November 21, 2015

Why great opera music doesn't have to be great music to be great

When I travel around Virginia teaching opera classes or speaking to groups about opera, I sometimes get feedback like this:
Giuseppe Verdi: master of irony

"Glenn, all this information you give us is interesting, of course, but I'm going to confess something to you. When I go to the opera, I don't read the plot synopsis or read the super-titles or listen for the motifs or whatever. I just sit back, close my eyes, and enjoy the beauty of the music and the lovely voices singing it."


I really wish people wouldn't tell me things like that.

It's not that I don't understand where they're coming from; I do! And there is a degree to which great operas can be enjoyed merely for the surface attractiveness - or "greatness" - of the music. There's a lot of seriously beautiful, eloquent, profound, complex and utterly moving music in the operas we love. But one of my mantras as an opera educator is this: An opera is not a concert! Opera is theater!

There are numerous passages in the standard operatic repertoire which, if first encoutered on the car radio or via CD, would fail to measure up to a Beethoven concerto, a Brahms symphony, a Chopin ballade or some mountain-top piece of concert music.

There are, to be blunt, moments in several operas that, if heard out of theatrical context, would sound dorky, cheesy, trite, or all of the above to the uninitiated listener.

But that doesn't mean they aren't "great"! My theory: the most important quality of operatic music in rating its merit is appropriateness. Every musical idea in an operatic score must be:
  • appropriate to the character;
  • appropriate to the action;
  • appropriate to the words being sung; and
  • appropriate to the psychology of the scene.
Putting things at the simplest level: if a character is simple-minded, should it surprise us if his music is simple-minded as well? We also can't forget that irony is one of the chief weapons in the arsenal of effects available to composers of operas. Much of what's too often assumed to be shoddy is, in fact, pointed irony.

With this in mind, let me illustrate the point with a few examples of operatic passages that are "great" for their theatrical/dramatic value more than for intrinsic musical "greatness"; passages that, if first heard on the radio, might impel one to change the dial while muttering "Geez, opera is so tacky sometimes."

The Entr'acte before Act 2 of Donizetti's La fille du régiment. This lame little waltz for solo violin is so insipid that it rivals the lamest portions of Mozart's A Musical Joke. It begins around the 1:16:45 mark of this video of the opera. Here we have music that just begs one to skip ahead to the next track on a CD and move on to some comedy. But that misses the point that Donizetti is providing some wickedly witty commentary on Marie's new circumstances. This tomboy-ish daughter of the regiment, thanks to an Act 1 plot twist, has left military life to take up residence in a mansion with her high-society, elitist new relatives. The composer uses his drab waltz-tune to describe the bloodless, lifeless, useless milieu of the wealthy snobs who have claimed her. As a waltz, it's forgettable. As a foreshadowing of Marie's fish-out-of-water problem, it's perfect. It's.....  GREAT.

"Bella vita militar", chorus in Mozart's Così fan tutte. Let's just agree that, as a specimen of choral music, this little march (which you can hear at this link) ranks well below Brahms' Schicksalslied or Verdi's "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco. In this case, there is a cartoonish quality that is exactly what Mozart had in mind. Così is an absurd farce. The departure of the two soldier boys from their respective lovers is comically ridiculous, as is much of the action, including the moment when Despina produces her Big Giant Magnet to restore the "Albanians" to health. This is 18th-century Monty Python. Now, I'm the first to admit that Mozart has a seriouis and profound underlying message beneath the farce; but that's a subtlety. On the surface, nonsense prevails. The little chorus of villagers celebrating the valor of Ferrando and Guglielmo is thus appropriately pat and nonsensical. Who told these villagers about Ferrando & Guglielmo's plans? How did they know to show up? Are they in on the joke? It doesn't matter - they're a cartoon! It's perfect. It's......... GREAT.
And, sticking with Mozart for the moment, there's

Masetto's aria in Don Giovanni. If you'll scroll up a few paragraphs, I believe you'll see I used the word "simple-minded". Hello, Masetto!!! When the title character neatly elbows Zerlina's bridegroom out of the picture prior to wooing her, Masetto is rewarded with a short exit aria during which he pouts mightily at the turn of events. This aria: it's unimaginative harmonic scheme (lots and lots of toggling between tonic and dominant) is matched by its melodic plainness and lack of vocal virtuosity. All of this makes it perfect for Masetto! He's a plodding peasant; a country bumpkin; a good-hearted oaf. He'll spend his days laboring in the fields under the sun, never thinking about much besides dinner and taking Zerlina to bed. The small expressive scope of his solo is perfect for his small mind. Even when sung by an artist like Ferrucio Furlanetto as in this recording, Masetto's attempts to summon up heroic indignation are weak tea. It's perfect for Masetto. It's.......... GREAT.

The entrance of King Duncan in Verdi's Macbeth. Some of those operaphiles who revere Verdi as the god he was find themselves making excuses for passages in the operas of his early period. This holds especially true in his treatment of the orchestra, the so-called "big guitar" effect of too much oom-pah-pah. The parade of Duncan's retinue passing by Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth in Act 1, heard beginning at 26:36 in this recording, is less big guitar than a rural village dance band. You know those village bands that always turn up to welcome visiting mafiosi in the "Godfather" movies? They have their roots in this provincial, inelegant tune. If your car radio came on while this was playing, you'd be forgiven if your reaction was along the lines of "Sheesh - it ain't exactly La Mer, is it?" Dorothy Parker's quip about Katharine Hepburn displaying "the gamut of emotions from A to B" might apply to the range of orchestral color and overall musical sophistication in this banal episode. And that's what makes it great. No composer ever exceeded Verdi's grasp of dramatic irony and human psychology. Duncan's entrance is his only appearance in the opera, and he never speaks or sings a single word. He appears less as a flesh-and-blood human being than as a figurehead. Lady Macbeth is inciting her husband to commit an act of horrific violence. In order to bring himself to the point of following through with it, Macbeth must detach himself from the reality of Duncan's humanity and see him as merely the obstacle to his own advancement and success. The banality of the music lends an unreality to the king's procession, detaching him from the visceral passions and desires of the Macbeths. Verdi is allowing the music to establish point of view: we see Duncan through the filter of Macbeth's objectification. It's perfect. It's........ GREAT.

I'm not saying all opera music is great. Oh good Lord, no. There are, in this world, bad operas, bad ballets, bad symphonies, bad sonatas, bad jazz, bad Broadway musicals, and bad rock bands. LOTS of bad rock bands, let's be honest. And bad restaurants, don't get me started - whole other blog. What I AM saying is that you can't judge from your radio or home stereo whether a moment in opera is bad, or ironic.

You have to see the show to know for sure.

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