Posts Tagged 'opera'

Addenda to Chapter Five: Easing back into the unintentional epic

About a year and a half ago, some commentary on the complex relationship some younger people growing up today have with organized religion prompted me to start telling my own story with respect to organized religion (while wanting to keep it from becoming the “conversion story” that has rather become its own genre in American Orthodox Christianity). It was by necessity divided into pieces, and I got here before life as a new father, husband to a new mother, and as a PhD student racing to candidacy status meant that I just didn’t have time to write long blog posts.

I’m trying to get some momentum back, because I’d like to finish that particular project. The pattern I was following was this — post about religious developments followed by post giving some life context for those religious developments. So, I guess what that means is that life context for summer 1997 through summer 2003 is up next.

Summer 1997 saw me as somebody who had dropped out of college in disgrace and who was scraping out an existence in Bellingham selling classified ads for the local newspaper. The  major developments (that I’ll talk about here, anyway) during those few months were that I bought my first car (a teal 1992 Volkswagen Golf GL), I got a relatively substantial settlement from a car accident I had been in the summer before, I resumed voice lessons with Dennis Kruse, my high school voice teacher, and I got my first non-ecclesial professional singing gig with The Tudor Choir. The first of these developments enabled the latter two, since they required me to drive to Seattle (an hour and a half each way), and this got me pondering how I might be able to move back south, since there was really no great reason anymore for me to stay in Bellingham.

An old friend of mine was working for one of the major software companies in the Seattle area, and he suggested that I might be able to get a agency temp position as a software tester. He helped me prepare for the interview process, and when his team had some spots they were looking to fill, he was able to recommend me. I successfully got through the interview, and in February 1998 I moved back to Seattle and started my five-year excursion into the tech industry. It really was only ever going to be a stop on the way to someplace else for me, but it was definitely a nice stopover for a while.

The next year basically consisted of me trying to clean up the mess my four years in Bloomington had left in my life; I lost some weight I needed to lose, I fixed some financial issues, I got my voice back, I developed a relationship with a priest and a parish that was important to me, I bought my first Mac (an iMac Rev B), I fulfilled part of a teenage fantasy by getting to be friends, at least for a while, with Hammerbox’s Carrie Akre, and Megan McKamey re-entered my life.

Sometime during the summer of 1998 I was cleaning out a box I had found in my closet, and I came across an old address book. (“Old” meaning it I had bought it in 1994, four years previous. Four years ago I had just gotten back from Greece and was about to start graduate school. There’s nothing from 2009 that I consider “old”. Oh, perspective.) I found, among other things, the last home address I had for Megan, and for one reason or another, it hit me hard. I had started thinking of her in the back of my head as “the one that got away”, or more accurately, “the one I had foolishly let go”, and other circumstances in my life had emphasized for me how foolish I had been in letting her go. Anyway, I wrote a letter that amounted to, “Hey, haven’t seen you in about a year, and I suppose you’ve graduated by now and are back home figuring out what to do next. I’m back in the Seattle area too; let’s hang out sometime.” Time passed, and I got no response.

Then, in October (I think), a letter showed up in my mailbox from, of all places, Shanghai, China. I opened it up, and it was a letter from none other than Megan, where she was spending six months teaching English at a girls’ school. She seemed more or less happy to hear from me, or at least happy to get mail from home (declining to give me an e-mail address because, as she said, she’d rather get paper letters), and with that encouragement, I started writing her a handwritten, six-page letter a week. It would be wrong for me to suggest that she replied with the same kind of frequency; I think I got three more letters from her between October 1998 and when she returned in February 1999.

Anyway, by 28 February 1999, I been waiting to hear from her all month, since she had never said precisely when she was coming back to the States, and that afternoon I looked up her parents’ home phone number in the phone book (remember that people used to look up such things in such publications?), left a message on the answering machine, and basically paced around the apartment for awhile. Sometime in the early evening she called me back; we chatted briefly, she said we needed to hang out in person sometime soon, and I asked, well, what are you doing right now?

“Uh, I’m in Sumner.” (A little over half an hour away from where I was.)

“So what? I’ll be there in a bit.”

I drove down to Sumner immediately (I was excited), saw her for the first time in probably two years, met her family for the first time (well, not entirely true — I had met her brother Teague a couple of times in 1995), and the two of us went out for dinner and then to a movie (Shakespeare in Love, as I recall). It was very much like a date, and we made plans to hang out in my end of town the next weekend.

The next Saturday, I drove down to Sumner, picked Megan up (she did not yet have a car), and brought her back up to the Eastside. She showed me China pictures for awhile, we decided to go see Analyze This!, and then we went out to dinner. As we pulled into the parking lot of Redmond Town Center to go to Cucina! Cucina!, I decided it would probably be a good idea for me to have some clarity in my own head as to what we were doing. “Just so I know,” I asked, “is this a date?”

It took Megan about a minute to stop fumbling over her words sufficiently to answer me. The answer was “no”. The reason why the answer was “no” was, she explained, because she had started dating an old friend from high school shortly after she had gotten back from China.

Shortly after her “no”, it seemed that Cucina! Cucina! had an hourlong wait.

No worries, I told her; there was another place I could take her just up the road that was maybe a bit better, and I took her to the Salish Lodge in North Bend. Why not? It wasn’t exactly like I was just going to sullenly drive her home and never talk to her again; that’s not how I do things. May as well have an evening out as friends in as high a style as I could manage to improvise. We had crab cakes as an appetizer and expensive cocktails. It was fun, and I started making that my M.O. when we saw each other.

At the risk of this becoming a blow-by-blow of the following eight weekends, I’ll just sum up a number of events by saying that, by the end of April, she and the high school friend had decided that they were better off as friends, I had been invited to spend Easter with her family, I’d also been invited to come to her little brother’s confirmation, her stepdad had made the offhand comment to her that “I like Richard — he’s trying harder”, and we spent a very nice Saturday in Seattle, taking her to my old friend Bryn Martin (memory eternal) to have her hair done, going to The Owl ‘N Thistle for dinner, then taking advantage of the Pioneer Square joint cover (something that seems to no longer exist in that form, exactly, alas) to go dancing.

As we were walking back to the car, around 1:30 in the morning or so, we were holding hands, and Megan said, “We need to talk about where we’re at, don’t we? Because I think it’s changed.” She was quite right.

Around the same time, two other things happened — I was hired as a permanent employee at the company I was temping for, and my parents also announced, once and for all, that they were getting a divorce, once and for all. They had made similar announcements before only to reconcile, but this time was the real deal, ironically right as the relationship that would become my marriage was starting up.

The divorce was made more awkward by the fact that my dad had a heart attack in June of 1999, and my mom was the only person who could really help him in rehab. Whatever good that possibly may have been done was completely unraveled by the hard feelings and sharp words exchanged in the mediation proceedings. I took Megan up to Alaska at Christmas to introduce her to everybody (we were already looking at rings by that point), and the first of exactly two times she ever saw them in the same room together, the second being our wedding, was when my dad came by my mom’s house to claim a snowblower. We’ll just say that’s not a pleasant memory.

I also started to get busy as a singer starting in the fall of 1999. I put together a recital over the summer that was intended to be the junior recital I never actually got to do at Western, and that emboldened me to start auditioning for things. In the Seattle area, there’s a fair amount for a young tenor to do if he’s willing to work for nothing (or next to), and I started getting some of those gigs. Gilbert and Sullivan kind of became a niche of mine, falling in with a group called Bellevue Opera and doing three shows for them as the tenor lead — The MikadoH. M. S. Pinafore, and The Gondoliers. I also got to do Tony in West Side Story, I did a very ill-advised Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (a job that I got without being heard first, and in retrospect, I think everybody, including me, would have liked there to have been an audition, because I learned the hard way with that show that my voice doesn’t do Rossini), I had a bizarre experience as a backup singer for a Sarah Brightman concert, I got a very small handful of oratorio gigs (those were pretty hard to come by, truthfully, if you weren’t already one of the 2-3 singers in each voice type that most conductors in the area used), some opera previews, some operetta with Seattle musical institution Hans Wolf, eventually I got a regular slot with the Seattle Opera chorus, a demo recording of an opera about the 2000 presidential election titled Al and George, I did little church gigs here and there while also singing regularly in the St. Margaret’s choir, I still did things with the Tudor Choir, and I also did four summers with the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. It was a heady, busy time, and it was a group of experiences that seemed to point to something bigger. There were a lot of teachers and coaches who helped get me through all of this; besides Dennis Kruse, I had two teachers who were invaluable, Roberta Manion and Erich Parce, and then Glenda Williams, Beth Kirchhoff, and Dean Williamson gave me a lot of extremely helpful advice as coaches.

The best advice that I got, however, was from Ellen McLain (yes, that Ellen McLain), who ran the Seattle Opera Guild previews. I auditioned for her and she flatly said, “Absolutely not. Could you sing these previews? Yes, and you’d be fine. But you have not yet even come close to finishing your training as a singer, you need to go back to school and finish at least your Bachelors, there isn’t a halfway decent school of music in the country that wouldn’t give you a full ride with what you’ve got to offer, and I am not going to hire you and contribute to any perception you may have of yourself as anything close to a finished product.” Well, it was certainly good advice (and in some ways, I feel like she was honest with me in a way that some others weren’t), and I started thinking about what my next move was going to be. I had always figured that I would spend 5 years working before contemplating my next move, which meant that 2003 was what I was looking at as when I would move on to the next chapter.

On 24 February 2001, Megan and I got married. It was one of the very best days of my life, and is a story unto itself that I’ll tell another time. We honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., which was an absolutely lovely trip; we stayed a week at Abigail’s Hotel, which I’d recommend wholeheartedly, and I hope to get to go back someday.

Meeting the wonderful Joey Evans when he sang Captain Vere in Seattle Opera’s production of Billy Budd, I decided to pay a visit to University of Houston to see if it might be a viable option as a place to finish the B. Mus. The school was lovely, and Joey would have been a great help to me I’m sure, but the thing was, I arrived in Houston on Monday, 10 September 2001. I’m sure you can imagine that was not a great week to be trying to get an impression of a school, and I just didn’t love Houston enough otherwise to want to go there. Big, flat, and hot are not exactly my thing.

Fall of 2002, I started applying for Young Artist Programs. At the advice of Dean Williamson, I applied for Houston Grand Opera, Seattle Opera, and a third I can’t recall. The third didn’t even give me an audition (probably why I don’t remember which one it was); I made the huge mistake of thinking that Houston’s audition, being held in San Francisco, could be done as a day trip (SINGERS! DO NOT PUT YOURSELF IN POSITIONS WHERE YOU HAVE TO SING RIGHT AFTER GETTING OFF A PLANE! BAD IDEA!), so it was an audition that sucked to say the least, and then Seattle was looking for tenors who could sing Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, and “Un’aura amorosa” was just never an aria I sang if I didn’t have to, so that audition also sucked.

The truth is, I just wasn’t ever all that good. I could be heard past the front row, I sang on pitch, but I wasn’t very musical, and I had neither fabulous high notes nor amazing flexibility nor incredible expressive ability nor anything else going for me. I was tall, I wasn’t the size of a house (then), I could learn repertoire fairly quickly, I seemed reasonably comfortable onstage, and I could be funny when I needed to be. At 25, I was pretty good for a 22 year old, and that was sort of the extent of it. I wasn’t a freak of nature, I wasn’t a Wunderkind, I wasn’t a “natural voice” (whatever that means), I was just somebody who had to work hard at it for it to be any good, and who enjoyed working hard at it, but “has to work hard at it” is very much not necessarily the same thing as “born performer”; “making it look easy” is the qualifier there, and I was never really able to do that.

Still, I won an Encouragement Award at the district Met auditions that fall, and I took that as, well, encouragement. I needed to move on to something else (I was getting to a point where I needed to commit to either my day job or to whatever I was going to do with singing). I found out that a singer friend of mine whom I had thought had been a shoo-in for Seattle’s Young Artist Program had also not gotten in and was instead going to go to Indiana University; well, I thought, if he can do it, then I can do it. I quickly made arrangements to visit IU during the first audition weekend, and I took a lesson with a teacher who was willing to back my (late) application and get me a special audition slot. I flew back to Indiana in the middle of March to do the audition, I got in, and after some favorable negotiating over scholarships (Ellen McLain wasn’t entirely accurate in her assessment, I’ll say, but close enough), I told my managers at the software company that I would be leaving at the end of July (and we’ll just say that what had been an optimistic appraisal in 1999 of what my new-hire stock option package might be worth by 2003 was optimistic indeed, to be maximally kind — thank God nobody ever tried to convince me to borrow money against it; more on that professional experience as a whole here). My Washington state chapter was coming to a close after twenty-three years.

Okay. More to come.


An opera singer, a public intellectual, and a talk show host walk into a bar…

chiasmusI’m in between instances of getting drafts of my dissertation outline back with my advisor’s comments, plus Theodore is asleep, so I’m trying to get some blog posts done that I’ve had on my mind but haven’t had a chance to actually write.

In the last 2-3 weeks there have been a number of incidents in the popular media that impact, on one level or another, things that I care about. They make something of a nice, thematically-related grouping, centering around the question of semi-esoteric (or even elite) disciplines being understood by mainstream Western media. One case is related, broadly speaking, to one of my current active professional activities; another couple of cases are related to my former professional activities.

First off, there’s the matter of Reza Aslan’s FOX News interview. The first time I watched that, there were two things that didn’t sit right with me about how he presented himself. Of course Lauren Green was being an idiot; that goes without saying. Still, there was an initial eyebrow raise on my part when he claimed “fluency” in biblical Greek. “Fluency?” Really? I was under the impression that, by definition, we can’t claim “fluency” in dead languages. A nitpicky point, absolutely, but it was a moment where he rang false. Then, there was the thought — boy, he sure is making a big show of playing, and re-playing, and re-re-playing, the “I HAVE FOUR DEGREES” card and saying, essentially, “I’m kind of a big deal”. Then I wondered — wait, if this is a scholarly monograph as he seems to be suggesting it is, why the heck does FOX care? Out of curiosity, I looked up the book on Amazon, and saw the publisher — Random House. He’s trying to sell a book published by Random House as a work of serious scholarship? Huh? This doesn’t make any sense.

So then, recalling his very specific claim to be “a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament… my job [is] as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually”, I Googled him to find out just what his four degrees actually were and what classes he taught, and what did I find? That his PhD was in sociology, one of his four degrees is a MFA in Creative Writing, and in fact his academic post at UC Riverside is in the Creative Writing department.

To be absolutely clear, in terms of academic standing, I don’t care if Aslan’s Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Shinto, atheist, or anything else, and neither should anybody else who has a clue about how scholarship works. Sidney Griffith is a Catholic scholar who has published on Islam; Steven Runciman was, I think, an atheist (correct me if I’m wrong — I’m going off of a statement from Met. Kallistos Ware that he was not part of any church whatsoever) who published extensively on Byzantine Christianity; and so on. It’s simply irrelevant what Aslan’s confessional leanings are; Ms. Green was way off the mark in making that the focal point of her interview.

Secondly, the issue is not the quality of the book itself. That also is basically a side issue.

The issue that I have with Aslan, who is without question somebody who can be labeled a “public intellectual”, might best be illustrated with a counterexample first. Bart Ehrman is another public intellectual, one who works in the Christian origins sphere and who publishes with trade presses and goes on The Daily Show and NPR and whatnot. Prof. Ehrman also has published peer-reviewed monographs, critical editions, and scholarly articles. So, yes, he takes all of the 3-syllable or more words out of monographs and repackages with a catchy title put out by mass-market publishers and makes a ton of money doing so, but he also has a demonstrable non-commercial scholarly record. His CV shows what qualifies him to do that. Think what you like about him, but he’s the real deal in terms of having done his homework, paid his dues, and then some.

Go to Aslan’s website and you see nothing of the kind. You see a string of popular books and articles; nothing, so far as I can tell, that’s peer-jockeyed or published with an academic press. In fact, according to Lisa Hajjar, a member of his dissertation committee, his dissertation was mostly an elaborated version of a trade press book he had already published. Now, to be clear, the point isn’t to suggest that Aslan “isn’t good enough” (whatever that means) to do what he says; the point is that what he says and what his CV and faculty page at UC Riverside say appear to be two different things.

I should clarify a couple of things. First, why is the sociology thing a big deal? Isn’t sociology of religion a legitimate subfield, thereby qualifying you to talk about yourself as a scholar of religion? Well, sure. But even then, you have to be clear on what you’re qualified to talk about. A friend of mine is the son-in-law of a very well-known sociologist of religion, but he knows what he is and is not trained to do. One of the big differences is language training; another friend of mine wanted to go into academia studying Christianity but was turned off by the language overhead; Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, probably Syriac, maybe Coptic, etc. This well-known sociologist told him straight up: Do sociology. The language requirements are basically nonexistent. Aslan’s own PhD advisor said that the switch to sociology was made to eliminate some language requirements. This matters because, for the most part, reading a source in translation is a no-go for making serious arguments about it as a piece of evidence. That’s not to say there aren’t any exceptions, but Aslan claiming “fluency” in biblical Greek while also having changed departments to obviate language requirements is, at the very least, a major red flag.

It’s also entirely possible that what’s going on here is that Aslan is on a career track that isn’t really about academic scholarship, peer-reviewed articles, and the like — in fact, if he’s in a Creative Writing department, that’s probably the case. Not all academic jobs have the same tenure requirements, most certainly. For all I know, there’s a “public intellectual” career track where you’re supposed to be interviewed on a talk show a certain number of times per year, also have a Huffington Post column, and then you get to go up early for tenure if somebody picks a fight with you on FOX News. But, then, the issue is, you need to be clear about what authoritative claims you’re qualified to make.

Really, nothing here is a huge problem on its own. Claiming to be a historian is fine; that’s something reasonably broad. Pretty sure Herodotus didn’t have a PhD in History. Claiming to be a scholar of religion is fine; again, that’s a broad, interdisciplinary subject. Publishing with a trade press is fine (here I will note that one of the top five most influential books on me ever, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, was a popularizing work published by Random House). Leaving the world of academic scholarship as he seems to have done is fine. The trouble is that then he makes the far more specific claim that his “job [is] as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually”, and the combination of all of these factors raises red flags (and again, picayune as this may be, as does saying he’s “fluent” in biblical Greek; it’s the use of a term of competency that, as he should know if he actually does have expertise in it, is not applicable to the subject named, just like it would be a bit eyebrow-raising for me to say I got a perfect 10 on my GPA. He is perhaps eliding the matter for FOX News, but it still clanks with his claim of academic authority). So, maybe he doesn’t have the CV of an academic scholar because he isn’t an academic scholar anymore, but he asserts the authority of an academic scholar in answering Ms. Green’s (admittedly stupid) questions? Is that not, at the very least, trying to have it both ways? What I’m happy to grant is that the situation was ridiculous and should have never happened at all, but if your response to questions — yes, even stupid ones from a FOX News interviewer — is going to be an arrogant trotting out of titles and credentials, make sure everything lines up, because if it doesn’t, people will notice and it will not reflect well on you. If he had left it at a vague statement of “I wrote the book because I have an academic and professional interest” rather than going for the soundbite of the list of degrees, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Further, I’d say that these things matter because it matters how you represent yourself to the public (see also the flap over Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s doctorate), it matters under what circumstances you trot out your credentials and titles to claim authority (even — maybe even especially — when stupid people are arguing with you), it matters that those things look like what you say they are when people go and check. It matters because the “I HAVE A DEGREE!” card makes you look like a real dick, particularly when you play it as early as he did and particularly to the anti-intellectual audience he knew full well he had. To me, it more and more comes across simply as peacocking for the NYT Book Review crowd he knew would be Tweeting the video clip within hours.

And if I seem to care a disproportionate amount about this — well, yeah, I do, and it’s because I’m a first-generation college graduate with close family members who think the sun rises and sets on FOX News. I already spend time trying to convince family members that academics aren’t mostly self-important, arrogant, d-bag jackasses who trot out their degrees principally for purposes of self-puffery, and it doesn’t help my case when something like this happens. From where I sit, Aslan’s behavior is bad for everybody.

But, it all comes down to what one actually means by calling Aslan an “academic” or a “scholar”. This may be not entirely unlike the problem with people like Andrea Boccelli or Jackie Evancho being called “opera singers” — that is, if you mean somebody who actually sings roles in operatic productions staged by opera houses, they’re most certainly not. But, if you just mean somebody who appears on PBS specials or Oprah and sings with heavy vibrato a repertoire that tends to be accompanied by an orchestra track, well, then maybe you can call them that. If by an “academic” or “scholar” you mean somebody who does academic, scholarly research, then it’s really unclear whether or not Aslan fits that bill, at least to me, looking at his CV. But, if you just mean somebody who is, to use this term again, basically a public intellectual of sorts, well, okay.

Which brings me to the next incident in question, Thomas Hampson’s interview with the BBC’s Sarah Montague on HARDtalk on the question whether or not opera is an elite art form that basically needs to be allowed to die off. Sarah Montague is grating and aggressive in this interview in ways she clearly doesn’t have the chops to pull off, but Thomas Hampson — by remarkable contrast to Aslan — keeps his cool, and maintains grace and humility while still answering the questions with genuine, unassuming authority. He never pulls out the “I AM AN EXPERT!” card, and as a result, everything he has to say can simply speak for itself.

But then we’ve got something that kind of muddies the waters, and that’s the case of Sean Panikkar, a legitimate operatic tenor in his own right who happens to be very good (I saw him as Lensky in Eugene Onegin at Opera Theatre of St. Louis three years ago, and he was great), appearing as a member of “poperatic” men’s trio “Forte” (doesn’t get any more on the nose than that, ladies and gentleman) on America’s Got Talent. Our godchildren Matt and Erin had gotten to know him in 2010 a bit while singing in the OTSL chorus, and they had mentioned that he was not, as a husband, father, and Christian, entirely enamored with the life of an opera singer (which this seems to bear out a bit), which I can completely understand. But still — putting himself in a situation where Howard Stern is evaluating him? Really?

There’s also this from the Saline Reporter piece —

…[Panikkar] and his agent decided it would be a good idea for him to join because it would help bring exposure to opera considering the show has between 10 and 12 million viewers.  The exposure could also dispel some of the myths surrounding opera, like it is boring or just for the elite, he said. “What I’ve found is when people give it a chance they love it,” he said.

Here’s my question — does that actually work? Now, somebody like Sean Panikkar (i.e., the real deal) doing it is maybe a different case, but at least what I’ve seen amongst people close to me (and yes, these are some of the same people mentioned above who are FOX devotees) is that they get enamored with figures like Josh Groban or Andrea Boccelli or Charlotte Church or whomever (I think I just showed my age with the figures I named — at least I didn’t say Mario Lanza), and maybe you get them to go to one legit opera (or oratorio, or something) performance, only to have them say, “Yeah, I was disappointed because it wasn’t what I was expecting,” and they never go again.

A friend of mine who is herself on her way to being Very, Very Famous Indeed (seriously), and who I think knows Sean, said that part of what’s going on here is the opera world realizing they need to engage the popular TV audience more — that back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, big opera stars appeared on the most popular television shows all the time, and people knew who they were — Beverly Sills showing up on Johnny Carson, for example. That’s certainly true; my dad, no opera fan he, says that everybody knew who Beverly Sills was in the ’60s and ’70s. The question with that, though, is this — was opera more mainstream because people like Carson had people like Beverly Sills on, or did he have people like Beverly Sills on because opera was more mainstream? Mario Lanza’s film The Great Caruso was one of the biggest movies of the year in 1951; while Lanza had considerable star power in his own right, the subject had to hold at least some built-in commercial appeal. Would it even be comprehensible today for somebody to propose, say, making a movie called The Great Pavarotti with somebody of any significant command of the box office?

I’d like to be wrong. I’ve just never seen somebody learn to like opera from this kind of thing; quite the opposite. What I’ve seen is that you probably aren’t going care about opera qua opera without somebody being up front with you about what it is as well as what it isn’t.

So, perhaps, a guy with a real operatic career doing something like this means that something different is being brought to the table. If so, great; I’ll be curious to see what that actually looks like. I still don’t like Howard Stern’s opinion of him actually mattering.

To close off what seems to have become a chiasmus, there’s Timothy Michael Law, a legit, Oxford-trained scholar of Jewish studies, whose book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible is, it sounds like, an introductory scholarly work (not necessarily a popularizing work) published by an academic press, dealing with a concrete historical issue of Christian origins. Naturally, FOX doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in him, and First Things seems to be the highest-profile coverage he’s getting, but he comes across basically the same way Thomas Hampson does — i.e., like he actually knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t have to show off to anybody to prove it. There’s a lesson here; I’m not sure exactly what it is.

“Musicals aren’t very realistic. If they were, there’d be an orchestra starting to play right now, with me saying, ‘Let me tell you something about musicals…'”

Given the embarrassment of riches that Glee had at the Emmy nominations today, it seems like an opportune time to post something I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of weeks now.

June was the occasion for a couple of short road trips on our part; our godchildren Matt and Erin were both Young Artists for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and our friend Benjamin was performing as the title role in a production of Sweeney Todd in Cleveland. Time was a bit tight; Megan was teaching a Summer I course that met Monday through Friday, the final was on Thursday 17 June, and both OTSL and Sweeney closed on Sunday, 27 June. If I didn’t want to have to get a sub for Sunday services, that made our options somewhat limited, but we were determined to make it work, and we decided to head to St. Louis over Friday and Saturday the weekend of the 19th, catching the Saturday matinee of Eugene Onegin, and to Cleveland Wednesday through Friday of the next week for the Thursday evening performance of Sweeney.

We’d never been to St. Louis before, and Matt and Erin showed us a very nice time during our whirlwind visit. Under their tutelage, we experienced two very different kinds of pizza — what was explained to us as “San Francisco-style” deep dish at Pi Pizzeria (yes, as in 3.14 etc.), and then “St. Louis-style” at Imo’s, which has a very thin crust and is made with a peculiar local dairy product called provel. Very different beasts, but worth trying. I recommend getting some reasonably substantial toppings at Imo’s, otherwise the provel tends to be overwhelming; at Pi’s I strongly suggest taking advantage of their “bartender’s choice” option, where you tell the bartender what kind of drinks you usually like, they make you something of their own choosing based on that, and it’s something like two-thirds of what a cocktail would usually cost there. I was introduced to the Blood and Sand as a result, and I think I might have a new favorite bourbon drink.

We were also introduced to Ethiopian food while in St. Louis, and let me tell you, Meskerem on South Grand is absolutely fantastic. The food was delicious, the staff was knowledgable, and we were left wanting to seek out more Ethiopian food when we got home. My only lament was — Ethiopian food, where have you been all my life? (Yes, I know, Ethiopia.)

And, yes, we went up in the Gateway Arch. Won’t be bothering in the future — it’s a long wait, the lift is really cramped, and it’s not exactly like there’s much to do up there besides look out the windows. It’s a more impressive monument from the outside than the inside.

Saturday’s performance of Onegin was definitely worth the trip; Sean Panikkar as Lensky was the standout, to say the least, but the cast was great throughout. The one thing that didn’t work was, frankly, hearing it in English. I’ve been in the chorus for Onegin twice; once in Seattle back in 2002, when we sang it in Russian, and once at IU in 2004, when we sang it in English, using the same translation as OTSL. I also spent some time working on Lensky’s opera back in Seattle with a Russian coach who knew her stuff, and it’s a work that is near and dear to my heart. It’s also music that I associate with a very intensely emotional period of my life, and as a result it’s difficult to hear it and not get a bit of a lump in my throat. Thankfully, the silly English translation that everybody uses manages to clear out the lump pretty quickly; does anybody in real life actually use the word “prosaic” to describe somebody’s face? Would a group of gossiping women really say that somebody is “an odd one, a misanthrope and somewhat mad”? Does it really solve anything to call Tatiana’s name day celebration her “birthday”? I understand the various problems of translating opera librettos so that they match the music, but actually hearing the words in the house left me with the conviction that surely somebody can do better.

The real violence that the translation does is to the poor title character. Onegin is a very difficult man to understand for contemporary American audiences to begin with; he is a product of social expectations of which we have absolutely zero concept, and this particular English translation doesn’t help matters at all, transforming him into a dull bore, the least interesting character in his own story. The duel with Lensky and the underlying protocols that make the situation what it is are incomprehensible, turning Onegin into a cold-blooded monster rather than somebody who has no choice within his societal framework but to carry out the mechanics of the duel to their conclusion.

The difficult thing is that what we might broadly refer to as “sung drama” or “lyric theatre” is itself loaded with social expectations. I’ll get back to that idea, but as I was watching and hearing the performance, I realized that the expectations of the audience OTSL wants to reach are, frankly, operating at cross purposes to what actually makes Eugene Onegin work. The English translation actually obscures much of the psychological drama, it seems to me; by trying to make it “accessible” they manage to make it even more inaccessible. One hopes that a better translation would fix this problem, but then the trouble is matching the translation to what’s in the score, and that’s a totally different kettle of fish. Supertitles (which OTSL used anyway) aren’t a perfect solution by any means, but short of Russian becoming mandatory in American schools, I’m not sure that there is a perfect solution.

Watching the non-musical film of Onegin with Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler a week or so later, the problem was underscored for me even more. Often with only a facial expression, Fiennes is able to convey everything about Onegin that the English translation of the opera obscures for the poor operatic baritone — his ennui, his passive dissatisfaction with the expectations placed on him as a result of his social status, and his resigned compliance with those expectations regardless. He kills Lensky, not because he wants to, not because he’s a cold-blooded killer, but because that’s simply the expected outcome of the process Lensky’s challenge set in motion. Tatiana’s choice to remain faithful to her husband is also more extraordinary, because the film is able to make plain that she understands it would be socially acceptable for her to take a lover as long as she doesn’t embarrass anybody.

I’ll leave Onegin aside for the moment to discuss Sweeney Todd.

I first heard of Sweeney as a senior in high school; my choir director at the time brought it up as an example of how he thought Broadway musicals had largely become immoral trash. Still, when I started running in opera singer circles at Western Washington University, I found myself hearing about it in awed, hushed tones, and in anticipation of it being produced at WWU during my presumptive junior year and hearing all of this anxiety about “needing four tenors”, I finally saw the George Hearn/Angela Lansbury video. The following points were clear to me upon the first viewing:

  • I have great respect for my high school choir director and why he has the opinion he does, but I can’t disagree with him more; to dismiss it as immoral trash is to miss the point of the show.
  • Stephen Sondheim has probably the most morbid sense of humor I’ve ever encountered.
  • No wonder “legit” singers think it’s amazing.
  • There wasn’t a role in it for me.

As it worked out, as a result of various issues, political, artistic, and otherwise, neither the WWU production of Sweeney nor its numerous rumored replacement shows (like City of Angels and Into the Woods) happened until some years after I had dropped out (and then in apparently rapid succession). (Ironically, Sweeney seems to have happened my first year at IU. So, even though it didn’t happen in ’96-’97, it still happened during my junior year as originally concieved.) It nonetheless stuck with me — I watched the Hearn/Lansbury video a number of times, listened to the Cariou/Lansbury original cast recording, watched the Hearn/LuPone PBS broadcast, and with baited breath waited for tickets to go on sale for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production with Bryn Terfel, culminating in my very first trip to Chicago in December of 2002. It goes without saying that when the Tim Burton film was greenlit (rumored since roughly the mid-1990s), I was there the first night. I’ll discuss my reaction to the film shortly.

The Chicago trip was interesting, no less so because my theatre critic buddy, editor-at-large, groomsman, and all-around dear friend Matthew Murray palled along for it, and he brought a very interesting perspective to the proceedings as somebody with a very heightened sense of the expectations of musical theatre as musical theatre, and not the expectations that opera people bring to the table. Certain artistic decisions that are acceptable in opera (like decisions to cut or not to cut certain numbers being up to the discretion of the production, regardless of what was done on opening night of the original production) were anathema to him; the restoration of the Judge’s aria and the tooth-pulling number, for example, were absolutely unacceptable as far as he was concerned. (I argue that, at least in terms of discussing the score as an organic whole, the score is incomplete both musically and dramatically without at least restoring the Judge’s aria, given certain musical quotations and references elsewhere in the show, to say nothing of making the Judge less of a one-note character. Yes, fine, it messes with the pacing, but that’s a problem for the director to solve.) In the musical theatre world, he argued, whatever the show looks like on opening night is what the show is; it doesn’t matter what was written, what was recorded, what was cut at the last second or for whatever reason. Anything other than what was done opening night is something other than the standard version of “the show.”

I’d also say that in general, the very things that made the performance appealing to me as an opera singer were exactly what made it lacking to him as a musical theatre critic. He came away convinced that opera singers should probably stay away from Sweeney Todd; I came away convinced that it’s exactly the kind of repertoire American opera houses should be doing.

Tim Burton and Sweeney Todd was a concept that struck me as a match made in… well, not heaven, exactly, but you get the idea. From the first time I heard his name attached to the project in the mid-’90s, I had an idea of what he could do with it. The show is Tim Burton-y enough on its own; surely there would be no better director.

Maybe the film that Burton would have made in the mid-’90s would have been a different beast from the one he made in 2007. I only saw the film once in theatres; I didn’t think it was horrible, but what he did was nowhere near as compelling as I felt it should have been. I watched it again at home before we headed to Cleveland for the first time since seeing it in theatres, and it seemed to me that Burton threw out a lot of what actually made the piece work, then overdid what was left, making the movie a grotesque half-adaptation. Again, it wasn’t horrible; it’s just that it’s now a Tim Burton Movie like every other Tim Burton Movie, fulfilling the expectations of the genre of the Tim Burton Movie, rather than being the special match of auteur and source material that it should have been. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are fine, I suppose, from a dramatic standpoint, but they just don’t have the range of vocal choices available to them to make the music part of the equation work. It’s as though Burton ultimately decided that he could handle the gore but not the tunes, so he over-emphasized the gore and hoped you wouldn’t notice that he’d reduced the impact of the music. In a lot of ways, the trouble does not lie with the script; there are some smart choices by the screenwriter in terms of conveying information cinematically that the stage version conveys musically, but in the final product, much of what makes the score work as an organic whole has been chopped up. Certainly the movie was not approached as a means to broaden the audience for the stage version; the stage version was approached as material by which to further the Tim Burton brand.

When we got to Cleveland, Ben talked a lot about the challenges he’d had during the rehearsal process. In a nutshell, as somebody who was first and foremost an opera singer working with primarily musical theatre people, he found that despite an intense dramatic focus during his operatic training, what he was doing just wasn’t sufficient for musical theatre purposes. His instincts regarding movement, delivery, presentation, and so on turned out to be virtually wrong in every respect for the purposes of what they were doing. I had had a similar experience ten years ago as Tony in a production of West Side Story, and the conversation that ensued about these musical theatre dabblings was very interesting. Again, it all boils down to expectations — does the drama direct the music, or does the music direct the drama? Is it enough to fit the drama in around the singing of the role, letting the music and libretto do their work, or is it necessary to fit the singing of the role in around the drama? Which has primacy, the text or the music? In musical theatre, the text is essential — in opera, as I found with the English translation of Onegin, the words almost have to be ignored.

And, to drop a hint as to how I’m going to tie this all in to where I started this essay, how do things like Glee wind up changing the audience expectations even more? I’ll get back to that.

The conversation involved playing a number of different clips of different people singing “Epiphany,” including Cariou, Hearn, Depp, Terfel, and even Christopher Lee(!). Terfel, Benjamin asserted, could not be taken seriously as Sweeney; he would get laughed off the stage on Broadway singing the role the way he does. He argued that an opera singer approaching the role needed to do their homework regarding performance tradition and convention just like they would for any other role, and take into account how people like Cariou and Hearn approached the score.

My own sense of the matter is that Terfel’s approach is a perfectly legitimate one, as long as everybody is approaching it the same way he is. In other words, everybody needs to be in the same show, whatever aesthetic the production uses. To give an example of what I mean, I recently saw the movie W., and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice is simply not in the same movie everybody else is. She’s not awful, like a number of reviews claim; she’s actually very good. The trouble is that she is approaching the part as though the film were an SNL sketch, bringing a level of almost cruel, caricaturizing detail to her performance appropriate to that aesthetic, but she’s the only one doing that, and sticks out like a sore thumb as a result. If you’re going to do Sweeney Todd as an opera, do it as an opera, with everybody on the same page about doing it as an opera. If you’re going to do it as musical theatre, do it as musical theatre.

The other interesting thing about what Ben said is that, in effect, an opera singer performing the role of Sweeney with an eye towards musical theatre conventions and traditions is still approaching the role with operatic methodology. This is somewhat borne out it one of the reviews of Ben’s production, which said that at times he calls to mind Cariou and Hearn too much. Matthew Murray once said to me that the difference between being an opera singer and a musical theatre performer is than as an opera singer, you’re going to spend most of your time doing what other people have already done; in musical theatre, the hope is to create something new. Perhaps, then, what a real musical theatre approach would be would less take into account what Hearn and Cariou did and be more interested in what nobody has done before.

But then there’s still the trouble of musical style. The fact of the matter is, whatever happened in the rehearsal process, Ben was one of the two or three most consistent people onstage in that production with respect to faithfully presenting the score and libretto as written, musically and dramatically, and he seemed like he actually belonged in that show. A lot of the cast, to be honest, sounded like they were trying to sing Rent. Watching the Hearn/Lansbury video again, one thing that comes across is that it is very much a product of a previous generation of musical theatre, and has far more in common with Oklahoma! than Avenue Q or Mamma Mia!. To an extent, it almost seems as though you can assemble a cast that will be able to act the show but not sing it in the style for which it was written, or a cast that can sing it but might be toned down dramatically somewhat, because musical theatre people these days are simply trained with a different set of — you guessed it — expectations in mind.

So what does the success of Glee tell us about what the expectations are these days? Is sung drama only workable for today’s audiences if it is self-conscious, flamboyant and ironic, a jukebox show, limits the songs to “source” performances, or some combination thereof? Certainly the musical expressiveness of an opera like Onegin, in which time essentially stops so that the singer may emote, isn’t going to play well to most audience members’ expectations, at least not without a chuckle or two — and ironically, singing it English only seems to elicit more chuckles. We can understand far more easily Ralph Fiennes looking silently with longing at Liv Tyler than a baritone singing about it, no matter how gorgeous the music. “Because it’s actually realistic,” is often the rejoinder, except that 19th century Russian aristocracy didn’t speak or write letters in English in their homes or in the court, and if they did, it wasn’t with Fiennes’ cultured Suffolk accent. Whither “realism” in that case? “Well, that’s suspension of disbelief for a cinematic convention,” one might reply. Fine, so people will draw the line somewhere.

Even Sweeney, a product of the late 1970s, seems to overdo it for 2010 audiences — I read a review of Burton’s Sweeney that said, essentially, this would be an interesting movie if the songs didn’t keep interrupting the actors from actually telling the story. I suppose that this person’s response to analyses of how the music and songs actually do tell the story (the Beggar Woman’s melodic material being quoted in “Poor Thing,” for example — whoops, the Beggar Woman’s stuff was mostly cut, so I guess that won’t work) would likely be something like, “Well, that just doesn’t work for today’s audiences.”

I’m strongly tempted to see a correlation between this point of view and the transformation of musical experience from being communal and live to individual and canned (or at least processed). How do most people listen to music these days? Are they singing with their friends around a piano, or at least listening to CDs on a stereo with a group of people? No, they’re sitting on the bus with earbuds in, and their iPod is probably at least in part a way of shutting out any kind of communal contact. Are they listening to it live, in a room intended for that purpose? No, it’s probably at least autotuned and amplified, if not prerecorded. If the music is communal, they’re probably not paying any attention to it beyond its function as background noise anyway. If the music is live, then it is likely they’re singing along so loudly it doesn’t matter what the performers are doing, turning being an audience member into ritual self-indulgence.

Bottom line, I suppose, is that sung drama perhaps presupposes a social context in which music is experienced socially. That doesn’t really exist in the present day, beyond karaoke and concerts where everything is prerecorded and/or the audience isn’t really listening to the performance. Without that context, doubtless musicals and operas aren’t going to make much sense. The rise of the jukebox show was perhaps inevitable after Moulin Rouge!, but I have to think it’s a snake that will eat its own tail eventually. What then? Is it just not an artistic idiom that will survive in a world that can only tolerate anything less than hyper-realism if it has a gallon of self-aware irony on top?

I don’t know. But I don’t think I’m going to tune in to Glee anytime soon, Emmy nominations or no Emmy nominations.

Richard’s Twitter

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