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Subject: Operatic Aesthetics
From: Genevieve Castle Room <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Genevieve Castle Room <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 20 Oct 2016 04:09:49 -0400

text/plain (272 lines)

Albert Innaurato wrote:

>"The fool mocked [GCR] makes a mistake of the primitive, though I suppose
I have made it too. One should not hasten to establish hierarchies in the
arts. Why should one be a puritan in one’s tastes?"

This has absolutely nothing to do with being a 'puritan in one's tastes' or
wanting to 'establish hierarchies' as I also have strong interests outside
of opera and classical music. It is simply that there are many things I do
not care for in the operatic repertoire. The fact is that the music in a
lot of operas does not 'exercise a peculiar magic over my ear'. There is a
chunk of Mozart's operatic music that leaves me cold. Verdian oom-pahs and
much bel canto treacle has never rated particularly high with me. Most
Baroque operas are not highly charged with imaginative power and lack inner
musical substance. Beloved classics such as 'Carmen' or 'Rigoletto' or
'Eugen Onegin' have never 'floated my boat' (though I recognize their
importance) but I will never pay money to hear them again...... I can go on
and on.

Let me say it again. For me the bulk of the operatic repertoire is
not invested with an intensity of fine musical invention and most of these
pieces do not stir up my insides.

Reminder: I am one of those individuals who became profoundly excited
when first coming across these introductory commentaries about aesthetic
and technique by various composers. My list is very long of course so here
to give you an idea are just three of them.... Take a few moments and read
it because it addresses a topic in opera that I never tire of.

>"1. As part of an evolution toward new musical styles and techniques in
the early twentieth century, 'Duke Bluebeard's Castle', is far removed from
the ultra chromaticism of German late Romantic music as well as from the
major-minor scale system of Classical functional tonality, its musical
language stemming rather from the pentatonic-diatonic modality of Hungarian
peasant music. Originating in this source, it is inevitable that the opera
should reveal irreconcilable differences from the prevailing supranational
German and Italian operas of the 19th century in details of phrase, rhythm,
and pitch organization as well as in its large-scale formal construction.
In its general stylistic technical assumptions, one finds fundamental
connections rather with the musical impressionism of Debussy's Pelléas et
Mélisande. An affinity between *Bluebeard* and *Pelléas* is partly
suggested in their common absorption of pentatonic-diatonic modality into a
kind of twelve-tone language, a fusion of which is revealed by Bartók's own
statement: ".... it became clear to me that the old [folk] modes, which had
been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigor. Their
employment made new rhythmic combinations possible. This new way of using
the diatonic scale brought freedom from the rigid use of the major and
minor keys, and eventually led to a new conception of the chromatic scale,
every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used
freely and independently." [.....] *Bluebeard's Castle *did not find public
support in its early years, a condition which was largely due to the
conservative tastes of the Hungarian public. Its genuine Hungarian
qualities were unrecognizable to an audience accustomed to hearing
Italianate and Germanized settings of Hungarian texts. Bartók strictly
preserved the Hungarian language accents in his musical setting.
Furthermore, the archaic SYLLABIC STRUCTURE is set almost entirely in the
old "parlando-rubato" folk style, producing a kind of contemporary
"recitative opera" that was pioneered by Debussy. The elements of folk
music are transmuted into richly patterned, sophisticated art music.

>"2. Glinka's "Russian style" in a 'Life for the Tsar' was created out of
popular idioms of the day and was never intended for reuse outside that
opera. For Musorgsky, however, this was not enough, and he devised an
approach to musical declamation that was derived from the rhythmic and
pitch patterning of Russian speech, thereby avoiding the arbitrariness of
Glinka's Russian style. The music of the language as spoken in real life,
together with the local and personal quirks a speaker will have absorbed,
is converted into the vocal lines of song and opera, so that its
Russianness is ingrained, sealed, and polished into the music. Musorgsky
himself was well aware of the nationalist potential of his newfound
principle: while reporting on the composition of his song cycle 'Nursery',
for example, he claimed that he has portrayed children who were "Russians,
with a strong local flavour". Ultimately, Musorgsky was able to stake a
claim to Russianness thanks to the originality and progressive character of
his operatic works, overcoming all the accrued Italian, German and French
cliches with one bold stroke. There were, of course, other markers of
Russianness that Musorgsky shared with his contemporaries (folk-song
quotations and imitations, church singing, and bell-ringing), but these
were still filtered through Western conventions and were generally imposed
from the outside on the preexisting Western operatic forms. Musorgskian
declamation, as part of his overall realist aesthetic, is different, since
it tends to erode these forms from within, imposing a much more radical
change on the art form.... Unsurprisingly, Musorgsky's principles of
musical declamation were soon established as a great nationalist
achievement, and CLOSE READING OF HIS RECITATIVES was championed by
Russians scholars, a practice that reached its peak in the work of Aleksey
Ogolevets (1966), the compiler of a 400 hundred page volume that trawls
through Boris Godunov phrase by phrase, with endlessly detailed and
uniformly admiring commentary"

>"3. Debussy became a great admirer of the Russian composer's output, which
differs markedly from Wagner’s on account of its highly unorthodox
character. As it happened, Debussy was engrossed with Musorgsky’s *Boris
Godunov *when he began the composition of his own operatic masterwork, *Pelléas
et Mélisande*. Affinities between the two works abound, particularly with
respect to prosody as both *Boris *and *Pelléas *TEEM with vocal parts that
mirror the inflections of ordinary speech [....] Musorgsky led Debussy to
make the declamatory style prevail in *Pelléas *although in Debussy's case,
the declamation is rather less actorly, and closer to the flatter profile
of ordinary speech. Its anti-Wagnerian approach was celebrated as the new
course for French music [....] To start with, it seemed difficult to admit
unreservedly that Debussy did not feel a fraternal emotion, however slight,
at having discovered a musician (Musorgsky) who spoke a free language,
adopting a simple and direct means of expression, disregarding Wagnerian
pomp and complication and achieving in his own way an independent and
spontaneous work of art. This was something the young French compser had
been seekng for years, striving to create the equivalent in a totally
apppropriate, different, and much more subtle way [.....] "It is important
to insist on the simplicity (to be found) in *Pelléas: *I spent 12 years
striving to remove from it everything superfluous that had somehow slipped
in unawares -- but I never set out to revolutionize anything. I merely
tried to show how people who were singing (in a drama) could at the same
time remain human and natural, without needing to become like madmen or
ciphers [....] One cannot but wonder what William Hazlitt, who could not
think of beauty, simplicity, or sensibility as qualities having any
possible association with opera, would have said of a manner of writing for
the lyric stage which ignores even those opportunities for musical effect
which composers of unimpeachable artistic integrity have always held to be
desirable and legitimate. In a curious degree much of the music is both
contemplative and impassioned; its pervading note is that of a still flame,
of emotional quietude -- the sweeping and cosmic winds of 'Tristan und
Isolde' are absent. Yet the dramatic fibre of the score is strong and rich;
for all its fineness and delicacy of texture and its economy of accent, it
is never amorphous or inert. Its spiritual and emotional flavour are
without analogy in the previous history, not merely of opera, but of music
[....] It is a dictum that is scarcely calculated to persuade a very
general acceptance: "a passionate exposition of the most delicate and
strange intuitions" is not precisely the kind of aesthetic fare which the
"plain, blunt man," glorying in his plainness and his bluntness, is apt to
relish. It is a point upon which it is perhaps needless to dwell; but its
recognition serves as explanation of the fact that the music-drama into
which Debussy has transformed Maeterlinck's play should not everywhere and
always be either accepted or understood. For in the musical setting of
Debussy, Maeterlinck's drama has found its perfect equivalent: the
qualities of the music are the qualities of the play, completely and
exactly; and, sharing its qualities, it has evoked and will always evoke
the more or less contemptuous antagonism of those for whom it has little or
nothing to say.

Jon Goldberg wrote:

>"Those who tout the operas they love as a way to "impress" us with their
supposed knowledge of the arcane/obscure/rebellious are doomed to be seen
as snotty, snooty, and smug. I'm sure we all have at least a few obscure
operas we love and wish were performed more often"

What? There are no 'obscure' operas on my list. Every single one has been
recorded at least once.

Jon Goldberg wrote:

>"I do tend to think we should really always want to explore and champion
works that aren't often done - but not because of some belief in loving
opera being "hard work"

If I want to achieve the most intimate understanding of an opera's subtle
complexity and truly get most of it into my bones and blood it will require
enormous patience. With most of my favorite operas my understanding and
fullest appreciation of them has come... IN DEGREES!

Jon Goldberg wrote:

>"What Eric will most likely never understand, however, is that his taste
doesn't give him more "refined tastes"

Do you know this old quote? "To be part of an elite means loving
passionately and not negotiating your passions. If that's elitism, I plead

While I recognize that not every piece on my list is absolutely flawless, I
still believe that those who cannot get enough of my '25 Essential
Operas for An Introduction' have the most 'delicacy of imagination' and the
best-calibrated aesthetic faculty when it comes to opera.

-Pelléas et Mélisande

-The Rake's Progress


-Doktor Faust

-Hippolyte et Aricie

-Die Frau ohne Schatten

-The Trojans

-Mathis der Maler

-Boris Godunov (1908 version, ed. Rimsky-Korsakov)







-Castor et Pollux

-Oedipus Rex

-The Cunning Little Vixen

-Moses and Aron

-Das Rheingold

-Saint François d'Assise

-The Mask of Orpheus

-The Coronation of Poppea

-The Return of Ulysses

-Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Jon Goldberg wrote:

>"I do think that there are people that grab on to opera as a way of
showing off a sense of status, or intelligence, or "refinement." The rest
of us can simply be allowed to love opera - ANY opera - because it moves us
emotionally, rather than being some sort of misguided status symbol"

Do you really believe that my devotion to opera / classical music since the
age of 14 has anything at all to do with acquiring "status symbols"??

I adore opera because it engages and enlivens my inner experience like no
other art form and because it provides me with the most direct aesthetic
pleasures. Social factors play NO PART in any of this. It is solely
about a sense
of wonder, amazement, fascination or being moved and touched. It is
idiosyncratic and perspectival.

One more time Mr. Goldberg just so we're very clear:

My operatic tastes are the result of INNATE, INDIVIDUALISTIC CHOICES OF MY

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