The decline of opera's cultural relevancy in pictures
How playing an instrument benefits your brain

Mind the gap: exploring great music in the middle

Re: Matt's recent post about the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera over the past century

For a while now, Matt and I have been talking about and exploring what a truly American opera company might look like, and what its repertoire might be. It's a fascinating question, and for me the answers are strongly influenced by examples like the Modernist populist composers, whose work was both substantial and accessible, subtly-crafted yet firmly populist in origin and/or appeal. Examples would include Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, or Leonard Bernstein. (Kyle Gann wrote a great post about a largely unknown but terrific American composer cut from this cloth, Marc Blitzstein, the only composer to study with both Boulanger and Schoenberg.)

The schism between American opera and popular culture was driven to a great degree by repertoire choices. But it was also driven by rejection or avoidance of, e.g., inventions and outcomes of industrialization, like technology or socio-political shifts in the early 20th century. Specific examples include something as prosaic as the microphone (which, ironically, made possible the very first ever radio broadcast ever which was a performance of the Metropolitan Opera in 1910) or the massive cultural influence of pervasive electronic media, led by the radio (invading American homes since around 1920), and the democratization of culture it enabled.

If this chasm between current, mainstream institutional practice and contemporary culture is to be bridged--and of course here at the LF Project we believe it should, as a matter of principle and philosophy but most importantly of practical reality--where to start? As I mentioned, a great place to start is to celebrate and regard as models significant works by our populist Modernist composers. They were creating music in the gap as the gap was opening and widening, and had some pretty good ideas about how to reconcile seemingly disparate worlds/tastes/artistic goals.

Second would be to perhaps reexamine the characterization of other existing musical art and maybe change its label. Even "old-fashioned" symphonic composers like Erich Korngold helped to create a whole new mode of musical expression with composition for film, along with others like Bernard Hermann or Miklós Rózsa or Nino Rota. What about all the other work created that combines music and theater in some way? How about that whole, giant, hugely popular genre of American musical theater? What substantial work is there--despite a difference in singing technique and style--to be performed and relished?

And third, of course, is to facilitate and nurture the creation of new works that embrace a wider set of musical values, that have perhaps a more liberal definition of what could be considered "American opera". We're working on that one, too.

But the motive of this particular rumination is to say that one of the best living examples of a composer creating such work is Stephen Sondheim, and one of the best relatively recent examples of great work in the middle is his Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This show certainly doesn't need me to champion it, but with this framing in mind--those of you who may be reading skeptically--give this recent performance of Sweeney Todd a viewing. It's a semi-staged concert performance led by Alan Gilbert with the New York Philharmonic, playing with a cast led by Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson along with many other fabulous singers. It's great to see the NY Phil embracing a wider scope of repertoire, and their performance is stellar. Let their music-ing persuade you better than my writing can:

 

Stay tuned for more on the music in-between, including thoughts on my native idiom of American wind band music as well as popular recording artists moving toward the middle from 'their side'.