Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My point exactly...

I received this wonderful email yesterday (much needed solidarity indeed) and the sender graciously agreed that I could include it in a post. I'm too tired to get into a heady discussion of the nature of art, and why and for whom it exists...but this sort of email means more than a good review ever could. We don't produce for the critics.

Hello Mr. Nelson,

I wanted to thank you and all the members of AOT for the wonderful performance of David et Jonathas this past weekend. My partner and I attended on Saturday and were so moved by the music, singing and artistry that we returned for the Sunday production. We have long been opera fans, but frankly we have grown weary of productions that, though technically dazzling, are too often stodgy and passionless. This weekend, for the first time in years, we were both moved to tears by a work of opera--of course, the company's creativity and musical prowess were first-rate, but it was the soul and utter humanity of your production that enraptured us. Though you may find that some audiences and critics are not prepared for opera that actually engages them emotionally, still less opera that challenges them to think and respond, please know that we loved it and we know that many other people will also.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Non-need for Narrative

I have promised myself never again to respond the reviews! It is a bad idea and a waste of energy for all concerned. Critics are in general a mixed bag themselves, rarely of much insight or foresight, and on the whole inconsequential. Still, it is a promise I have a hard time keeping at times like this and I am going to try squeak through on this one.

By all signs this weekend's production of "David et Jonthas" worked, this is spoken to by the reviews by Anne Midgette and Charles Downey. Some of you might find it strange to hear me say this, since neither of those reviews were really positive. Well, in general the people I respect are artists and not reviewers, so it becomes a process of sifting through the perfunctory text of what a critic says to glean any meaning from it. What I got from their reviews is that the plot as such is indeed obscured, time and setting made ambiguous. And to that I say “and...?”.

This was by no means accidental or because of an oversight in the production. It is a product of the piece in modern performance that the company chose to embrace instead of correct. The work is not about narrative and neither is the production. Okay, so what is the problem? Well, this isn't for everyone, and it especially isn't for all traditional opera audiences. A style of theater that is not about linear narrative is nothing new. This is Beckett, this is Ionesco, and many of the works of their successors like Stoppard and Albee. As with this production specifics are hinted at with references or imagery, but focus is not put on the chronological journey, and actually the ambiguity lends a clarity to other aspects of the production. This is just not done in opera though. It requires more of an audience. It requires an audience to meet the production halfway, to work. It is difficult to sit back complacently and enjoy this style of theater without being actively engaged, without thinking. A lot of opera audiences have not made this leap yet as theater audiences did years ago. I can't say it is not more the fault of conservative companies in America actually. Regardless, critics largely represent the past aesthetically and it is little surprise that they wouldn't “get” it.

It appears to me that some of the reviewers of this piece weren't able to make this leap either, regardless of claims of opera in DC being conservative (which of course it is). It is easy to be for "inventive" stagings, as long as that means simply transferring the plot to a different time or place. But, messing with the primacy of narrative is a harder pill to swallow, and requires an openness of mind that some people don't have. It is easy to claim to be forward in ones thinking if all that is being adjusted is the surface. When the rules of the game themselves are questioned and altered, people's real colors come out.

Now this might sound elitist, but actually it is the opposite. I'll explain. People love this work. They weep and they stand (something not mentioned in either review). It is a moving experience for loads of people regardless of its lack of explicit narrative. Those that enter the theater without erudite expectations of what opera “should” be get it, and in a way that is the goal of AOT, not pandering to a class of traditional opera goers that like things just the way they are and don't at heart want to try anything new (this is by NO means true of all opera goers, many of whom have extremely open minds and don't come to an experience with expectations for its result). This is why the company is able to reach out to wider audiences that aren't part of the “opera class”. Some traditional opera folks will be challenged by that and some will revel in it. It is what it is, and it will all wash out in the end. For me, I like what Dylan did with electric.

I think that there was actually a lot of valuable information in both the Post and the Ionarts reviews from which this young company can learn. I mean that, and I don't want anyone to think for a moment that I blindly ignore criticism. I think the largest dramatic point in both articles is irrelevant however. One has to finally make a choice as to whether to listen to critics of questionable skills and intentions, or to oneself. The answer is obvious of course, and as far as deciding whether one has made the right choice, it is difficult. It helps to know personally that a large body of the audience were moved and had an intense cathartic experience, something increasingly rare in American houses. That is not a completely reliable gage of a production's success either of course, but it is vastly more accurate than the words of status-quo critics.

Critics, not necessarily these, but as a group, belong to a noble and I would even saw important profession. Posterity has shown however that, as a general rule, their societal role is rarely connected with feeling the pulse of aesthetic change or being aware of larger truths. What we know from posterity is that more often than not critics get it wrong, and more importantly, they just don't matter too much in the long run.