Monday, December 4, 2017

Phantasmagoric Monsters


A friend once told me that she was reading Hofmannsthal's libretto for Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos and that the plot was very silly. I agreed, but also stated that despite the ludicrous plot, it was my favorite Strauss opera, possibly one of my favorite operas of all. My love for it did not stem from the text or plot, but entirely from the music. And the music justified whatever plot it set.

Any fan of opera is accustomed to some suspension of disbelief: the characters onstage occupy a world where they sing to each other, but cannot hear the orchestra accompanying them. Ariadne is one of the most extreme examples of this, as it is an opera about putting on an opera, complete with characters that are singers, comedians and even a composer. Dramatic tension arises in the first act arises because the work itself is not sacrosanct, a state that the composer riles against. The irony here is that the work that we are hearing is sacrosanct. This composition, then, is a work about a Work and the conditions necessary to make it a Work of Art.

'Suspension of disbelief' arguably understates the case for opera. Opera leans heavily toward phantasmagoria, a term that Adorno borrowed from Marx and applied to the works of Wagner. Phantasmagoria hides its means of production, it creates a coherent yet imperfect world view, it declares itself in the medium of sound. While it can be analyzed, more often it is understood sui generis. For Adorno, it is a form of  'magical delusion.'

Opera, particularly in its modern guise, particularly at an institution such as the Met, is a magical delusion. The Work of Art rests at its core, with all other elements subservient to it. Even the repertoire is gradually diminished because while audiences crave magical delusion, they want to experience delusions that are familiar to them.

It takes an effective magician to maintain magical delusion. Such a magician was kept on at a very high cost. Open secrets circulated, but magical delusion around Works of Art prevented anyone from taking action.

I once attended a Met Live in HD production at my local movie theater of Strauss' Salome. The theater next to it played a High School Musical movie. High School Musical had a PG rating, meaning that it was not recommended for children under the age of 13. Salome had a G rating, meaning that it was open for anyone to attend.

There is an easy and glib joke to be made here about which of the two screenings had a strip tease (I am making an assumption that High School Musical did not). But that neglects the fact that Salome's violent fate, enacted before our eyes, is equally unsuitable for children. Her stepfather's soldiers crush her to death with their shields on stage. Even by the standards of opera, this end is grotesque, but her demise is purportedly justified by her grotesque actions: she talks to the moon, speaks erotically to a holy man, performs a striptease, kisses a decapitated head. Perhaps she is a monster. 'Monster' (Ungeheuer) is the label her stepfather gives her immediately before he orders her death.

This same stepfather demanded that a teen-aged girl--the daughter of his wife--unveil for him. He walks off the stage. Monsters can also hide in plain sight and walk freely. These are the scarier monsters.

It is a strange condition of opera repertoire that monsters are so abundant. We pretend that artistic quality somehow excuses their terrors. We ask that performers participate in them regardless of any past traumas they may have experienced. In theory classes, Mozart's incorporation of sonata form into an ensemble is more highly valued than the fact that one member of the ensemble is an exemplary case for toxic masculinity. We dig deeply into the score to find reasons to disbelieve Zerlina's scream and question Donna Anna's accusations of impropriety. We passively accept overt Jewish stereotypes, Japanese teenagers sold to foreigners for sex, women rendered voiceless by an encroaching patriarchy. We care more instead about the performers and the productions. We prefer that the score remain sacrosanct.

I once heard Tristan und Isolde six times in the same month--phantasmagoria at its finest. The conductor was Christian Thielemann. I knew nothing about his 'open secret' of antisemitism. The prelude to Act III was all I cared about.

We should not be surprised in the least that this operatic world of magical delusion should have deluded itself into thinking the many rumors that accompanied James Levine were nothing more than rumors. After all, the repertoire that we value, more often than not, protects the villains and rewards the abusers. We have convinced ourselves that the repertoire is fixed because of its musical merit instead of questioning why works with such monsters are still being performed. If we cannot be sure that Zerlina's scream is authentic, why would we believe the abused?

My very favorite Ariadne auf Naxos moment comes from a rehearsal featuring James Levine and Jessye Norman. 'This is the best section of the piece!' he declares, as he plays piano to lead her into her Act II entrance. When this moment aired last year during a Live in HD performance, I was brought to tears. Knowing now that the Met knew about Levine's abuses, that they were still allowing him to work there, and that all of this complicity was to preserve Levine's interpretations of Works of Art, I am not sure I will be able to watch this clip ever again. These productions, even at their most magnificent, are not worth the price that was paid by Levine's victims.

The Composer's final line near the end of Act 1 in Ariadne auf Naxos is 'Du hast es erlaubt!' (You have allowed this). As long as we are valuing the Work above all, and at any price, we are all allowing this.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fast and the Furious and the Opera of Spectacle

Okay, everyone, it's happening. It's really happening. The latest chapter in the Fast and Furious saga will be in theaters less than a week from now. Here's what I know for sure: it will involve a submarine:

Another thing I know: some of it is set in Cleveland. That's right. Cleveland. Fun fact: Kurt Russell's character in Escape from New York, Snake Plissken, escaped from Cleveland. Kurt Russell is also in FF8. Coincidence?

My love of Fast and Furious movies is sincere and pure, and it's because I see them as the closest thing we have today to what I am going to call the 'opera of spectacle'. To be clear, I am not calling the style of Fast and Furious movies opera; they clearly draw on hip hop videos for their imagery. You are pretty much guaranteed that there will be at least one scene involving a bunch of guys, cars, and scantily-clad gals dancing around. One of the best examples of this hip hop aesthetic was in FF7, when the gang went to Abu Dhabi, then later had cars fly from one skyscraper to another, as you do in the FF universe:

So if the movie itself is not drawing on opera, what do I mean by comparing the FF series with 'opera of spectacle'? I'm looking back at the type of opera that has almost disappeared from the performance repertoire, but that was immensely popular, so much so that these works became cultural touchstones. Operas were far more social, loud, boisterous and occasionally, there would even be riots:

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This is no longer the case. Opera today belongs to the realm of high art and therefore it is treated as such. Consider that audiences attending an operatic broadcast in a movie theater will refrain from eating popcorn so as not to distract from the experience. It is even considered by many to be bad etiquette when the opera is 'interrupted' by applause over a great performance. Opera has also become confined to a smaller social sphere--specifically audiences that are aware of the conventions associated with attending a performance. But this shift to opera as art caused a good deal of repertoire to be lost as well. Part of this is a matter of practicality: operas are expensive and companies need a guarantee that audiences will attend performances (hence the stunningly dull season taking place at the Met next year). Presenting these works as artistic apogees is another good marketing tool. But viewing opera as high art limits the types of works that are considered to be acceptable. Specifically, it leaves out these operas of spectacle.

Opera is, of course, always a spectacle to some extent. However, the truly spectacular ones are relatively rare now. Traces of them still remain: think about Verdi's Aida, with its dramatic (and exotic) processional. So why do I see the Fast and the Furious series as similar to these operas? Two main criticisms leveled at operas of spectacle are also frequently applied to FF movies:

1) They are ridiculous

Let's start with the obvious point that all opera is ridiculous because no one walks around singing all of the time apart from those voice majors you knew in college. I'm also going to ignore the fact that there are some truly ridiculous operas that are firmly entrenched in the canon. One example that leaps to mind is, like, every single thing Wagner ever wrote, although, as I have argued elsewhere, Wagner's operatic universe is akin to Star Wars in its ever-sprawling and all-encompassing mythology--if there isn't already a Walkürepedia to match the Star Wars Wookieepedia, there really should be.

No, I mean the really ridiculous operas that have almost been forgotten and are very rarely staged. Take Adriana Lecouvrer, for instance, where the plot hinges on murder by poisoned violets. Or how about La muette de Portici, with its cameo appearance by Mount Vesuvius in the process of eruption during Act V:

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French grand opera was a fount of this kind of spectacle, particularly with its action-packed plots and extensively detailed scenery. It was also immensely popular and played to huge audiences throughout the nineteenth century. French grand opera has not fared well in the modern canon, perhaps in part because it was too spectacular--from a practical standpoint, it is also expensive to stage. When traces of them can be found, they are not above criticism. Verdi's Don Carlos belongs in this category, between its dramatic auto-da-fé scene and that ending where Carlos is abducted and dragged away into a tomb by what may be the ghost of his grandfather but honestly it's not clear and this is my favorite Verdi opera. That's some good, spectacular stuff there. It also took a long time for Don Carlos to reclaim its place in the repertoire. The music is some of Verdi's best, but overcoming this plot was challenging for audiences.

Fast and the Furious movies are also spectacular, taking full advantage of their medium to emphasize this point. From the trailer of the most recent movie, it looks like we will enjoy a prison break that could be a choreographed ballet sequence, except one involving Jason Statham and--you guessed it--Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnston (also of note: apparently prison uniforms that are sized for The Rock do not come with sleeves).  Is this any sillier than the bathing suit ballet in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots? I would argue no. Is all of this spectacle? Absolutely. Is the spectacle part of what makes this experience enjoyable for the audience? Indeed. Can a car best a submarine or, as occurred in previous FF installments, a huge safe, an airplane, several skyscrapers, or an omnipotent satellite system? Probably only in this spectacular world.

2) They are formulaic

I have noticed lately that FF movies have been a real critical punching bag in various publications, often with a tone of 'Oh no, not this again.' The implication is that these movies are formulaic. Well, if you mean, 'At some point a FF movie will involve cars doing something ridiculous and probably Vin Diesel saying something vague about family,' yes they are. I am not suggesting that watching a FF movie will wrestle with existential issues or offer a new and vital perspective on contemporary society. But I do want to take a stand against the idea that a formula automatically means a lesser product. It's precisely this kind of thinking that gets Wagner enshrined in opera houses and keeps Haydn's many (often formulaic) operas out.

To whit: there is nothing inherently wrong with drawing on a formula. Sure, a work that is overly formulaic, and therefore overly predictable, will likely be dull; at the same time, most successful formulas offer enough flexibility so that they remain interesting. Handel's operas can be both formulaic and engaging--and spectacle, like when he brought in live birds as part of his early productions of Rinaldo (spoiler alert: this was a bad plan in a closed theater). The idea that we should value works that deviate from formulas is the basis of Joseph Kerman's Opera as Drama and too often the view espoused by musicologists, scholars more generally, and critics. However, audiences for film and for opera are often content with formulas. More importantly, a gifted artist can take a formula and find ways of modifying it enough to make it engaging.

Perhaps you are not the kind of person who will run out to your local movie theater this weekend to see FF8. That's okay. I'm the first to admit that it will probably be pretty silly. But do be the person who rushes to champion formulaic works that are filled with spectacle. They were popular in their day for good reason and they deserve better consideration today.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Schenkerian Gang Signs Presents: Selected Siri Notes from Beyoncé's iPhone

Siri, add to list of potential baby names (in the spirit of Blue Ivy):
Turquoise Magnolia
Ochre Tulip


Siri, note to my assistant. I have decided what I want as the background for my pregnancy announcement photo. I want a floral arrangement that would not be out of place in the Sun King's court. It should be at least three feet tall and include flowers that are the size of a pomegranate. I am not exaggerating.


Siri, add to list of potential baby names:
Orange Hyacinthe
Sable Iris


Siri, write an email to Dearest Lady G, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to you for inviting me to perform with you at the Superbowl this year--my apologies for the fact that you have not been able to reach my telephone! Unfortunately, I must decline, as I am with three hearts. This is not some weird Illuminati thing, but my way of saying that I am pregnant with twins. I would like to offer you some advice based on my experience last year, when I stole the show from some band that no one remembers. Be sure to have sufficient leg strength that if you appear to fall during your set, you can pull yourself right back up. All of America will then question whether you did almost fall, or if you are, in all things, Flawless. With the most profound love from all three of my hearts, B.


Siri, add to list of potential baby names:
Fuchsia Willow
Saffron Meadow


Siri, note to my assistant. Please notify the florist that while the original floral arrangement sent over was passable, I will require one that it at least three times as big. And more elaborate. And with more flowers. Also some of the flowers should be larger. And with more accompanying foliage in the background.


Siri, add to list of potential baby names:
Lemon Æd 
Purple Reign
No wait, scratch that, isn't one of the Kardashian kids named Reign?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Day in DC

Yesterday, I traveled to Washington, DC along with a million or so other people to participate in the Women's March that took place following Donald Trump's inauguration event. I sure that most participants would agree that the trip was a whirlwind of emotions and experiences. In my case, four songs surfaced over the course of the weekend that helped me make sense of the event, and perhaps a little more sense of how the world looks after the most recent election.

One of many MLK quote signs seen on the walk from RFK Stadium to the rally. Out of town buses parked at RFK Stadium and marchers walked from there to the Mall.

The Beatles, 'Across the Universe'
I took a bus to DC and on the way down, we watched the movie 'Across the Universe,' a 2007 'British-American jukebox musical romantic drama film' (convoluted genre definition per Wikipedia). While the film itself did not leave much of an impression, I did get the song 'Across the Universe' stuck in my head as a result. One line of it stayed with me throughout the weekend: 'Nothing's gonna change my world.' As I looked around DC and saw the juxtaposition of the inauguration aftermath and women's march, this line took on new meaning.

'Nothing's gonna change my world' felt particularly applicable to those who claim they can 'make America great again'--bring it back from its current changes to some kind of better time. This slogan has already been subject to great criticism, and rightly so, as it is hard to envision an era when America was equally great for all. This imagined time and place fits what Svetlana Boym identified as a key trait of nostalgia:
It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home with an imaginary one. In extreme cases, it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unelected nostalgia breeds monsters.
The term 'unelected' feels particularly ironic here. Boym was writing in 2001 and her subject was primarily the nostalgia that permeated the Soviet Bloc, encouraged and established by its dictators. Today's nostalgic longing to 'make America great again' is cut from the same cloth, but was produced in a democracy by a group of people who refuse to let anything change their world. Boym identifies this type of nostalgia as 'restorative,' a type of nostalgia that relies on concepts of 'truth and tradition'--although in this 'post-truth' world (as in the Soviet Bloc), there are many ways to inflect truth with fiction. Boym continues:
Restorative nostalgia is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots—the return to origins and the conspiracy...Restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously.
Restorative nostalgia is a danger because it is a fiction that presents itself as truth. As such, it is nearly impossible to argue with its catchphrases. 'Make America Great Again' presents exactly this problem: I cannot cogently maintain that America was 'never great'. I can nuance the discussion by suggesting its greatness was mired in inequality (arguments that others have made far more expertly than I) or its triumphs have benefited some individuals rather than the greater good. But it is wholly impossible to counter nostalgia with facts. If nothing's gonna change your world, then nostalgia is the only means available to preserve it.

Public Enemy, 'Fight the Power'
For the first part of the day, I was unable to get close to the speakers because there were so many people at the rally, so my experience was remarkably free of noise apart from the murmurs of the crowd (and occasional chant/cheer). Participants in the march were told ahead of time not to bring large bags because they would be subject to search, but not everyone heeded this guideline. Early in the afternoon, one man walked by where I was sitting with a boombox playing 'Fight the Power.' On the surface, this song seems like an appropriate one for the march, whose mandate was not limited to women's rights, but rights for all who experienced inequality. Indeed, why were we all there unless we were fighting the power? But as I thought more about it, I couldn't reconcile this song with this event.

'Fight the Power' is also a slogan, although clearly it does not draw from the same nostalgia as MAGA. But it is a unilateral declaration by Chuck D in the song. The Women's March, in contrast, did not have a single slogan. Instead, marchers brought signs, many of which were made by hand and sharing different messages. Calls for public art brought varied interpretations of the march's ideas--several of these signs were brought by those marching, along with art by Shepard Fairey. As we were walking from the bus to the Mall, a young black girl held up one of Fairey's posters:

'Thank you!' she yelled enthusiastically as the crowd walked by. 'Thank you all for coming!'

While the Women's March may have sought to fight the power, it was the multiplicity of voices that made it such a powerful event. All of the signs were rooted in the fundamental idea of equality, but the variations on this theme were almost overwhelming in their volume. Signs were seen all over town--many left on display near the National Gallery--imparting their messages even as the event wound down.

Beyoncé, 'Formation'
I did finally manage to get to a place where I could hear the speakers for the rally as the speakers drew to a close (I missed the Madonna moment, for instance--this is the hazard of attending rather than watching the highlights). There was also indigenous music performed to wind up the official ceremonies--while I was unable to find a clip of that performance, Indigenous Women Rise was an important presence at the march. Once the ceremonies concluded, music turned over to a DJ, who started off the party with what was, perhaps, the obvious choice: Beyoncé's 'Formation.' Naturally, the crowd responded enthusiastically.

As I have written about before, 'Formation' is an important song within Beyoncé's oeuvre because it engages with her identity as a black female artist. It accomplishes this in part by imbricating personal details: she has 'hot sauce in her bag swag,' we learn about her origins as a 'Texas bama.' What struck me listening to 'Formation' in this context is that the women around her bring their identities too. We hear their voices later in the track during the 'slay/okay' section, as they get in formation. This imagery fit the event almost perfectly as so many different people came together for the cause.

Undoubtedly this struck me because I was deeply moved by how variegated the crowd was. It was impossible to know what motivated each person to participate, but it was incredible to witness so many people who felt strongly enough to fight for equality that they traveled to DC and participated in the event. We all slayed, everyone who marched, wherever you marched. Thank you for being in formation.

Kid Rock, 'All Summer Long'
As I was leaving the rally, I almost stumbled into an event held by Bikers For Trump up the street from the Mall. The music playing sounded like Kid Rock (it may not have been), and it brought back a nostalgia that was almost wholly absent from the rally. Even the name 'Kid Rock' is nostalgic: he is no longer a kid, and this reference to 'rock' hearkens back to the 60s or 70s. 'All Summer Long' is a song that doubles down on its nostalgia, quoting from Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Alabama'--an ode to the nostalgia of place in its own right--in the process. In an instant, I was back in a place that wants to Make America Great Again with its pseudo-rock music that longs for another time. In the distance, I could still hear chants from the world that yearns for change.