18 December 2006

Radames Rashomon

One morning last week I was lying in bed listening to NPR, which is what I do when I don’t jump up and go to the gym in the morning, which I don’t do when I am going to or coming from the theater, because I just can’t stay up that late otherwise, when I heard a teaser about a tenor walking offstage during a performance. I thought, “La Scala, Aida, Alagna” and went back to wondering how late I could show up to work and still be within the range of the acceptable. I didn’t think much more of it but needless to say I ended up hearing a lot more about it.

Brouhahas of this sort don’t really engage me deeply; I feel dramatics should be left in the hands of trained professionals, as in playwrights and composers, not tenors with possible low blood sugar and resentful Day of the Locust types in the balconies. I don’t have strong feelings either way about Alagna or his wife, though I understand Radames was maybe more than he should have taken on. And a Zeffirelli production? No thank you; I already have a Christmas tree, loaded down with shiny bright golden baubles. And though I can’t really approve of abandoning one’s colleagues practically mid-aria, I initially was sympathetic to Alagna. Booed at his first (notoriously difficult) aria? If you’ve read any of my other entries it’s pretty clear what I think of audiences generally, and I especially dislike “passionate” (for which read: loud, obnoxious, limited) self-appointed judges. Booing someone for a botched note in his first aria indicates to me a very technically based, athletic-competition view of performance (you catch the ball or you drop it; not a lot of nuance usually, even if the play is under review) which is completely alien to viewing opera as a coherent dramatic work.

I was thinking of a passage in one of my favorite novels, Clarissa, in which Lovelace criticizes the individuals (or claques) that disrupt performances with loud booing (for though he is a rake, he is also a gentleman). And I thought of passages in Galina Vishnevskaya’s autobiography in which she discusses similar problems for both herself and others at La Scala (if you’re curious, go to her index and look up Italy and Karajan; better yet, read the whole fascinating book, which is worthwhile even for people with no interest in opera – my favorite moment was her description of hunting through every florist shop in Moscow looking for a flower to put on the grave of Prokofiev, who had the misfortune to die on the same day as Stalin; even in death the tyrant was fearful enough to suck every flower in the city onto his grave). The major comparison, of course, has been to the travails of Maria Callas, which reminds me of Karl Marx’s witty epigram that history repeats itself: the first time is tragedy and the second farce. Karl was the Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker of fulminating proletariat-centered economists.

Within hours everything I thought I knew about the incident had been turned upside down and inside out, so that it was no longer clear what had happened or why or who had said or mistranslated what. The understudy rushing onstage in civvies? And it turns out there was another one already in costume? The booing might not have been for Alagna, but for suborned audience members, possibly hired by him? Was he really jealous of the ballet dancer’s ass, or was that a mistranslation of what the dancer said? Were there threatening gestures in the audience and low blood sugar in the singer? Singing on the steps at the Thursday performance (which made me think of Terrell Owens doing sit-ups in his driveway after being suspended from whatever football team was fool enough to hire him last year)? Eventually the insanity takes over and it’s not even worthwhile summarizing the details. Soon I’m sure a standard narrative will emerge, with agreed-on heroes, villains, and lessons to be learned, but who knows what relation it will bear to anything that actually happened.

The only thing that really mystifies me is the people who claim that this will “be good for opera” and “get people talking about opera.” That’s like the local cineaste claiming that the audience that goes on-line to read Lindsey Lohan’s latest drug-fueled blackberried manifesto of insanity will, through an inevitable progression, end up debating the finer points of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s oeuvre. The audience that really cares deeply about anything – not just opera, but pop music, and baseball and football games, and literature, and religion and politics – is fairly small though probably constant in size through generations. Everyone else is just looking in to see what the noise is about, before getting distracted by something else.

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