July 22, 2012

10 things you should never say to an opera composer

Mozart: too many notes...
Here's what you should understand about composing music:  when you present your new music to the public, you are naked to the world.  You are as vulnerable as vulnerable can be. The point of every musical composition is to be beautiful, right?  (The definition of "beautiful" is complicated, and a topic for another time; let's just go with it right now, okay?  Thanks.)  So when you spend time and effort committing notation to paper (or computer or whatever) for the purpose of public performance, you are saying to the world:  "This is beautiful.  I have created something beautiful.  My taste is good; I am capable of expressing beauty."  The inherent danger, of course, is that in making this claim, you are as exposed as that guy who loses his bathing suit in the water at the beach and is greeted with humiliating laughter by all the pretty girls.  In other words, if the world disagrees with you about the merits of your music, it's as personal as criticism gets.  To be told that what you created is not beautiful is as bad as being told that you yourself are not beautiful.  You have been found wanting, in the area of life that matters most to you: your artistic "private parts".

Of course, for every composer with lousy taste who foists horrible music upon us in the delusional belief that he has created beauty, there is an obtuse listener who, upon an encounter with a new piece, has no ability to discern the quality and craftsmanship of what he's hearing. 

The greatest awkwardness for composers arises when, in one-on-one personal interactions, he must endure the tortured efforts of friends and colleagues who attempt to mask their distaste for his music with what they hope comes off as appropriately tactful comments. I'm here to tell you that most people are AWFUL, simply AWFUL at this important skill; their attempts at diplomacy are painful and inept.

Having composed a good deal of music myself, the great majority of which has received public performance, I would now like to arm you listeners of the world with helpful information, namely:


10.  It has too many notes!  (Starting with a historical no-no; this, as many will know, is what Emperor Joseph II said to Mozart following the premiere of The Abduction From The Seraglio.)

9.  Well, it's different...  (When you say that, you're not being nearly as subtle and diplomatic as you think you're being.  Nice try, but your attitude of sheer dismay is transparently obvious.)

8. Wow, it's obvious you've put a LOT of work into this! (Again, you're being un-subtle.  Only a moron would fail to fill in the implied follow-up remark: "Too bad all that work was for nothing...")

7.  Have you shown this to any professionals?  (Translation: "If I tell you your opera sucks, you won't believe me; perhaps if someone you respect gives you the bad news you'll come closer to accepting it.)

6.  Congratulations! (The standard "generic positive remark which neatly avoids rendering an actual opinion as to merit",)

5.  It sounds kind of like Alban Berg, doesn't it? (This was actually said to me after I played through a scene from an opera I was working on.  The truth is, the passage in question sounded more like Sondheim than any Viennese Expressionist.)

4.  I'm just in awe of anyone who even tries to write an opera! (Yeah, yeah, we get it: "Of course, I'm even MORE in awe of someone who succeeds on any level!"  Just go ahead and say it, okay?)

3.  I'd be glad to give you some pointers on writing for voices. (Obviously, a bon mot from a singer.  This is another "helpful" remark I once actually got from a soprano to whom I'd sent the piano-vocal score of an aria I'd composed.  I sent it to another soprano (duh!) who sight-read it flawlessly and easily, ha-ha-ha and nanny-nanny-goo-goo.)

2.  Wow, you really put yourself out there, didn't you?! Well, I respect that. (Or, put in plain English, "I guess you're one of those people who goes ahead and does things even though he looks foolish doing so.  Me? I'd rather die first.")

And the #1 thing you should never say to an opera composer:

1. It's very impressive - of course, I don't really have much of an ear for music, so I don't really know WHAT I'm listening to!"  (Generally delivered with a rueful smile and self-deprecating shake of the head, this one clearly communicates the following: "It sounded like a dying wildebeast in heat to me, but I'm going to cop out by claiming ignorance, leaving you, the hapless composer, clinging to the remote and unlikely possibility that your music might not suck and that I'm simply incapable of appreciating it.  Good luck with that.")

Hmmm... on second thought, maybe I'll take #1 after all....  <sigh>

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online
at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.

1 comment:

  1. 10.5 (if speaking to Mascagni): Why, it's another Cavalleria!