Opera As Toy

The New Regime

La Traviata was my first opera; wasn’t it everybody’s? Jan Peerce howled and wobbled; Jarmila Novotna sobbed. Nobody noticed whether the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played in tune; from a vantage point in the standing room at the back of a Boston movie palace, it couldn’t have mattered much. The distance between that glorious Saturday afternoon and last week’s was measurable in more than miles. It became apparent about two minutes into the exquisitely paced, shaded performance of the sad, sad Prelude under the company’s new music director, James Conlon. It began to widen with the first words of greeting from the company’s new Violetta, Renée Fleming of the gorgeous, floating tones but in more gorgeous, floating tones even by her usual standards. It burst into incandescence as that seductive hunk of Latino tenor, Rolando Villazón, shaped the first phrase of his “Un dì felice” into the musical equivalent of diamonds and rubies.

Suddenly it became clear why people fish their black tie out of mothballs on a sweltering Saturday to parade around like penguins in a stuffy lobby, spill drinks on one another, shriek like boobies when high notes resound, and dump $6 million moneybags toward the building of some 18-hour proto-Freudian production far down the line, all just to prove that the magic word “Ring” holds the same thrall over humankind’s gold as it did in Wagner’s hands 150 years ago. The power that makes otherwise rational people behave this way, including now and then the writer of these words, became once again audible when Fleming and Villazón merged tonsils in that Act 1 duet from Verdi’s La Traviata, and then went on to finish the work in like fashion. It didn’t even matter that the production was the same clunky stagecraft that Momma Domingo had inflicted upon the Chandler Pavilion in two previous seasons, with its overpopulated floor and clotted action patterns — which she had replaced one time only with an even more unconscionable updating. This time around, with musical forces such as these onstage and on the podium, Verdi conquered all.

The Other Coast

Kyle Gann (Dallas, 1955– ) is a composer (microtonal; music with complex tempo structures); musicologist (late-20th-century American music); author of books with a leaning toward American eccentric composers (Conlon Nancarrow, La Monte Young); associate professor at Bard College; writer of PostClassic, a web log at Arts Journal; and music critic (1986–2005) at our associate publication The Village Voice. Music Downtown (UC Press, $19.95) contains about 100 of Gann’s 500 Voice articles. A valuable insight into his state of mind, and into his cloudless-clear expressive style, is his September 8 blog entry, “Ignoring Progress” (, his answer to a questioner who insists that music history must entail growth in stylistic complexity, that every generation of composers inevitably builds on the subtlety and sophistication of the preceding generation.

Subtly applying his own views as an acupuncturist might his set of needles, Gann proceeds to devastate his questioner’s straight-line view of history, tracing the rise and fall of relationships between the stylistic curve of, say, the early Aaron Copland and the social conditions surrounding his ventures into cowboy ballets at one time and nontonal chamber music at another, and adapting his more curvaceous view of history to The Way Things Actually Are — in music and elsewhere as well. His path in this one brief but valuable article leads to the nearly 300 pages of Music Downtown, a tough but exhilarating panorama of a turbulent time and place in our music, still very much aboil — although its most eloquent Voice has undergone something of a diminuendo in its coverage of serious new music.

I suppose I need to invoke full disclosure along about here, not only about my own place within this organization but also about my own recent book that is also largely a collection of published articles originally printed out of the same corporate ink pot. But somehow the contrast between my So I’ve Heard and Kyle’s collection feels about as contentious as the struggle between a set of banana-cream-pie how-tos and Kyle’s uncle’s crippling chili recipe (also on the site). I scarcely know Kyle Gann, but I would proudly share a bookshelf with this and all his books.

Downtown music, as I glean from the many definitions set forth or implied in Gann’s collection, is the music that happens in the area of Manhattan below 14th Street — but spills over into Brooklyn, Queens, San Diego and any other fertile land where the spirit can thrive, where the venues are small but barely adequate to the ardor of the crowds. The music is what it is; one of Gann’s delicious definitions early on is “that it is only as good as it sounds.” But that is already distinction enough to set it apart from “Uptown” music, which exists on charts and diagrams that can be published and pored over by critics and doesn’t really need hearing at all. The ranks of “Uptown Composers,” says Gann, embrace the likes of Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. There is a “Midtown” subgroup, he adds, more likely to bear the taint of Juilliard than the Uptowners’ Columbia: John Corigliano, Joan Tower and Bill Bolcom, for example. John Cage, who died before assuming the mantle, is of course the acknowledged Saint of Downtown. I like to let myself believe that my own 15 pages on John Cage qualify me for at least part-time membership in Kyle’s Downtown club.

It’s in the matter of journalistic criticism — meaning to a New York–based writer, of course, the Times — that Gann’s venom flows full and deep. Most of his collected writing is from his earlier years at The Voice, when he pretty much had the quality-criticism scene to himself. Alex Ross hadn’t yet come to The New Yorker nor Jeremy Eichler to the Times. Uptown criticism (“the heroism-detecting machine”) raged full force. The death of Cage in August 1992 loosed a torrent of vitriol from the New York press comparable to that attendant on the passing of any Nazi tyrant. Gann, of course, screamed back, and then wrote his own John Cage obituary — the final pages in his book — which you have to read, and then go back and read again, and come away aware that, even now, in this shaky, maligned and underpopulated profession that Kyle Gann and I and a few others attempt to practice, there are things worth saying and ways in which to say them.


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