The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Aida and the Opera Audience

I've been incredibly busy lately and have not posted anything to this site. But at some point in that span, I attended a performance of Aida at the Met. A detailed review of the performance seems moot, and my memory is already a bit fuzzy, but I have two separate thoughts based on the performances I have seen there. This one is about audiences at the Met.

First off, allow me to stipulate: I am not a snob. I don't go to the opera or to concerts to participate in "culture" or to hobnob with the upper class. (Did I say upper class? This is America, of course they are all upper middle class.) I just really love music, and great music is best enjoyed live.

With all that said, I think there are two types of people who go to an opera: the opera goers and the music lovers. Opera goers might like the experience of "going to the opera" for the more snobbish reasons I mention above, or they might appreciate the general effect of the harmonious blend of music and drama. Music lovers go, of course, because of the wonderful scores; after all, it's ultimately not "Da Ponte's Figaro," but Mozart's Figaro. Drama serves as a wonderful setting for music. Music has its own inherent drama, but when matched to an actual story, the drama in the music becomes more vivid.

Anyway, for obvious reasons, some operas mainly attract the opera goers (Carmen, Cav and Pag, anything by Puccini), others mainly the music lovers (Pelleas, Boris Godunov, anything by Wagner). Others have the unfortunate tendency to contain both glorious music and great drama and spectacle: Mozart and Verdi come to mind. But it is at Verdi performances, or at least some of them, that this becomes a problem, that the purposes of the two audiences clash.

Aida has a marvelous flow. Each aria and ensemble, each exquisite line and glorious melody, transitions brilliantly to the next, even when it seems to end. But this does not come across well in a live performance, because of the unfortunate tradition of applauding at the end of many arias, dances, ensembles, etc. There is no real break at these points. In Mozart, each number has a clear ending and, although the entire opera holds together wonderfully, no harm is done by the applause. But in Aida, applause really breaks the flow of the work and sometimes even swallows a gorgeous soft ending. This is particularly a problem in the first 2 acts, with their rapid-fire choruses, dances, and marches. Each certainly deserves applause, but the cumulative effect of the pieces are partially lost when the applause is inserted in the middle of the action. If I were conducting this work, I would make an announcement requesting that the audience hold their applause until the end of the act.

A lot of fuss is, rightly, being made about keeping classical music alive, reaching a younger audience, etc. Another fuss over classical music is made from the other direction, in a way: critics complain about the dearth of contemporary, "adventurous" music in orchestra programs and opera calendars. The response to the first problem is often to dumb down the music, install gimmicks, or engage in "crossovers" -- i.e., "engage" the audience in cheap ways that have nothing to do with the true value of the music. Addressing the second results in turning the auditorium into a huge lecture hall, and a boring lecture at that, with the puzzled audience sitting patiently as Professor Boulez drones on with his baton. I think both approaches miss the point, because they don't appeal to or utilize the greatness of music. People will never love great music because it's fun, cool, or mathematically interesting. They will love it because it is great music. And they will only know it's great once they know the music. Of course, that's the tough part: how is this accomplished? But it is always important to keep that goal in mind: classical music is wonderful because its genius is immensely enjoyable.

That's why my suggestion does not slow the advance of classical music or alienate new audiences. To the contrary: my point is that the point should always be the enjoyment of music, or we're missing the point. I don't think people should sit quietly during an entire act of Aida because it's high class, respectful, moral, traditional, or any such thing, but because it's the best way to appreciate the greatness of Aida, in all its magnificent moments and massive flow.

Of course, there are probably ways to engage the audience more that do highlight and enhance the greatness of the music. But that's for another day.


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6:17 AM  
Blogger Michael Dodaro said...

Your comment on the interuptions for applause that stop the musical progressions in Aida may explain the low regard for this opera among musicologists. I've always thought Aida a great opera both in the theater and on record, but lately I've been listening to a couple of old recordings. That critics do not respect the craftsmanship in this opera seems incredible to me. Maybe the action stops for applause, not because the music or drama is flawed, and in this case a recording is better than live.

10:42 AM  

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