… not even the majority…) are more interested in their own territory than in the combined effect of the production, and intellectual curiosity seems next to nil. It is a playground for narcissism, and its performers are so enamored of their own voices that they don’t notice the audience slipping away. The majority of opera’s audience has long since slipped away, but the audience of music theater (or lack thereof) is beginning to catch up. In the 1950’s, musical theater was the cultural lingua franca of our country. Everybody knew the same songs, the same lyrics, the same tunes. Today, the only thing Broadway is well known for is the technological sophistication of its scenery - and most of its performers are too self-enamored to notice. Good product is still being made, but at an ever-decreasing rate.

And perhaps my frustration had opened her up a bit. Though I’ve never met her father, I don’t doubt that he had many experiences like mine, though on a much larger scale.  As our mutual friend - another MICA professor - sat with us, we had to explain to him the realities of opera in Europe, a world he could barely believe exists. There is absolutely the same hidebound opera traditionalism in Europe that there is in America. But among European audiences, there is an extreme bifurcation.  She explained to him the ‘cocaine and sodomy’ rule of European opera. It often seems an unwritten rule that every European production contains them both - as though the presence of either can shock a 21st century audience.

There is a surprisingly large contingent of European opera lovers who believe in opera as a revived contemporary artform. They flock to every production with a new conception, and every directorial divergence is celebrated as a milestone in the development of a new conception of opera. They honor every composer who composes within the framework of their particular dogma - no matter the quality of how well they compose within that framework, and they treat those performers who play outside the framework of which they approve with truly vicious contempt.

It’s all rather amusing, but they inspire no fear or dislike in me in the way more traditional opera crowds do.  At least they still have intellectual curiosity, misguided as they’ve pointed it, and at least they clearly love the artform enough to care about its future. They live in a dream world, but at least it’s a dream world of today, and not the dreamworld of a bygone era.  

I’m more than aware of the weird contortions of my opinions on opera. Here I was, an avowed opera traditionalist who once wrote a long post on this blog called “Keep Opera Dumb!”, who decamped to the extremes of ‘regietheater’ the moment I got my hands on an opera stage. I understand why these extremists feel the way they do - it’s the desperate move which anyone of an intellectual bent would feel the urge to make in a field such as this one, starved of attention and affection.  Today’s public has no organic connection to this music, so in lieu of that, we have to make artificial connections. Operatic ‘regietheater’ is already a compromise - combining the music of yesterday with the theatrical techniques of today - but I did my best to create a compromise within that compromise. A thoroughly untraditional traditional staging of the type that can now be seen regularly at the  Metropolitan Opera during the Peter Gelb era (albeit millions of dollars less expensive). No matter how reformed the staging seems, it’s still always thoroughly grounded in tradition, and as a result, you can now see even the kind of nudity and graphic sex at the Met that scandalizes my grandmother’s generation. But even so, the updates always seem to make sense, and the failures are still failures because they hew too close to the tradition, not because they divorce themselves from it. I doubt these developments will do anything more than give opera a short-term bump in interest - but at least the European fanatics have the courage of their convictions, and it will keep their vision of the artform alive a little longer than we will ours.

We never hear about the banal exploiters who keep the arts mediocre because they thrive in a world in which the destruction of their activities attract no publicity. But we always hear, very loudly, about the reforming demagogues who promise us a glorious new world, because their very advancement depends on publicity. Inevitably, these supposed revolutionaries are just reactionaries in red clothing. It’s a refreshing change, but the world they promise never sounds that exciting, and the world they provide is only slightly preferable to a world in which people strive for nothing more than mediocrity.

Classical music has long had Pierre Boulez to fill this role, though who knows for how much longer, but opera had Gerard Mortier, who died two days ago. He was the self-proclaimed prophetic impresario of opera’s new dawn, and spent truly breathtaking amounts of public funding in order to achieve his vision of what opera should be. But where was his Beethoven? Where was his Michelangelo?

He was a controversial figure, and not without his merits - would that so many artistic administrators insisted on intellectual competence from their forces. He was, without a doubt, the most influential operatic producer of the age. Thanks to him, so many voices of the ‘modernist’ school - composers, directors, conductors, even singers… - have their place in the opera world. But he was also a fanatic and a shyster whose methods brought down one of American culture’s greatest institutions. What Mortier never understood was that his great new operatic world looks a lot more like the old one than any of his most fervent admirers were willing to admit. The fare he provided was fundamentally the same operas, with the same types of voices, and the same instrumentation. When he brought his ersatz revolution to the harsh realities of New York, the only place he ever operated without Europe’s unsustainable social safety net, the harsh realities crashed in on him. He promised a new golden age at the New York City Opera, and young idiots like me thought about to moving to New York just so we could be around it. The end result was that by trying to bring a new world into action, he absolutely destroyed the old one (and make no mistake, Gerard Mortier destroyed the City Opera) without putting a single thing in its place.

The New York City Opera was ‘The People’s Opera.’ Charging far less for nights at the opera, taking risks on young singers, more innovative productions, and new composers which the Metropolitan Opera wouldn’t dare in the heydays of Edward Johnson and Rudolf Bing. But like so many once-great American institutions, it had become mediocre for at least twenty years when Mortier took it over. But like all those once great American institutions, there was no reason why it couldn’t stay mediocre for another twenty years until a more practical manager came along to provide a greater result. Like so much of America, its temporary decline was inevitable, but it was expedited by bad, perhaps even corrupt management - which allowed one of the Koch Brothers to donate a all the money it took to rennovate its building and slap his name on it, but seemed unable to make the Koches cough up a cent to help with artistic management.

But the City Opera didn’t need to die. Only Mortier's kind of fanatical mindset could have killed it. He cancelled a year of production so that more money could be raised for ‘next year’s productions’ which were far grander in scale and had appeal to only 'special interest' people like me could. His plan meant paying the orchestra, paying the stagehands, paying for the maintenance, with absolutely no money coming in that was not from solicited contributions. It was, for all intents and purposes, a hostage crisis in which an extremist starves his prisoner to death unless his demands are met. And when it became clear that his demands wouldn't be met, Mortier absconded to the Teatro Real in Madrid rather than help the City Opera get out of the mess he created himself. It demonstrated, conclusively, that Mortier’s methods were tantamount to cultural extortion. It was all the problems of the European social system writ small and brought to America. It makes one almost starry-eyed for the good old days when mediocrity and corruption ruled this country.

Mortier and his ilk stake their claim of reform on two different planks, both of which can be refuted in a matter of seconds. One is the de facto ban on populist opera composers like Verdi and his Italian predecessors in the Bel Canto tradition, and most of his successors in the Verismo movement - as though the nostalgic pleasures of Italian opera are any more un-progressive to the vast majority of the Modern Era’s ears than operas from the rest of Opera History. The only other difference on which they can stake their ‘revolutionary’ claims is in the theatrical settings - fundamentally using minimally bare and functional stages as though that’s been shocking at any point since the 50’s, onstage sex as though it’s been shocking at any point since the 60’s, and high-tech stage violence as though that’s shocking at any point since the 70’s. Like Boulez, Mortier proclaimed yesterday’s revolution for tomorrow. The museum is showing the same exhibits, they’ve just repainted the walls.

There is an absolutely huge disconnect in today’s ‘director-driven’ opera between the modernity of the staging and the ever-increasing intensity of the search for ‘authenticity’ and the ‘composer’s intention’ which happens in the pit. No matter how supposedly ‘weird’ the staging, the music is the same from performance to performance, while the theatrical setting is always changing. The result is that the musical performances will win no converts - it will tell people everything about what you already know. If people were not well-disposed to opera previously, they will be disposed no better after it’s completion. And while these new theatrical concepts will prove revelatory to some and make a few converts (with all a ‘convert’s fanaticism), it will strike most people at best as a lot of effort exerted for too little good result. No matter how hard the attempts of all those who wish to see opera thrive, it is  at best a secondary artform in our time, and is likely to be a secondary artform of many times to come.

I am all for the re-imagining of texts to fit a different context.  But if so many directors insist upon re-imagining stage action, why shouldn't more conductors insist on re-imagining scores?  Mahler and Stokowski would re-orchestrate and change tempo/dynamic markings to fit the parameters of their times with extreme liberality, so why don't conductors re-arrange scores for our own time? Why shouldn’t we hear Handel done by rock bands or Strauss refitted by DJ’s for turntables. If that idea reads like a lame or pathetic stab at contemporariness, then let me ask, is it any lamer or more pathetic than most of the ‘modernist’ stagings we see in opera? If it fits the production and the conception is sound, why shouldn't we reimagine Figaro with electronic instruments or Tristan with pre-recorded over-dubs?  Many performers always maintain that each performance demands its own rules which can only be determined at the moment of performance, but what a performer decides that the rules of this particular performance contradict the score in more fundamental ways than one's choice of tempo or dynamics or the historical period of the instruments’ make?  Should we condemn the performer for tampering so blatantly with the composer’s conception, or should we praise him or her for shedding such new light?

Opera, as it’s currently taught in schools and publicized to theatergoers, is as close to dead as an artform can possibly be. The great theater of the twentieth century which combines music with theater is musical theater, in which lyrics finally take their place on the grand stage as equally important, perhaps moreso, than the music itself. The grand tradition of opera as a dominant artform basically died in the 1920’s with Strauss, Puccini, Berg, and (retrospectively) Janacek. Britten and Adams have given us noble efforts to revive a moribund tradition, and Shostakovich would have too had Lady Macb-th of Mtsensk not been censored by Stalin. Many would say that Prokofiev and Hans Werner Henze have as well, or Philip Glass and Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Michael Tippett and Bohuslav Martinu. But theirs are operas fundamentally made with the ideas of former times, with the instruments of former times, and the vocal techniques of former times.The operas of all of these composers, even Britten sadly, seem commentaries on what has already taken place. To justify the massive funding which grand opera requires, these are operas which would need the same massive popular appeal of Mozart and Verdi if they want to have lives of their own, and the fact that they have no demonstrable popular appeal without the propagation of state funding, or as a token modern production to set against the steady diet of Aida, La Boheme, and Carmen, demonstrates their ineffability. Were any of these composers, even Britten, played as often as Rossini or Puccini, they would never sell more than a hundred tickets in a single performance. One day, the performance venues which cater to their tastes will be shut down, and the audiences which like such minority fare will shout bloody murder. Perhaps murder it is, but it will not prevent their doom.

Perhaps a future era will come when such ‘minority tastes’, uncorrupted by popular voices, will become what is popular and healthy. And just as Mahler has attained a posthumous, thriving life in the concert hall, and Janacek seems now to be attaining in the opera house, perhaps so too will their successors - who await a generation that understands them in a manner that people like me clearly don’t. But such an era, which has rid itself of the producer’s autocracy, will probably have too many of its own concerns and expressions of to take anything more than a cursory interest in the minority tastes of an era long gone. With a few exceptions, like Britten and Adams, I highly doubt that these opera composers have not already seen the height of their popularity. The traditional environs of classical music still have a little life left in them, even as their audiences grow ever older. No one could have predicted Mahler’s resurgence in the mid-20th century, nobody could have predicted that the early music movement would have revived interest in Handel’s operas so greatly. Perhaps the winds of change will bring a newer opera composer of eminence to heights of popularity of which he could only dream as he was writing and premiering his work. If it’s going to be anyone, it will probably be Britten or Adams, but no one can say for sure who it might be, or whether there will be any composer at all who will ever be so revived again.

And that’s sad, because a lot of good opera was written in the three later quarters of the 20th century, even if there wasn’t enough… I even believe that a few of them may have a future if opera itself has a future - Peter Grimes of course and The Turn of the Screw, perhaps Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China, Lady Macb-th of Mtsensk, maybe a number of Prokofiev or Philip Glass operas might survive if most people’s aesthetic priorities are different from mine (and they generally are). But no one can deny, this is hardly a golden period to set against the 19th century’s remarkable flowering. Once the Great Depression hit the world, it wasn’t just the money which dried up, it was the gilded commercial class which sponsored opera as we know it - and which gave the more populist, working classes some joy to add to the squalor with which their masters kept them.

(Was a greater song written in the 20th century?)

Of course, there were other operas from the period immediately after Strauss, Berg, Janacek, and Puccini, which you could measure against them to show that opera emphatically had not died - The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, The Eternal Rode, Street Scene, Porgy and Bess, Strike Up The Band, Funny Face, Show Girl, Girl Crazy, Of Thee I Sing. Because after the age of Strauss, Berg, Janacek, and Puccini came the age of Gershwin and Weill. It was a new kind of opera - lighter, more portable, less expensive. The instrumentation was far less sophisticated, the singers’ voices could be much lighter, and the stage could be miked electronically. And because singers could project so easily, singers of untraditional voice-types could be used, and the lyrics which were sung could be projected far more easily - and therefore could be written with far greater complexity. With Gershwin and Weill, opera ceased to be opera as it was ever before understood. The Age of Opera was dead, and a new tradition and era, the ‘Age of the Musical’ was born - Show Boat, Cradle Will Rock, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, Pal Joey, On Your Toes, Paris, Fifty Million Frenchmen, Gay Divorce, Kiss Me Kate, Panama Hattie, Let’s Face It, Something for the Boys, Mexican Hayride,  Anything Goes, Can-Can, Silk Stockings, Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, Kismet, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, No Strings, Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, The King and I, Cabaret, Chicago, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, The Man of La Mancha, Camelot, Once Upon a Mattress, She Loves Me, The Wiz, Hair, Damn Yankees, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, Milk and Honey, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Sweet Charity, Mame, 1776, Godspell, Grease, Pippin, Annie, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Evita, 42nd Street, Nine, Dreamgirls, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, La Cage aux Folles, Little Shop of Horrors, Chess, Cats, Les Miserables, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Once On This Island, Tommy, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Randy Newman’s Faust, Rent, Urinetown, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Wicked, Spamelot, The Light on the Piazza, Elton John's Aida, Jersey Boys, In the Heights, Billy Eliot, The Book of Mormon, Once, On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide,  West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion - none of these including strictly movie musicals of both Disney animation or the great live action movie musicals of the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studios, and all of these leading up to and drawing down from the work of Stephen Sondheim, a theatrical creator of a power unseen since Mozart and Shakespeare, whose work is so cosmically imaginative in that not a single creator of any type of theater in our time has come even close to his achievement.

You don’t have to like all of these shows (god knows I don’t…) or even most of them. And furthermore, as Broadway musicals have grown more successful, they’ve grown as expensive and decadent as grand opera at its most Turandot-like, money-strewn musical theater for a second Gilded Age. Like the operas of Donizetti and Bellini, the early musicals were written with practical questions of economy in mind. In a sense, perhaps their quality suffered as a result, but because of those early efforts, they made later, greater, efforts possible, when more money was available to stage something more risky.

Unlike opera, this is clearly a living tradition in which people never have to worry about its long term survival. It is a ‘majority taste.’ And even if not a single great musical is ever written again, it can survive on its reviving its current repertoire for at least the 90 years which opera has thus far survived as a’ minority taste.’ In the world of music theater, people worry about the dumbing down of the artform, in the world of opera, people worry about its very existence. Unlike every opera composer since Puccini, there is no way you can get through life in the Western World completely untouched by musical theater, even if you hate it.

There is no denying it, this is a musical and theatrical tradition to set alongside opera - the opera of our time, a record of our age, and the fact that ‘opera’ is no longer the term used for music theater simply shows how apart the world has grown from the necessity of opera as we’ve ever understood it. However debased music theater seems in comparison to a generation or two ago, it still shows that it’s a living artform, more affected by contemporary concerns than with the baggage of history. History is still being made in music theater, and that is why it is the opera of our time.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

800 Words: Figaro Debrief


(Figaro starter kit. The most cosmically great cast, a great orchestra, very good conducting. An unforgettable performance whose excellence is just a little too generic.)

I read and re-read a dozen-and-a-half books pertaining to Figaro, Mozart, history, theater history, and directing - Alfred Einstein, Donnington, Stanley Sadie, Robbie Landon, David Cairns, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hobsbawm, Barzun, Michael Chekhov, Alan Ayckbourn, etc. I watched just as many performances of Figaro on youtube, and can tell you the particular differences between the stagings of Johannes Schaff, David McVicar, Jonathan Miller, Claus Guth, Peter Sellars, and a number of others in great detail. I also listened to as many recordings, and can tell you the differences in how Renato Capecchi and Giuseppe Taddei and Ferruccio Furlanetto and Bryn Terfel deliver a particular line as Figaro, or how Anna Moffo and Cecilia Bartoli and Allison Hagley interpret a particular line of Susanna’s. I can tell you exactly where Ferenc Fricsay and Rene Jacobs and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Clemens Krauss and Bruno Walter change tempi in manners unwritten in the score, and I can tell you precisely where James Levine and Riccardo Muti and Erich Kleiber observe Mozart’s phrase and dynamic markings which no other conductor does. This is what a director, a serious director at least, should be able to do. And unfortunately, this is also the work a serious singer should do in addition to knowing their part faultlessly. A singer’s work is never done, and I don’t know how they find the strength to keep going, because it is one of the hardest jobs in the world.

(Ferenc Fricsay. For me, still the unsurpassed Mozart conductor - with Nikolaus Harnoncourt getting an honorable mention.)

Opera is a tough, tough business, but if everyone is warm of heart, sincere in their intentions, and doing what they can to be helpful to one another, then they together can arrive at a conclusion which hopefully satisfies everyone - because they know that they came to their conclusions by probing as deeply as they can.

Where there is collaboration, there is compromise. Ultimately, nobody gets everything of what they want out of any production, such a reality only exists in the Platonic skies. But everybody gets the satisfaction of knowing that they contributed meaningfully. Nobody gets their ideal staging, but everybody gets to see some of their ideals realized on the stage in a way they never were before.

(Johannes Schaff’s 1987 Royal Opera production. Stints on the darkness, but nevertheless, it is now the most detailed, nuanced production I’ve yet seen. Not as well sung or acted as Jonathan Miller’s 1994 MET production, but the nuance in this is truly unbelievable)

In a quick-and-dirty production, deep consideration isn’t always possible to discuss in the rehearsal room, and even in a more time-luxuriant production, allowances always have to be made for the necessities of human considerations - one actress breaks her arm and a scene has to be restaged to accommodate it, another actress isn’t comfortable with the ribaldry of a particular blocking, so a less ribald blocking is improvised by the actors on the spot.

(Harnoncourt and Guth - certainly the most provocative Figaro I’ve ever seen. There are worse things than that…)

I love opera, but I am not by nature an opera person - the stress and strain of asking ‘will this work,’ and often seeing that it doesn’t, the constant assuaging of insecurities and doubts by singers (not to mention your own...) who are selflessly putting themselves in a vulnerable position simply so the director can have the pleasure of realizing something which resembles his vision, the sheer unpredictability and human frailty of any given situation - all this is as far from my own second nature as a person can get. I am not a particularly secure person within myself, so how can I possibly remain secure for other people?

Next to film, I doubt there is a single artform in which people work harder merely to get a competent result, and the rewards of film far exceed the rewards of opera in both remuneration and affection. I was in absolute awe of how hard these opera singers worked to get this production off the ground. There were, of course, elements of some attitudes towards this work which I was not satisfied by, just as there pellucidly were elements in which they clearly were not satisfied with me - and, as such things do, it led to some unfortunate and genuinely unpleasant friction. But nevertheless, I could not believe how organized these singers were - formidably so on a level I could never be myself, and when it came to the practicalities of this production, I continually stood in stupefied admiration of their work ethic. Color coding their parts, translating every word in their scores, labeling every exact prop which fits into every different container coordinated for every act. If this is the organization it takes to ‘make it’ in the classical music world, then no wonder I could never do it…

The end result is, it can’t be denied, a genuine success. A success earned by an enormous amount of hard work by a large group of people. We brought this off together, and even if I’m never asked to work with this company again (and I doubt I will…) I’m incredibly proud to have worked with them on bringing it off.


The Marriage of Figaro is, more than most operas, subject to a ‘cookie-cutter’ traditional view. Not just in its setting, but also in its spirit. In most eyes, it is simply a Rossini comedy with just enough undertone of sadness to assure its listeners that it has some philosophical depth to it which The Barber of Seville does not.

But The Marriage of Figaro is so unbelievably much more than that. It is, I genuinely believe, the greatest opera ever written - as important to opera as Hamlet is to theater, and far more formally perfect. If opera has an equivalent to Hamlet, Macb*th and King Lear, then it is The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutte. And just as Shakespeare has the flawed perfection of Othello together with the other three at the center of theatrical canon, Mozart has the flawed perfection of The Magic Flute.

In the slightly colder medium of the theater, Shakespeare needed a surfeit of drama and tragedy to truly overwhelm his audiences, and his greatest plays are tragedies in which the comedy often threatens to overwhelm the tragedy. But in the red-hot medium of opera, where tragedy can spill over into melodrama so easily, Mozart writes understated plays of musical wit in which the darkness and tragedy continually threaten to overwhelm the comedy.

It would seem that in his own time, the darkness of Mozart was so clear that he was constantly threatened with censorship. But by today’s standards, the darkness of Mozart seems so tame that in the hands of unperceptive theater people, he can seem purely like a more generic, less fun version of the Bel Canto Italian operas which were clearly influenced by him.

Mozart needs to breathe fire again. In The Marriage of Figaro, there are intimations of class warfare, slavery, domestic violence, rape, even pedophilia, that exist at the height of a gossamer strand beneath the surface. It needs to be brought out again, especially in today’s day and age when Mozart is used as generic muzak which is claimed to make children smarter with so little empirical proof.

I was very gladdened by yesterday’s reception from the audience and the singers’ performances, and I was quite gladdened to see how much of my original staging ideas were retained. But I wish, oh how I wish, the silence of the ‘O-PER-A’ audience was not always so respectful. I’d rather be vociferously booed for my bad taste than for all those sight-gags we inserted to be met with such a pall. I know the language barrier is immense, but why shouldn’t these people roll in the aisles when something is clearly funny (and it was…)? Why weren’t they gasping when they saw something onstage that was disturbing (there was much that was…)

(THIS is what theater should ALWAYS be! Everything else is just a museum.)

Given the staging I pined for, I knew going in that I was probably in for some battles. In the original staging I planned, I wanted the Countess to simulate oral sex on the Count, I wanted Cherubino to seem buck naked behind a scrim and accidentally french kiss the Count, I wanted the night action so darkly lit that you could barely see the singers, I wanted Figaro to seem as though he came within an inch of simply beheading the Count in Act I. I wanted a hothouse ready to explode in the revolution which this opera so clearly announces is imminent.  

The narration I originally wrote was much longer than what the audience heard. I included a lot of educational material which would bring the audience up to speed and help them better understand the culture which birthed this miracle, but more important than the educational element was the fact that I inserted many jokes that were deliberately in bad taste, meant to offend, and knowing that some people would find them highly objectionable. I knew they were the worst possible taste, I wanted them to be in bad taste, and I was disappointed at myself for not having the courage to put in things that were in still much worse taste. I absolutely wanted the audience to be offended because it would have loosened them up, it would have allowed them to viscerally react to a fraction of the extent that they do when they’re at a sporting event - because sports is much better theater than nearly any live theater we have today. Would the reactions really have been that visceral as I dreamed? I doubt it, but it probably would have made a minute amount of difference.

The real revelations of theater can only happen when the excitement is so feverish that the body can’t withstand it and has to react. The body opens up because the mind has reached its capacity, a point at which it’s taken in as much of the universe as it can, and realizes that literally anything is possible. Once such thrills kick in, then does the critical distance, and they decide whether something which provokes such a strong reaction inspires love or hate. But either way, a reaction of extreme hatred is leagues better than the type of respectful indifference which makes for an enjoyable experience that passes the time and is forgotten in a few days.

(The Red Wedding. Now THAT was theater!)

When an experience is truly unforgettable, it demands discussion, and has to be described to other people who weren’t there to see it themselves. The people describing the experience to others become playwrights in themselves by describing it, and the listeners become visual artists in themselves by imagining it. Such experience inspires people to live more intensely, more meaningfully, more beautifully. The anticipation builds for another experience like it. It’s good for business, it’s good for art, and it's good for people.


Classical music wasn’t always like this. That much is clear from all the tails of women rushing the stage at Liszt concerts to touch him and fights which broke out between Verdi and Wagner partisans. The veneer of good taste has, in so many ways, ruined this music. A culture cannot grow after it’s frozen over, and it needs an outlet where it can be battered and bruised and rebel, or else it is sterile, and develops no antibodies against the viruses and bacteria which can kill it off.

I compare all those years of sub-par experiences in classical music to the ones I have with my regular band, Orchester Prazevica, and immediately see what I’ve missed for all these years. We are hardly the most intense band in Baltimore, but we certainly get people up and dancing, and they’re enthusiastic enough that when there’s an better-than-ordinary solo turn the audiences almost always hear it  and they show their appreciation with whoops and hollers mid-dance in a way you still never hear in an American opera house. There are few ‘upper-class’ lives in the world more frustrating than that of the classical musician, because they are utterly short-changed. As hard as any great jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B musician might work, it really is true they don’t have to work one-tenth as hard on their technique as any great classical musician does, and yet the other musicians get ten times the adulation. It’s not fair, but it’s absolutely true. And to add still more to that unfairness, I’m not at all certain anymore that the classical musicians are putting all that work into music which is any greater than the best of their more ‘popular’ colleagues. The greatest music, far more than any time in recorded history, is a joy to assemble, not an agony.

Anyone who thinks that Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt or Steve Reich or Phillip Glass make genuinely better music than Otis Redding or Randy Newman or Bruce Springsteen or John Coltrane or Bill Monroe or Chuck Berry is listening with dogma, not ears. This is not to say that there is no value in the work of composers today (particularly not Steve Reich), but few contemporary composers create music for the most inspiring purpose, which is to give the listener the strength to live better. Great art is religion, without the murder.