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Karen Rile

When Opera Suddenly Matters

October 31, 2014 13:37


I wish I could get to up to New York this weekend to see John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, a Metropolitan Opera production that has sparked protests at Lincoln Center and conflict in the press.

I also won't be able to attend one of the Met's live HD video broadcasts locally. Klinghoffer has been dropped from the Met's broadcast schedule because it's too controversial. And that's too bad—the Met's tagline for the production is "See it first. Then decide."

How often does a highbrow music production stir up passionate debate and civil disobedience? How often does art dare to address the raw-nerve political issues of the day? In my own lifetime, not much.

Most of the picketers outside Lincoln Center haven't seen the opera; many have never seen any opera. But suddenly, to them, it's important. Suddenly opera matters. John Adams matters. Contemporary music matters. Wouldn't it be great for the arts if the public suddenly felt passionate about symphonic music, ballet, chamber music, poetry?

Is this how it felt to be at the opening of The Rite of Spring in 1913? or Salome in 1905, or John Millington Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World, whose premiere touched off Irish nationalist riots in 1907?

In addition to civilian protesters, both against and in support of the production, politicians have not hesitated to jump into the fray. Former Mayor Rudy Giulani, an opera buff, was in the crowd denouncing Klinghoffer. Giuliani, who has read the libretto (you can, too: here) and listened to recordings, refuses to see the production. He was joined in his ire by former governors Pataki and Paterson and a bunch of congressmen and other politicians—and lambasted by current Mayor Bill de Blasio.

By contrast, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended opening night and was spotted giving a standing ovation, came out in favor of Klinghoffer in a talk last week at the University of California. “There was nothing anti-Semitic about the opera," she said. “The terrorists are not portrayed as people that you would like. Far from it."


Earlier this week I wrote a piece on the opera for JSTOR Daily, a publication that strives to contextualize current events with scholarly articles from its archives. In the article, which I hope you will read, I included interviews with a woman who attended the Met premiere last Monday and another who saw the original performance—also highly controversial—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991. There’s also a discussion and link to a highly readable essay by UCLA musicologist Robert Fink about the original premiere and why it was received so poorly by the public at the time.

Fink's idea, which is alluded to in Alex Ross' New Yorker essay on the opera, is so interesting in itself that I won't provide any spoilers except to say that a pivotal, problematic early scene was removed from the opera following the Brooklyn premiere 23 years ago.

According to Fink, the excision—a form of self-censorship in reaction to public opinion—changes the structure and balance of the opera in a way that introduces a different set of problems regarding its interpretation by audiences in the current political climate.

Some say the opera in its present form glamorizes terrorism, or that it is is immoral because it humanizes the characters of the PLO terrorists who murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a frail elderly man, during a cruise ship hijacking in 1985.

But I am struck by the words of Susan Scheid, a New York-based music blogger who attended Klinghoffer's highly controversial premiere of the opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991 and has tickets for the current performance.

“...it’s important to look deeply inside implacable conflicts like those in the Middle East, and to recognize that terror is not committed by alien beings, but by human beings. Failure to recognize that dooms us to more of the same," she says.

What, after all, is the purpose of art? To entertain us and bring us temporarily relief from the strife around us? I hope for something more.

My friend Tim Ribchester, a conductor, arranger, and pianist, published this thoughtful statement on his Facebook, which I repeat here with his permission:

"Art's purpose is to explore and unpack human sentiment and behavior, good and evil and all the ambiguities in between. It should not be censored. It should provoke fierce, impassioned, non-violent debate. I think it is wonderful that a contemporary work of art is engaging enough to cause the level of controversy currently enveloping Klinghoffer. It won't in itself bring us peace or resolution but it at least has provoked reflection and brought us back to the idea that art has influence beyond its escapist social bubble."

Photo credits: Reuters; Metropolitan Opera

1 reply

Ban iPads, Not Kids, From the Concert Hall

October 25, 2014 19:25


Should you take your children to classical concerts? Maybe not: you might risk expulsion and public humiliation.

Just last week at the New World Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas halted the orchestra in the middle of a performance because a little girl in the front row was distracting him.

The story went viral when a popular classical music blog reported Tilson Thomas had booted a child and her mother from the concert, although later he claimed he merely asked them to relocate to the side of the hall.

Eyewitnesses say that the girl had been lying quietly on her mother's lap watching a movie on an iPad during the performance—miserable concert etiquette, since bright screens are painfully distracting in a darkened hall. But was that more of a disruption than the conductor's action?

Some online commenters accused Tilson Thomas of prima donna behavior, pointing out that he's prone to meltdowns. (Last year he lobbed a fistful of cough drops at a noisy Chicago audience.) Others blamed the hall management: ushers should have known not to seat a 7-year-old directly in the conductor's sightline. There was plenty of vitriol for the mother, too. "That's why there are children's concerts," said one.

When my kids were little, our family had 4 season opera tickets for a family of 6. Our daughters bargained with one another over who would get to see which opera. Once, as we were taking our seats, the woman in the row in front of us turned around and hissed, "I hope those children behave." Funny, because I'd be willing to bet that at ages 9 and 11 they knew The Elixir of Love better than she did.

My own kids were well-behaved, maybe because they learned concert decorum from one another. In fact, I went out of my way to purchase seats where they could see well. We were often front row center (I remember Joshua Bell winking from the stage at my daughter, an avid violin student, when she was 11.)

It's not that we didn't have some heart-stopping incidents. My youngest kid got a sudden nosebleed during a performance where there was no escape because we were seated in the middle of a long row. And me with no spare tissues. (With regret, I handed her my silk scarf.) At the 2002 premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra our family bought tickets for a box above the orchestra so the kids could watch the action close up. When our 8-year-old leaned over the rail for a better look at the percussion section, her program slipped precariously from her fingers. She clapped her hand over her mouth in horror as we watched it flutter down between the timpani.

I am happy to report that no musicians or drums were harmed; a friend of ours watching from the center of the hall told me that the orchestra members seemed to not notice. Later, when I was interviewing the composer for an article, I mentioned the dropped program and she laughed. "I remember your daughter!" she said happily.

The thing is: musicians know we need kids to love music if there's to be a future for the classics.

Last night at her birthday dinner I asked my oldest daughter what she felt about being a very young concertgoer. Here's what she said:

As I got older, I could see that bringing us to concerts and plays was your investment. You trained us to be audience members by doing it over and over again and teaching us how to behave.

I remember going to see Carmina Burana when I was 11; I closed my eyes to enjoy the music and you later gave me feedback later that I looked like I was sleepy, which could be distracting for the performers, since we were seated towards the front.

By going to concerts and plays repeatedly, we learned how to be respectful, and how actions that might seem natural to us—like wearing t-shirts and jeans, or yawning, or reading our programs during the performance—are not respectful.

We also learned that live performance is part of our cultural identity. And aside from teaching us to love music, there was another critical lesson that will serve me throughout life: how to sit respectfully through something that you're not engaging with. That skill is going to come up again and again in adult life.

The first time I went to a live rock concert, I had a culture shock in reverse: I was offended when they searched my bag on the way in, and I was shocked that there was nowhere to sit or put my bag down. When people sang along with the band I was horrified at first. I didn't understand the culture.

If Western classical music is to continue, everyone who is part of this cultural practice needs to respect the training that goes into creating the next generation's audience. That requires a certain amount of toleration on the part of audience and performers, but also thoughtful cooperation from parents.

It can seem like a lot less fun and a lot of work to bring your kids to performances rather than just leaving them home with a sitter. Any adult who brings their kids and expects the concert, or an iPad, to be the babysitter is missing the point—and not making a good investment.

When I was little, we didn't have digital devices, so iPads and smartphones weren't an issue. It was too dark to read a book in the concert hall, so we were all forced to engage, or at least to pretend we were engaged with the performance.

An iPad doesn't teach kids to engage; it teaches them that it's okay to show up and be rude. These etiquette rules, concerning emerging technology, are so new they're being written as we live it.

Think it through, parents: bring your kid but leave the iPad at home. As for the rest of us: we're all in this together, creating the next generation of listeners.

25 replies

When Pigs Fly...But Musical Instruments Don't

October 17, 2014 01:17


Carry a baby down the aisle of an airplane and passengers look at you as if you were toting a machine gun. Imagine, then, what it’s like travelling with a one-year-old pig who oinks, grunts, and screams, and who, at twenty-six pounds, is six pounds heavier than the average carry-on baggage allowance and would barely fit in the overhead compartment of the aircraft that she and I took from Newark to Boston. Or maybe you can’t imagine this. —Patricia Marx, from "Pets Allowed"

Riding downtown on a crowded commuter train the other day I was snorting and snuffling with barely controllable laughter. The man beside me edged away; then he got up and changed to an empty seat. What a sourpuss. Well, he should be glad at least I left my alpaca at home.

I was reading Patricia Marx's essay, "Pets Allowed" in the current issue of The New Yorker. Marx, a humorist, is one of the magazine's best writers. In this piece, as a social experiment, she successfully escorts a series of increasingly ridiculous creatures to increasingly absurd venues claiming that they are Emotional Support Animals (E.S.A.s).

She totes a turtle to see the Vermeers at the Frick Collection, where I once had to practically stand on my head to get my calm, serious, tall-for-her-age 9 1/2 year-old admitted. (The minimum age for the Frick turns out to be 10.) A turkey gets seated at a table in a New York delicatessen. An alpaca scores an Amtrak ticket. The clincher, of course, is Daphne, the 26 lb baby pig (too big for the overhead compartment) who gets VIP treatment—she sails through TSA—on a plane trip to Boston.

You can see where this is going. It was easy for Marx because her pig didn't bring its viola.

5 replies

Rankled by rankings? Read on.

October 4, 2014 23:05


I don't need to tell you that Americans are obsessed with rankings. If you crave attention on the internet, just create a website that ranks... anything, and we'll all click on it. Extra clicks if you rate institutes of higher education. Because that taps directly into the anxiety of parents, students, alumni, prospective students and their nervous parents.

Last month, an upstart—er, I mean startup—website called "College Factual" ranked the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, the #1 university in the U.S. Don't get me wrong: I love Penn, and I was quick to share this news on Facebook. But is Penn really the best in the nation? In their methodology Penn's ratings were skewed by high income levels of recent graduates—because Penn has an undergraduate business school.

I teach creative writing at Penn and I know in my heart that we have one of the best programs for undergrad writers, but my students' low-paying literary successes are not going to make a blip in a ranking system this crude. Which is okay, since in theory, at least, writers don't care about this kind of stuff. Anyway, we have Wharton to carry us across the finish line.

Earlier this year, according to USA Today, College Factual ranked music colleges and their number one pick was Southern Methodist University. Kind of odd, right? Not to say that SMU isn't the best music college for some students in this wide, wide world, but it's not exactly the first school that springs to mind when you think "top music colleges." Maybe the ranking makes sense in light of their methodology, which focuses on how much salary money recent grads make per tuition dollar. But is that the way to choose a music school (or any school?)

Last week, Norm LeBrecht (not the deepest reader, but he has a pretty fair reach) proclaimed, "Finally, a credible list of the best US music colleges!" on his blog Slipped Disc. He didn't name the top school (it was I.U.) but posted a screenshot from their website.

I took the click bait.

The rating site in question looks familiar because it's a revision of a site cooked up by an entrepreneurial young composer earlier this year, mainly for purposes of shilling an e-book and snagging speaking engagements. Audacious, but you have to give the guy credit for chutzpah.

The current incarnation, replete with selfies of the site author and padded with his chatty personal blogs, is a little embarrassing to read (his "Methodology" page is an admission that there is no methodology.)

Unlike College Factual, the author is a musician and his picks are within the ballpark. But like CF, he's out to make a buck off anxious parents. His rankings are based on an amalgam of hearsay, information available on public websites, and personal opinion.

Thanks to Slipped Disc's boost, the site is getting traffic and everyone is peeking to see how their favorites scored. LeBrecht gloats, "Juilliard will have sleepless nights at being placed third." Last I checked Juilliard, being an inanimate institution, was not capable of sleeping. And even it it were, I don't think it would lose even thirty winks over a self-proclaimed UMich grad's ramblings.

People, as you already know: there is no best music school in America. There are many excellent schools, and some good schools, and some okay schools, and some pretty awful schools. But what's excellent, best, okay, or even terrible will vary from student to student. Rankings and best-of lists are helpful if you're purchasing a coffee maker, but useless for selecting a music conservatory.

Some students agonize over which school to choose, but the truth is that they could flourish at many different environments. Others end up in gut-wrenched misery at what they thought was their dream school. For most, the "best" school ends up being a compromise.

There's only one ranking a student can rely on: the list you come up with on your own. It's a tailor-made, nuanced list that will be different from your youth orchestra stand partner and different from anything you see on the internet.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you build your personal best-of list:

Conventional wisdom says, "go for the teacher." But what if your perfect teacher retires or takes another job halfway through your college career. (It happens more than you'd think.) Be sure to pick schools where you can continue flourish even if you lose your first-choice teacher.

Some say, go for the best financial package, and of course you don't want to bankrupt your future. But what if you take the cheapest route through undergrad will you be prepared enough to get into grad school?

Some say, go for the school whose students win jobs. (By "jobs" read: orchestra positions.) Is that what you really want? If the life of an career orchestra player is sounding precarious and depressing in this day and age, look further into what graduates are doing five and ten years after graduation.


#5. Education Portal. The generic sounding name of this website inspires confidence that they will give me informed and well-balanced report. As does the listing for Full Sail University in the right sidebar.

#4. College Factual's Other List. The list linked to above on the US, that has been widely quoted and appears on the SMU website, doesn't actually correspond to any list on College Factual's own site except the list for "highest paid grads". Something tells me the grads of these schools listed are not making a living in music.

#3 Music School Central. Be sure to buy the E-Book! Click to buy now!

#2 McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Did You Go To One of the Best Schools in the World? I know I wish I did.

#1. Seated Ovation: Top Ten Music School Rankings. This is the best list. Especially #5.

4 replies

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