Of Thee I Sing, Baby

Driftwood: Well, I uh, I want to sign him up for the New York Opera Company. Do you know America is waiting to hear him sing?
Fiorello: Well, he can sing loud, but he can’t sing that loud.
Driftwood: Well, I think I can get America to meet him half-way.

—The Marx Brothers, A Night at the Opera

Alex Ross has a column in the latest New Yorker that makes passing reference to the quixotic quest for “The Great American Opera.” (This entire concept amuses me no end. Do you think music panjandrums in, say, France waste valuable time seeking out “The Great French Opera”? Germany? Well, maybe in Germany.)

There isn’t a great American opera, of course, and there probably never will be. Blame it all on the venerable idealists who first booted the natives out of my adopted state of Massachusetts. There’s a Puritanical streak in the history of American opera. And any of the fundamental concerns of the operatic stage (presented here in alphabetical order) would be a Puritan’s nightmare:

  • Abuse of wordly power.
  • Blasphemy (usually punished in the end, but with far more boring music)
  • Murder.
  • Sex.

  • (For example: I don’t know exactly what my ten favorite operas would be, but three definites: Don Carlos, a conflict of power; Carmen, a conflict of sex; and Turandot, a conflict between people who can’t tell the difference. Murders in all three, for those keeping score at home.)

    Why should this be? Great swaths of American culture are gleefully vulgar. That is: great swaths of commercial culture. Mind you, all of this flamboyant salaciousness would be fine if opera actually turned a hefty profit, but it doesn’t, so it instead falls under the category of tasteful things that are supposedly good for you, in other words, bluestocking fodder.

    I bring it up because I think the whole idea of a “Great American Opera” undermines the viability of opera in America, which is a rather different thing. On the face of it, opera seems inherently well-suited to the American media landscape: bigger than life, melodramatic as hell, packed to the gills with spectacle. Trying to take that and make it an Important Artistic Statement On The American Condition is just overloading it with baggage. Can’t we just let opera be grand and ruthlessly entertaining?

    This may sound like an endorsement of the popular-musicalization of classical music. I admit that opera is the most populist meat in the classical music stew, but that doesn’t mean it’s pop music. Indeed, I think this obsession with artistic meaningfulness in opera has let pop music move in and take over the cultural role of expressing those emotions that are at the core of opera. I don’t think the problem with American opera is that it’s not presented as pop music, it’s that it’s not presented as what it actually is: the familiar territory of pop music exponentially raised to a power that pop music can only dream of.

    (Incidentally, if I had to pick a “Great American Opera” [at gunpoint, say] my vote would be Nixon in China—but I think most Americans’ reaction to that piece must be a kind of nervous recognition, like the way you wince when you hear a recording of your own voice.)

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