Photo by Michel Euler, AP/Wide WorldWITH TWO DOZEN CONSECUTIVE MIDNIGHTS BEAMED INTO every time zone, the multichannel worldwide 24-hour television special that accompanied the turn of the year, century and/or millennium offered, for that day at least, a glimmer — or facsimile — of Marshall McLuhan's global village, the switched-on “brand-new world of allatonceness” the wily old Canadian prof believed would be ushered in by the video age. Of course, the event was still overwhelmingly mediated, in the usual out-of-your-hands way, something for the people rather than of them, arranged for our international viewing pleasure by the same sort of professionals who stage awards shows and halftime entertainments, and framed for broadcast by those whose work it is to make even the disasters of the real world comprehensibly “dramatic” and fun to watch. At its worst this whole-Earth light show was merely the stuff of Laserium concerts and David Copperfield specials raised to a new pitch of expensive banality; yet even on television the Eiffel Tower fizzing like champagne was something to one day tell the grandchildren about, and some episodes, like an “ice chapel” wedding in Lapland, were authentically strange and unexpected. It was encouraging as well to apprehend, even briefly, humankind united in childlike wonder at things that go boom and make sparks, though, personally, I was not cheered so much by visions of unity as by indications that despite our increasing, often fatal connectedness, some diversity still remains on Earth (or what's a vacation for?). Indeed, the overall effect of the coverage was to make me want to remove to Europe, where people go out into the public squares and promenades even when there isn't a millennium on — I suspect in part because the television is so crappy.
American television, like our blue jeans, fast food and action films, is the envy of the world, which is why you'll find dubbed episodes of The Rockford Files and local versions of Wheel of Fortune from Trondheim to Timbuktu. As with so many things, we have so much of it, so much more than anyone else — more than we need, certainly, more than anyone really knows what to do with — produced on a comparatively lavish scale with a glossy finish that says Made With Hollywood Know-how. Fueled by big ad bucks, syndication deals and megacorporate deep pockets, it is a big and powerful and influential medium — it shapes taste, elects presidents, sells everything there is for sale — but in half a century of continuous operation, it has not yet effected the “Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism” that McLuhan and sidekick Quentin Fiore hopefully predicted in The Medium Is the Massage, not least because it is itself essentially parochial. Nor is there much evidence, notwithstanding CNN, Biography and the History Channel, that it “has heightened our general awareness of the shape and meaning of lives and events to a level of extreme sensitivity.” It seems to me that most of us remain pretty dull on those accounts. All the old familiar human aspirations and failings, which you may find cataloged in Shakespeare, the Bible and Greek mythology, beset us still, however much the technological ornaments and gadgety distractions of our times persuade us that the world has changed, and the fact that we can watch our much-removed cousins party down half a world away does not actually bring us any closer to them. And yet, at the same time, whatever we are, we are not the people people were before television.
COMMUNITY AND THE LACK OF IT ARE THE SUBJECTS OF Central Park, an anthology of three new one-act operas set on an autumn day within the titular expanse of Manhattan green, jointly commissioned by WNET, the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera and airing this week on PBS after runs at both companies. Taped at Glimmerglass' compact theater in Cooperstown, it demonstrates, like Showtime's location recording of the last performance of the Brian Dennehy Death of a Salesman (airing throughout the month, and to be discussed at our next meeting), how well theatrical space and theatrical convention translate to the TV screen — which, after all, forms a little proscenium, makes a little toy theater — and what fine television may be created just by aiming a few video cameras at a stage, given of course that what transpires upon it is good to begin with. Visual realism is what television usually aims for, but a few trees and benches on a bare stage say “park” quite efficiently, and are no less genuinely “New York” than the Toronto streets and back-lot façades that regularly stand in for it without comment.
Opera itself is, of course, exceptionally artificial; no one in my neck of the global village carries on that way. But its conventions are no harder to accept than those of musical comedy, and people have been writing and performing them for a long time now, and will no doubt continue to, because there is nothing else that does what opera does: Characters can form duos and trios, express themselves in counterpoint or harmony, repeat themselves at length without appearing mad, while every line has its meaning shaded by the music to which it's set. None of the librettos offered here would be much of anything, not half so subtle or substantial, merely spoken. To be sure, some of the comedy is lost in the forward roll of the music, but a different sort of humor and energy emerges from the collision of opera and the world of Starbucks and cell phones and Long Island accents — a soprano chirping, “It really, like, bores me so”; a chorus chanting, “That man is calling Bergdorf's!”; a mezzo inviting a tenor for “cwaffee.”
“New York, such a small town, really,” sings mezzo-
soprano Jewish mother Joyce Castle in the first piece, The Festival of Regrets, composed by Deborah Drattell to a libretto by Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles). Set at the park's Bethesda Fountain, it's a one-scene Upper West Side sort of screwball comedy in which a recent divorcée and her ex-husband accidentally meet at a Rosh Hashana ritual in which people cast bread crumbs on the water to symbolically rid themselves of regret. The text is wistfully funny, but the music — cantorial, clarinetty, klezmeresque and très moderne — emphasizes the bittersweet and mystic. In the third work, The Food of Love (a pun by omission), from composer Robert Beaser and playwright Terrence McNally (the opera-themed The Master Class), Lauren Flanigan is let loose as a homeless woman with delusions of Madonnahood, who tries to give away her baby to save its life — a performance that may not wholly benefit from the natural tendency of a soprano in full cry to already sound a little bit crazy. File this one under Man, Man's Inhumanity to: Heartlessness of Big City — but for Flanigan and a half-friendly cop, it's purposefully a work of two-dimensional types, all of whom are mean or cold or terribly disappointing in one way or another, and the whole affair is overwrought in ways that seem particularly “operatic.” But it has its moments.
In between comes the fairly corny, altogether pleasing and ultimately very moving Strawberry Fields, set in that memorial garden with its “echoes and vibes of John Lennon” (who's also name-checked in The Festival of Regrets). A collaboration by A.R. Gurney and Michael Torke (who had a work played at the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics), it is musically more sprightly and smooth and more hummably melodic than its companions, with a romantic affection for metropolitan motley and a readiness to employ the tear-jerking, throat-lumping effect. Gurney, author of the extremely popular middlebrow epistolary drama Love Letters, once taught a course in opera as drama, and he peppers his amusing text with parodies of and observations on opera practice, and puns on the order of “He's changing his tune,” and you will in the bargain learn a thing or two about Giuseppe Verdi. Joyce Castle stars as a rich old lady of fading memory who imagines she's at a Metropolitan Opera matinee and not on a bench in the park, which nevertheless (this being the point) provides an opera of its own. Or as Lennon's old writing partner might put it: She thinks she's in a play; she is anyway. Or as hooky-playing grad student and tenor
Jeffrey Lentz puts it, where better to be than “Here, where the sounds of life drown out the fear of nothingness”? Nowhere that I can think of offhand.
For more on Central Park, see Alan Rich's A Lot of Night Music column.
GREAT PERFORMANCES: CENTRAL PARK | PBS Wednesday, January 19, 9 p.m.