Sunday, February 8, 2009


What? Mark Adamo's blog is having a dark night of the soul! Or at least an intimately lit fifteen minutes. Look, I'm still enjoying, way too much in fact, the Adamoblog, which was deservedly crowned Best New Music Blog (2008) over at Life's a Pitch. (Not so deserving: Ron Rosenbaum's dismissive and infantile "review" of Doctor Atomic. Compare to Adamo's vastly more nuanced, cliché-free thumbs-down.) He's got a gift for posting articles that want to spark a dialogue, instead of demanding to be recognized as the final word. Maybe that's something I should try once in a while... provoking thought! But, so, here are some thoughts our M.A. has provoked: 1) This post was the first to link me to this video, which in turn reminded me of a zany Diva Anecdote. It seems that our heroine—wait, you didn't click on those links yet. Okay FINE, you've probably seen the video anyways, it's that one with all those people (including, yay, Melissa Fogarty!) talking about what a great thing NYCO is (true that), with the refrain, "I am City Opera" (great slogan!). But, so, anyways— It seems our heroine, City Opera's most celebrated diva, is singing at City Opera's summery sister, the Glimmerglass Opera upstate, and stops into the office to see some old photos of herself from the archive. A pretty reasonable request, except that officially speaking, those production photos are strictly controlled by Glimmerglass Opera, and the intern on duty at the moment is under explicit instructions not to show them to anyone, not even the people in them. "I'm sorry, those are for in-house use only," says the young gay. Our diva, naturally, realizes that she's put the intern in the position of either (a) displeasing the star talent or (b) risking his thankless low-paying job, and after a moment's calm discussion, takes the matter up with someone who has the authority to grant her request. LOL no just kidding, she flips the fuck out: "I AM GLIMMERGLASS OPERA!!" No buildup, no recitative ("Don't you know who I am??"), just straight into bellowing, like a scornèd pharaohess, at the intern. Can we make a fundraising video like that, please? Because that is what opera is all about. If the diva won't do it, NYCO can hire my friend to impersonate her. He can totally do the voice. "I AM CITY OPERA, DAMMIT!!" Hahahaha. 2) I'm probably not equipped to properly address his Ainadamar review, for a number of reasons. While I enjoyed the recording, I haven't seen the piece live, and can't really say how it functions as a stage work; also, Kelley O'Connor (the lady who plays Lorca) went to 'SC with me and is completely my hero, so I am in the tank. [PLUG: Kelley is singing in the NY Phil's Ravel program at Carnegie Hall next Tuesday! You should go!] Still, I think there are some nice points Adamo is missing. I do have some reservations about Golijov's music; I remember reading a Gramophone article where somebody (Upshaw? the composer himself?) described his technique as modulating between different musical languages—vernacular and classical, contemporary and traditional—the way other composers modulate harmonies, to which I muttered, yeah well, harmonies are important too. It was a weak moment, but you get the idea: I am more impressed with a Golijov score as a series of effects than as a working-out of the usual concerns of classical music, all that harmony and melody and counterpoint stuff. Sort of a Bernstein without the impeccable Teutonic technique, but is Teutonic technique what Bernstein ever gets credit for anyway? No. Rightly or wrongly, he gets credit for creating a convincing series of dramatic effects, and that's what Golijov scores in Ainadamar, one of his, to my ear, most accomplished pieces. So when Adamo complains that "refresh these tropes" of "pan-Latin musical sensibility" in the way that Revueltas or Ginastera did, he's missing the point a bit. Golijov is not interested in doing how they do, refracting the light of the vernacular through the distorting prism of 12-TET and classical performance practice, but rather in suspending the cultural hierarchies that suggest that such an experience of vernacular music might be preferable to an unmediated one. That Golijov's music, in Adamo's words, "could easily back a new Marc Anthony single" speaks to the success of his project—provided that the moments that refer to classical music succeed as classical music, which I think they do. To say, "I wish this artist’s work bespoke the creator more than the importer" is a little backwards—you're not really talking about the text, here; you're complaining only about what the art implies about the role of the artist. You've got to judge the artist by the art. As for Peter Sellarses theatrical mode. Peter Sellars takes a lot of risks, and makes, let's be clear about this, a lot of mistakes. But I think the mistake is Adamo's when he characterizes Sellars' tendency to ritualize rather than dramatize his subjects as mere "inertia" and "glibness." Adamo advocates a reformed opera, a unified drama, in which historical scenes are re-enacted, where time flows ahead steadily instead of leaping forward or backward and then standing still. He wants showing, as the writing-workshops cluck, not telling. Sellars would argue—has argued—that we don't need opera to do these things. We have television. If you want to show the hijacking of the Achille Lauro as it actually happened, you can make a TV movie; if you want to see history re-enacted, we have the History Channel. But the things that Peter Sellars does in Ainadamar can only happen in opera. (I keep misspelling the title of that opera, and spellcheck is no help. Ainadamar? Ainamadar? Almodovar? Ennisdelmar? Apologies in advance if I slip up.) He looks to pre-reform forms; he looks to opera seria and oratorio and masque. This isn't so much laziness as it is an awareness that musical theater had richness and value before the classical period. Think Bach, think Handel, think Stravinsky, think Messiaen. And while Adamo argues that working from these traditions to dramatize historical subjects—as Sellars does so often—is a cheap reliance on the weight of historical reality to lend emotional depth to the piece, I would raise the counterargument that perhaps these traditions are the only way to do justice to the subjects Sellars has chosen. Not laziness, reverence—can you imagine a Christian writing an post-Verdian style opera on the life of Christ? I mean, I'm sure it's happened, it's just not a great idea—clearly there are other, possibly more respectful ways it should be presented—and so it should be, perhaps, with the lives of our secular "martyrs." Nobody walks out of the St Matthew Passion saying, "Y'know, I couldn't really get into Jesus's head." [HOLY CRAP I just realized, hours after I posted this, that Adamo was just formally awarded a commission (.pdf) from San Francisco Opera to write EXACTLY THE OPERA I'VE JUST DESCRIBED, a dramatic depiction of the life and loves of Jesus Fucking Christ. Which is to say, MARK ADAMO FTW. I cannot step to that.] And finally:
Argue, if you will, that flamenco is to Latin-American mourning what the blues is (are?) to African-American mourning: a way of making suffering endurable by freeing the body to move to it. But is this a viable dramatic method? If so, where are the great blues operas?
Grrl it's called Porgy & Bess, you need to LOOK IT UP:That there is the blues, sir, or at least a kissing cousin thereunto. 3) The Death of Klinghoffer. Always a problem. There's a funny Original Sin to this opera that nobody ever talks about; it's always accused of Jew-hatin' but nobody can articulate why. Really the reason is that at the premiere performances, in like Belgium and Brooklyn I think, there was a whole first scene that depicted a family of Jersey Jews watching the hijacking on TV, being as self-involved and judgmental as Americans tend to be in front of the TV news, and bickering with obviously Jewish rhythms. Think Seinfeld, to which it has been usefully compared. (Or just read the whole thing yourself in Thomas May's essential John Adams Reader.) Nobody had a problem with it in Belgium (I WONDER WHY—BELGIUM) but the audience at the American premiere realized that this was a horrible idea, that this came off as a representation of American Jewry, and not of Americans in general or of this family of imaginary American Jews in particular, and so the first scene was excised forever. This notion that the opera portrays Jews as self-absorbed bourgie twits comes chiefly out of this miscalculated (and deleted) first scene, but the piece's reputation precedes it from house to house—which is why you've never seen a live performance if you live outside New York or Europe. (E.g., when its Los Angeles run was canceled, without explanation, George Tsypin's massive and expensive sets for the piece were destroyed.) Consequently, some really discerning music critics have gone into the piece looking for ideological trouble and, natch, found it: no less a musicological mind than Richard Taruskin, noting the piece's similarities to the Passions of Bach, suggested—choosing, mysteriously, not to identify the various "breaches of evenhandedness" to be found in the libretto—seized upon John Adams' voicing of certain chords to suggest that, if Death of Klinghoffer is, as the Adams has claimed, his version of Bach Passions, then the Arab terrorists are its Christ figures. Can we notice no similarities between other characters in The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera about an innocent Jew who is executed for no crime other than speaking his mind, and the passion of Jesus? Maybe aforementioned Jew? As in the PERSON WHOSE DEATH IT IS OF? So Adamo's in pretty good company when he goes into Klinghoffer sniffing around for anti-Jewish bias, though not, I think, much more successful in flushing it out. He dives into the opening of the piece's Chorus of Exiled Jews—
When I paid off the taxi, I had no money left, and, of course, no luggage. My empty hands shall signify this passion, which itself remembers.
—and comes up with:
What passion? The passion of empty hands? Of no luggage? (And who retreats into exile in a cab?)
[Sigh.] a) No, not "the passion of no luggage," the passion he feels for the lover to whom he has returned, like a Jewish exile returning to Israel. He is about to signify that passion by running his hands over her body, which he then does for the rest of the chorus. Get it? b) Just because you call a cab does not mean you are a rich Jewish stereotype. It could mean that you can't afford a car, and are going to a place ill-served by public transportation, and more to the point, it could mean that you are returning home, and you won't need spending cash for a little while. Then he complains that Leon Klinghoffer, as his soul slips free of his crippled body, mentions "Good furniture / Exposed to the rain"—like only Jews care about having their furniture ruined? But isn't this exactly the sort of language that the opera's Palestinians used, the language of simple creature comforts, when they describe the homes that they lost to Israeli usurpation?
The house was built of stone With a courtyard inside Where, on a hot day, one Could sit in shade Under a tree, and have A glass of something cool.
The thing about Klinghoffer is that everybody, not just Jews, wants to have nice things and be able to relax in the shade with a cool drink and enjoy themselves (this is a pleasure cruise, after all!) and not have to worry about somebody pointing a gun at them or blowing them up. And everybody in it is, in some sense, self-absorbed. There's no character, of any nationality, in the entire opera—Austrian, Swiss, English, American, Arab—who does not come off as self-absorbed for at least a moment in this piece. Please, let's put this anti-semitism in Klinghoffer thing to bed. Anyways. It's so nice to have this "conversation" with somebody who's actually trying to like the piece! Why do so many critics think it's so much more interesting to kick an art form when it's down? Can we please have Mark Adamo reviewing everything instead, forever?

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Blogger Grrg said...

You need to read the Bob Fink essay on Klinghoffer published in C.O.J. It makes similar points, although he managed to see the score of the deleted first scene and makes some interesting points about its music.

But basically: yes, yes, and more yes. So much half-baked nonsense has been said and written about this heartbreaking work. I swear the backlash to the backlash will be the conventional wisdom pretty soon.

February 9, 2009 at 2:16 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for reminding me of the Fink essay, which I think I'd glanced through once before but before I was more familiar with the work...

(no thanks for distracting me this morning :)

February 10, 2009 at 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are wise beyond your years. Briefly, since I've seen a few of these:

It would be great if Mr. Adamo devoted himself to criticism. But I'd miss the relaxing naps I've had when attending performances of his music. The Women -- snore...except for about 15 minutes.

Golijov -- he failed in Ainandamar to create a language of his own. We were left with pastiche not at all unsuited to the less than stellar libretto.

Adams: I've just gotten off the phone to check with the friends who joined me at Klinghoffer so many years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. All anyone remembers -- we are gettng old after all -- is Mrs. Klinghoffer's aria, which left us stunned. Most of what is written about this opera is just so much foolishness. Thanks so much for that reference to Taruskin. Such a brilliant man who seems to insist on demonstrating the huge gap between music-lover and musicologist.

February 18, 2009 at 7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dan: You might have mentioned that Adamo called Klinghoffer "odious" and said although composers of modern opera normally should stick together, he could not do this with regard to Adams. That'a bit much. Adamo all but says that Klinghoffer should not be performed, a censorious point of view that is frightening. As "anonymous" says, one takes naps during an Adamo performance. What is the big deal? And just why did Adamo feel it was necessary to attack Adams this way? His comments were over the top. They sound as if he was retained by AIPAC.

July 18, 2009 at 2:40 PM  

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