What do you write about when you write about opera?

The other day, I came across this piece by Mark Prescott, in which he writes:

Most reviews of productions I’ve attended concern themselves nearly exclusively with a detailed analysis of the director’s conception of the drama. The fact that the writer is generally a music rather than theatre expert is even more bemusing.

Of course, my first (and self-centered) thought was: “Oh, crap. Do I do that?”

Sometimes. But.

One thing that Prescott neglects to point out is that, with a new production of an opera that’s part of the repertory, the critics will already know the music, while the production is new. So it’s hardly surprising that the critic will pay attention to what is specific to this production. Yes, the performance of the music is important, but the music itself is already familiar.

The audience can go listen to a recording of what the music (the composition, not that particular performance) sounds like, but there’s nowhere to get an equivalent overview of the staging. So the review will probably include a little reportage.

Also, everyone has their reasons for loving opera. What draws me in is when it’s about something big and complicated and resonant, like Nixon in China or Cardillac. The production will more overtly communicate what the opera is about than the singers’ and orchestra’s performance of the music will.

I wonder if he feels that reviews of new operas also focus too much on the production. A review of a new opera should probably split more evenly, because there’s no more previous knowledge of the music than there is of the production. The elements are usually more integrated,

Does he want something more like this review? A rundown of voices that reads like a sportscast? Really, there are more interesting things to me than a scorecard of how people performed. I mean, it’s a  positive review – “winning performance,” “admirable performance,” “top-notch ensemble,” “lovely sounds” – but there’s no poetry in it. Reading that review does little to communicate the experience of watching and hearing that Romeo et Juliette. It doesn’t do much to make me want to go see the opera.

What also comes to mind is Anne Midgette’s recent piece about multiple critical voices. Every critic will have his or her own slant, focus, interest, etc. The richest and most interesting conversations will be those with multiple voices and opinions.

So I find myself wanting to say, nicely: don’t tell me what to write about. Don’t tell other critics what to write about. We’ll each write about what stands out to us. We’ll write about whatever strikes us as important or relevant or just plain interesting. Because that’s what will make our responses our own.

1 Comment

Filed under arts, music, opera

One response to “What do you write about when you write about opera?

  1. It’s a serious problem in all classical music, not just opera. How does a 21st century critic review a work that has been written about for decades? All one can do is report on the performers and if they succeeded or failed in interpreting the work.

    For a new opera (or an infrequently produced one), I want to read about the music. Operas survive because of their music, not because they’re effective dramas. We want both great music and great drama, but we’re willing to compromise on the latter if we get the former. I think it’s a serious problem with modern American opera: too much emphasis on the drama, not enough on the music. A composer friend of mine posted today that if people listened to the music of Death of Klinghoffer instead of focusing on the libretto, it would be produced everywhere. I agree. The music in Death of Klinghoffer is worth more than any opera Carlisle Floyd or Mark Adamo or Jake Heggie or Tobias Picker has written–yet they get productions and commissions, and Death of Klinghoffer remains unproduced in America. And how about Einstein on the Beach? Who cares if the libretto doesn’t make any sense? That music is glorious. I’ll put up with Robert Wilson’s (or another director’s) shenanigans just to hear The Spaceship take off.

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