July 12, 2016

Opera and golf and the talent it takes to be mediocre

Benjamin Godard
I don't play much golf any more. I never played a lot, but I enjoyed hitting a bucket of balls on the driving range, and my sister-in-law's husband took me golfing on his municipal course a few times. Well, that was years ago. My sister-in-law divorced her husband and surgery on my cervical spine makes it painful to swing a golf club. So much for active participation!


It's just as well - I wasn't very good. But I still follow the PGA and, to a lesser extent, the LPGA. One thing about golf no one can fully appreciate who has never tried to play the game: IT'S SO HARD.

The pro golf tour is made up of three basic levels: stars, journeymen and "rabbits". The rabbits are the pros who play constantly but seldom if ever win. They struggle along, just breaking even, driving high-mileage cars to the next venue instead of flying because they're running low on cash. But don't kid yourself - those rabbits could beat you like a drum, you amateur, you.

Even the worst pro golfers are really, really, really, REALLY good. Whoever is last on the PGA money-winning list (currently one Tommy Gainey) is a fabulous golfer who can make every shot in the book: booming drives, knock-em-stiff iron shots, delicate chips and amazing lag putts. You see, what a golfer goes through just to earn his PGA tour card is a gauntlet requiring nothing less than skill sets that would win your local club championship every time. Even if he never wins a pro tournament!
Tommy Gainey

And what does this have to do with opera?

A lot.

The percentage of all the operas ever written that end up in the "standard repertoire" - heck, let's expand the category to "operas performed from time to time" - is miniscule; statistically insignificant.
And certainly, there are operas that are really, truly awful, either due to weak libretto, ineffective music, or other factors, or a perfect storm of complete ineptitude.

But the reality is that it takes real talent - amazing skill-sets - to create a mediocre opera; one that is seldom if ever revived. Opera is to music composition what neuro-surgery is to medicine. It's hard. It requires comprehensive mastery.

I was reminded of all this as I took my dog Joy The Friendly Beagle on a walk a few weeks ago. Stomping along a nature trail on a mild Saturday afternoon, I put on my headphones and used a music app on my phone to tune in a Saturday afternoon opera broadcast. That day's offering from WETA FM in Washington D.C. was the opera Dante by Benjamin Godard.

Confession: I didn't know Godard wrote operas...

To me, he was the middling composer of flowery salon pieces for piano, perfumed but slight. So the revelation that he wrote operas came as a surprise. "Okay", I thought, "as an opera professional, I am curious to sample this rarity. Bring it on!" My expectations were low. Generally, there are good, solid reasons that neglected pieces are neglected. I recall having delivered a lecture in downtown Richmond, VA years ago after which a gentleman came up to chat. There are two questions employees of opera companies are asked all the time:
  1. "Why do you always do the same tired old operas? Why not branch out a little?" Or,
  2. "Why do you do weird ugly operas no one's ever heard of? Why not do the 'good ones'"?
This guy was asking #1 above. Obviously wishing to demonstrate his amazing opera knowledge, he clucked his tongue and said "I mean, why not stage Schubert's Alphonso und Estrella? It's absolutely charming!"

Uh huh. Thanks a lot, we'll get right on that, you pretentious twit...

It's not that he was wrong, of course - it's just that a regional opera company like Virginia Opera, especially in bad economic times, would be committing marketing suicide by scheduling a failed opera. See, it's different with opera than with orchestral music or instrumental solos, or even solo vocal music. We musicians can and do perform mediocre or neglected works from those categories all the time, because the investment of resources is relatively small. But opera is expensive! It costs a fortune! You have to take into account scenery, props, costumes, choreographers, electricians, crew members, transportation, airline tickets and housing for singers, ... the list goes on and on. Companies simply can't make an investment like that if the show won't be of interest. It's usually a bad investment to do an oddity, a rarity, a forgotten opera.

But Dante was produced by the Munich Opera, where state funding is more generous than in America, so Godard's shade can rest easy: his piece has survived him, however briefly.
I listened attentively for not quite half an hour, feeling at a disadvantage with neither libretto nor score with which to orient myself. It opened with a highly dramatic chorus, followed by a recitative for the tenor (the character of Dante), a tenor aria with some more chorus, a baritone aria and a duet for the two of them. The opera dates from 1890, according to the announcer.

Then I got to my car, the hike completed, and had to stop my sampling. You can't legally drive with headphones on, and I couldn't hear it over traffic noise without them.

But I'd heard enough to get the idea.

Was it bad? NO! Not at all!. It sounded a little Massenet-ish here, a little Bizet-ish there, with elements of Wagner and late Verdi sprinkled in for good measure. The choral writing was expert. The vocal writing was assured. The orchestration was fine. Many phrases for Dante and his baritone colleague rang out in an impassioned manner.

If you're not a musician, you can't appreciate the level of musicianship, talent, training and experience it takes to compose choral music, learn the craft of orchestration, and write gracefully and effectively for all ranges of male and female voices.

In case you're thinking "A-ha! A neglected masterpiece!", let me quickly assure you it's no such thing.

I don't know Dante well enough to state with authority why it has not entered the standard repertoire. I can only tell you my reaction: I never need to hear it again.

That's my litmus test for evaluating a work I've never heard before, operatic or otherwise. Do I want to hear it again, or was once enough? I recall my first introductions to many favorite works of music: Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Boris Godunov, the "Liebestod" from Tristan, Brahms' F sharp minor piano quintet, .....so many others. With all of them, I was so gob-smacked by the compelling nature of the music that I realized I SIMPLY HAVE TO HEAR THIS AGAIN! In many cases, over and over...

Not Dante. It was fine; there was nothing particularly wrong per se with it. It just failed the litmus test. I can't really explain why. I suppose the opening chorus seemed a bit long, over-dramatic and extended for a curtain-raiser. Just by a fraction.

Sometimes, with mediocre operas, there is the sense that the composer was trying as hard as possible to make each moment of music "the ultimate opera music", as though every moment had to be climactic.

The great ones save climactic moments for, you know, climaxes. Continual climaxes pall. Maybe I sensed a bit of that in Dante; maybe a tad over-wrought.

You can listen for yourself. The same performance is available as audio on YouTube. Just enter "Godard Dante" in the search bar. I had it on while typing this post, wondering if it would strike me differently. Not so much. The end of the first scene brought weak scattered applause from the audience.

Benjamin Godard: a "rabbit" composer who could make all the shots and compose all the things. These days, he might have to drive his car to hear his opera performed instead of flying.

Final thought: this analogy of composers and pro golfers really holds up pretty well. Take the most famous of recent golfers: Tiger Woods. I could make the case that he corresponds to Richard Strauss. Both set their respective worlds on fire as young men, Woods winning the Masters by nine shots at age 22, Strauss penning his tone poem Don Juan at age 24. Yet both careers tailed off in the latter stages. Tiger went into a steep decline years ago, and Strauss sank into mediocrity as time went along.

Both fields have their "one-shot wonders", or individuals who show flashes of brilliance that never translated into long-term brilliance. You say Ruggiero Leoncavallo, whose only success was Pagliacci, I say Keegan Bradley, who won a major tournament several years ago but has won nothing at all since 2012.

Woods and Strauss: Stars.
Bradley and Leoncavallo: Journeymen.
Godard and Gainey: talented, highly skilled................... rabbits.


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