The article is entitled “Why Opera?”, and the author is none other than Prof. Jacques Barzun, whose work this site has occasionally adulated. The article in question remains under copyright, and A Superfluous Man humbly requests that the Reader “do as he says, not as he does” by reading the full article in the 2003 compendium of Prof. Barzun’s writings, A Jacques Barzun Reader: Selections from His Works. As with all of Prof. Barzun’s writings, the article is shot through with subtle humor, deep learning, and joie de vivre.
Prof. Barzun begins with the premise that opera responds to that which is most sensational and (dare I say) “Italianate” in the audience’s nature:
I would suggest that opera is a form of art dedicated to central rather than elevated impulses. It supplies the touch of nature that makes us all kin and is neither noble nor profound. In fact, the true province of opera is Vanity and Violence. No one should find this truth unpalatable or think opera unworthy in consequence. In art that is art, nothing is to be scorned for what it portrays, though the same spectacle in the moral life might incur blame.
Why is opera’s artistic value so hotly debated by classically trained musicians, or, as the article memorably puts it, “Why does opera divide music-lovers into two groups, one of them looking down its nose at the other, which meanwhile is looking through a lorgnette?”
Barzun suggests that opera’s bombast and conventionality tend to give it a bad name among soi-disant intellectuals, but he, who literally wrote the book on intellect, will personally have none of this form of narrow-mindedness so peculiar to the ivory tower:
The wise man therefore accepts the conventions of opera (even while he laughs at them) instead of getting indignant, like Tolstoy in his famous critique. In opera it is both funny and quite right that declarations of love, like tender reproaches and useless pleas, should be addressed to the back of the other person twenty feet away. Both parties need plenty of air and room for the limbs. If at some point they must embrace, they do so side by side, like Siamese twins, once again in the interests of free play for the diaphragm. Similar management is needed for the struggle over that leaden goblet containing the poison unknown to science. Firmly grasped by the two contestants, it must be tugged at semi-rhythmically regardless of the dynamics of liquids: those of the music are far more important.
Some of the article’s statements regarding the future of opera have since turned out to be wildly incorrect, albeit in interesting ways for which Prof. Barzun can in no way be held to account. In 1967, operatic performances were apparently relatively sedate affairs that generally did not seek to épater le bourgeois with every scene change. Thus, Prof. Barzun could quite confidently make the below prediction:
To generalize, in opera–as in all public displays–convention rules and petty realism does not matter. Ritual makes clear the intention, which is why a good opera calls for gorgeous costume, costume magnified beyond credibility and the power to sit down, as in the real life of the eighteenth century. It is true that Wozzeck and Louise almost manage with department-store clothes, but I predict that future directors of those operas will jealously preserve and gradually exaggerate the period look, for just the reason I advance. Opera wants gold braid and bright reds, sequins and long trains and tiaras: they are half the action, the other half being the scenery.
Anyone who frequents an opera house in 2012 (and particularly Continental opera houses) knows the frequency with which contemporary productions traduce the traditionalism that Prof. Barzun was able to assume as a matter of course in 1967. Anyone up for bungee-jumping Rhinemaidens or heroin-shooting Violettas? Perhaps a Mickey Mouse masked ball in the ruins of the World Trade Center? No?
Let us pause to contemplate Erfurt’s execrable 2008 production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, which deserves special mention as the most ghastly item currently available on YouTube. Watch until the end, if you can bear it, for the absolute nadir of “confetti”-strewn poor taste:
(Incidentally, for a superb dismantling of the pretensions of Regietheater and its depraved perpetrators, see the magnificent Heather Mac Donald’s article in the Summer 2007 edition of City Journal.)
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, and it would have been difficult for Prof. Barzun to predict the Maoist Long March through all Western cultural institutions from the museum to the theater to the university in the decades since the soixante-huitards first arrived on the scene.
But not everything has been in decline in recent decades. In 1967, Prof. Barzun also asked, “[W]hy is it that in opera the standard repertory, always and everywhere, consists almost wholly of works of the second rank?”, noting that “it is as if the symphony orchestras fed on Dvorák and Grieg and Saint-Saëns, and the Great Books programs promoted Trollope and Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson.” (Sadly, his analogy here is virtually unintelligible in 2012, when the soundtrack to Shakespeare in Love is better known than Le carnival des animaux and when Harry Potter has conclusively edged Treasure Island off little boys’ bookshelves.)
The point that Barzun advocates in this passage–that the “old chestnuts” of opera houses and symphony orchestras crowd out more interesting and recherché offerings of interest to true aficionados of the art–certainly still has its proponents today, particularly in many orchestra pits:
There remains the paradox that I mentioned at the outset, of the greatest operas seeming to be less fit for common use than those of the second rank. When the operas of Mozart, Weber, Handel, Boito, Gluck, Beethoven, Spontini, Berlioz, Mussorgsky or Montemezzi are played from time to time, it is with an air of bestowing a favor on the demanding few among the regular audience, which prefers its heavy dose of Verdi and Puccini year in and year out, content to compare one singer with another. The so-called standard works are evidently the solid, nourishing part of the diet; the others are like a rich dessert not to be overindulged in.
Happily, A Superfluous Man would argue that recent decades have brought great progress in broadening and deepening the repertoire. The 2011-12 season at The Metropolitan Opera features lesser-known operas of Donizetti, Massenet, Humperdinck, Mussorgsky, and Janáček alongside perennial favorites of Mozart, Wagner, Puccini, and Verdi. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has a new production of Handel’s Rinaldo this year and has made a concerted effort to stage early operas of greats such as Monteverdi in recent seasons.
Moreover, while one would be hard pressed to name an opera composed since the Second World War that A Superfluous Man would like to see twice, we are certainly blessed with a greater abundance of fine recordings of top-rate performers now than at any time during the past century. File this one under “embarrassment of riches”: Massenet’s Werther, to pick a relatively unperformed piece, exists on Amazon in at least 6 different CD editions and a number of DVDs as well.
The question today is: Why is it that, when talent is available in such quantity that even the Mistake on the Lake has a highly creditable symphony orchestra to its name, contemporary composers are so manifestly incapable of producing more than the barest trickle of music that anyone would subscribe to hear?