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Subject: "Superficial Allegiances"
From: albert innaurato <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:albert innaurato <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 29 Jun 2017 14:12:43 -0500

text/plain (75 lines)

It's an admission of personal irrelevance to fight philistinism with
philistinism. Jon Goldberg puts down Roger Sessions, a significant American
composer. That is strange for someone who describes himself as a musician.

I took a seminar with Mr. Sessions when I was at Yale. He was a brilliant
man who knew infinitely more about music than anyone who contributes to
this list. However, he had had little exposure to opera in his training. Opera
was for idiots (with perhaps exceptions). That attitude lasted a long time
and can still be encountered.

John Adams is an arguably great composer who has written music of eloquence
in his operas but in my opinion, has been badly served and in Dr. Atomic,
which musically has a stunning first act, is sabotaged by a ghastly
libretto. When asked tactfully about this issue, he responded, "well,
better that than Madame Butterfly".

He was wrong. If opera were alive for intelligent people (and Adams is
brilliant) they'd understand that if you want to compose an opera,
Butterfly is a good model, whether it's good in any other way or not.
A theatrical problem for Dr, Atomic is that the story is essentially an
internal one. It concerns the journey of the creator of the Atomic bomb to
understanding the horrendous world destroying power he had unleashed.
Butterfly's more trivial story is also an internal journey from an
adolescent crush to a mature understanding of her own horrible fate.
Keeping such a story alive is hard, making sure an audience stays in touch
emotionally with that leading character is a challenge. Puccini and his
gifted librettists (who he tortured) understood how to dramatize that story
and character in a highly specialized form.

When I worked with a small opera company here in Philadelphia, I worked
with about twelve composers and librettists (or composers alone if they
wrote their own texts). NONE knew anything about opera, none had taken the
time to study particular operas that work no matter how badly they're done
to understand that although their approaches would differ significantly
there are ways to dramatize material so that it sings. One of these was
Gregory Spears who has recently had a big critical success with Fellow
Travelers. But I did the world premiere of Paul's Case and he was as lost
in dramatizing the story and making the central character clear and
powerful as everybody else. Perhaps he has learned in the meanwhile.

Sessions had a bad libretto and neither he nor his librettist had any idea
about how to dramatize their story in a theater for opera. But curiously
when he lectured about Wozzeck and Lulu, two works that he loved, he not
only explicated Berg's choices brilliantly but he referred with insight to
operas of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Wagner as examples of either similar
or alternative ways of approaching the issue of making an opera a powerful
theatrical work. The other students became very restless when he went back
in time to works they thought mostly beneath contempt. But I thought Roger
Sessions was one of the most illuminating analysts of the difficulties of
conceiving an opera I've ever encountered.

It's past the pale for someone to write "I'm betting that JEFF Sessions
probably knows more about opera ... than Roger ever did".

A musician should have some idea of powerful work such as Sessions' 7th
Symphony, Concerto for Orchestra, or his imposing "When Lilacs last in the
Dooryard Bloom'd" (a wilder, more passionate and searing treatment of
Whitman than Hindemith's impressive version).

Condescencion of this kind strikes me as hard to defend.


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