A post at the Opera

Brent Reidy

A confession–I  don't like opera. Sorry. I know it's great and all, but it's not for me. I like my drama more dramatic (like in plays, where I can suspend a little disbelief). I like my music a little less epic. Oh, I also really don't like vocal-vibrato. Maybe that's why.

But–a bevy of news stories I read this morning might get me more familiar with opera in the near future:

First, Charles Wuorinen, a composer everyone should know better but doesn't, has been commissioned by the New York Opera Company to premiere a work in 2013. The work, you ask?: none other than the famous short story and much more famous movie Brokeback Mountain. It's a pretty good story (the paper version) and Wourinen is a great composer. Perhaps that opera will be a wonderful coupling. I can only hope that this is the sort of thing that might bring a different kind of audience to the house. This opera is not just for the devoted queen, but rather for the millions that saw and enjoyed the movie.

Besides, it will certainly be better than the last movie-to-opera crossover I saw.

Second, a behind the scenes movie was just released, Wonders are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic. I said I dislike opera, but Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer are exceptions. In fact, I almost saw Doctor Atomic until tragic fate intervened. I have since then heard the work on the radio. And now I get to see the behind the scenes DVD. It looks to be a doc of serious import with substantial interviews. The NYTimes review quotes some very quotable material I want to lift for a paper: "The British-born American physicist Freeman Dyson, one of the film’s most articulate talking heads, explains that science and art express the same urge to 'take the watch apart to see how it works.'”

Third, Wagner. What Opera post would be complete with a mention of ol' Richard. I have a love-hate relationship with him. Lots of people love him. I hate him.

I have a hard time sitting through a 2 hour movie or concert. I really like things that come in hour long packages or less. Mahler symphonies and Music for 18 Musicians are the limit.

I'm therefore ashamed to only find out today that a version of The Ring exists which caters directly to my inadequate attention span. In 1987, Lorin Maazel premiered his "Ring without Words," a 75 minute long take on the monstrous thing. Some might be dismayed that "situations that unfold inexorably over an hour or more in the opera house just pop into view here," as "it is jolting to cruise from the arpeggiated proto-Minimalism of the 'Prelude to the Ride of the Valkyries' in less than half an hour." Less than half an hour? Thank you, Mr. Maazel.

What I've read of it is positive and so I'm on a mission to hear this version of Wagner I might actually enjoy. Plus, no vocal-vibrato. If more opera could do that, I might become a regular fan.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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12 Responses to A post at the Opera

  1. Greg says:

    So how do you deal with the “vocal-vibrato”[sic] during the Adams? Do you ignore it? Do you hypnotize yourself into believing it isn’t there?
    And what about songs? Do you hate songs when sung by operatic voices?
    You don’t need to be apologetic about not liking opera. You DO need to be apologetic about having a two-hour attention span. That’s just sad.

  2. Matthew says:

    No vibrato? Louis Armstrong must drive you nuts.
    And it’s useful to know that going to the opera on a regular basis qualifies me as a devoted queen. Just don’t tell my wife, OK? She still thinks I watch Cyd Charisse movies solely for the choreography.
    (U before O, by the way.)

  3. I’m the last one to suggest people should try and like opera if they don’t–we like what we like. What I do find perplexing is that almost universally people say they don’t like it because of the sound of a human voice singing with vibrato. It’s my assumption they don’t mind it in, say, a cello, but something about vibrato in singing is really off-putting.
    Why this is difficult to process is that it’s really a broad range of sounds you’re speaking of. Between the fine-grained spin of a postwar Viennese soprano to the wake-the-dead rip of a Slavic dramatic; this is not even to speak of male voices, infrequently mentioned in this context. I can understand not liking opera. A lot of opera is not that much fun. But saying you don’t like it because of the sound of vocal vibrato is, to me, like saying “yeah, I don’t really like classical music–the sound of instruments has just never agreed with me.”

  4. brent reidy says:

    Greg – In songs and Adams and more I really don’t like excessive vibrato. A little bit goes a long way. I also don’t think I’m alone.
    As for the two hour attention span–I don’t feel apologetic or think it is sad. I also don’t think all music should be short. That happens to be how I like music. I also like short stories. In general, I’d rather listen to a 10 minute piece 6 times in a row than a 60 minute piece once. Go figure.
    Matthew – Thanks for the spelling error–fixed it. And my reference to the Queen’s Throat was uncalled for–sorry. More of an attempt to reference a book I think is quite good than make a passable joke.
    Maury – Yes. I’ve never really much liked classical singing–the sound of the instruments has just never agreed with me. I do like singing, just not classical. I’m sorry. But that’s how I really feel. It’s not for me.
    I think the deities are angry with me for the opera post. Flash floods hit Indiana again and I almost lost my car to a foot or two of rain on the roads home just a few minutes ago.

  5. Natalie says:

    I just heard about another movie-turned-opera: La Scala has commissioned Giorgio Battistelli to compose “An Inconvienent Truth” for the opera stage in 2011.

  6. Greg says:

    It’s just that the blog is called “Dial M for Musicology” not “Dial U for Unexamined and Baseless Personal Prejudices,” or “Dial W for Willful Ignorance,” or “Dial B for Borderline Homophobia,” or “Dial O for Old News Everyone Else Got Tired of Cracking Jokes about NINE MONTHS AGO.”
    Sorry about your car. Hopefully you can get it fixed it in under two hours.

  7. brent reidy says:

    For the “Dial O for Old News”…it was a rumor nine months ago but was only officially announced by NYC Opera on Sunday. Also, I didn’t actually make fun of the future opera at all–certainly nothing as hilarious as Ross’s gem a post title “Gay 12-tone cowboys, etc.”
    As for the “borderline Homophobia”–I think that my glib post did not say at all what I meant. The movie Brokeback Mountain became one of the highest grossing romance films of all times. That it was a gay romance is astounding and wonderful.
    I hope that audiences, especially those who do not normally come to opera (-my bad Queen ala Koestenbaum joke-) will embrace the opera with equal openness. That’s what I meant, period. I’m sorry that what I wrote really didn’t do a good job saying that whatsoever.
    As for “Unexamined and Baseless Personal Prejudices” and “Willful Ignorance”–my tastes are thoroughly examined. Why is it ignorant to not like Opera? Does that make me a bad person?
    I’ve dealt with this sort of thing a lot–and the street doesn’t seem to go two ways. I devote most of my time to the sort of music most musicians and listeners don’t really like–experimental and electroacoustic. I’ve had many conversations where someone candidly tells me he or she does not like any of what I love. This seems acceptable to most. But when I say I dislike the way the classical voice sounds or can’t stand a four hour opera, my tastes are unacceptable–reprehensible even.

  8. David Cavlovic says:

    Lorin Maazel has NOTHING on Bugs Bunny and Elemer Fudd for condensed Wagner! Bugs can do it in seven minutes!

  9. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Anna Russell, y’all!

  10. None of Your Business says:

    Confession: I am a conservatory-trained tenured music professor, but I don’t like Brahms! Please kill me.

  11. I do agree with you about the opera ‘performance’ problem (and I’ve written two short operas myself). Because I make money as an actor, the point-your-nose-at-the-audience-&-let-‘er-rip thing has always bugged me. (In one of my operas, the old soprano, whose 93rd farewell recital this is, is accosted by a singing music critic from the Boston Glob. It went over pretty well.) I’m writing a short opera now (about Vincent Van Gogh’s brother Theo) where the aim is for actors who sing, and where the orchestra is tip-toeing most of the time. Even taking into account Kurt Weill & Leos Janacek’s (among others) trailblazing, there’s still a problem about the Opera In English that hasn’t been satisfactorily been solved. I *do* think many opera singers — i.e. the non-famous ones — are better actors than 50 or even 20 years ago. And that’s a start.

  12. Lyle Sanford says:

    Every so often, in what little Wagner I’ve listened to, something about the shifting tonal centers and the harmonies (vocal or instrumental) can induce in my gut a very slight, yet noticeable, physical nausea. Never heard anyone having that reaction, so have assumed it’s idiosyncratic. This thread has me wondering if something like that might be flavoring some of the reaction to the voices, at least in the Wagner.

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