I’ve long since given up on arguing with anything Greg Sandow says—classical music isn’t dying, pop music is no longer the singular cultural behemoth he thinks it is, and why does he still bother writing about classical music when it’s clear that, in spite of his frequent “some of my best friends are classical works” protestations, he doesn’t seem to like classical music that much, anyway? If what you really love is pop music, that’s great—enjoy it. But then don’t try and… oh, wait—that’s right, I gave up arguing.

Nevertheless, start picking on Don Carlos, and you have to answer to me.

Verdi might have been a great composer, but through no fault of his own he lived in the 19th century, and in Don Carlo he shows us the Spanish royal court as the 19th century might have imagined it, formal, a little stilted, and full of aristocrats who (apart from the leading characters) sing anonymously as members of a chorus. You really can’t do that any more.

Well, of course Verdi’s aristocrats are formal and stilted, because that’s the whole bloody point of the opera. It’s a tragedy because the characters who survive only do so because, seduced by power, they’ve sacrificed their humanity and replaced it with the stilted, artificial rules of the court. The characters who perish are crushed by the machinery of the state, the formality of which stifles moral conscience and sympathy. (If you think that Verdi couldn’t create an aristocrat that wasn’t formal and stilted, you have not made the acquaintance of the Duke of Mantua.) And you can’t do what any more—invite the audience to put themselves in the place of characters from a completely different time and place and let them see how the drama might resonate in the contemporary world, let them experience the universality of the human condition? If you can’t see how even the most resolutely period-costumed production of Don Carlos maybe just might have some pertinence to current political realities, then you’re just plain obtuse.

Sandow frames this with an observation that the Errol Flynn picture Captain Blood has a pretty operatic vibe, but that movies aren’t very operatic anymore, so opera is doomed.

[I]n 1935 you could go to the opera, and go to the movies, and see practically the same thing. So opera was close to everyday life, in a way that it just can’t be now.

Now, either he’s saying that Captain Blood was close to everyday life (everybody carried swords during the Great Depression?), or he’s tacitly assuming that people in 1935 somehow found costume dramas less anachronistic than people do today. On the other hand, Hollywood cranks out just as many period pieces as it ever did, and people still go see them—and most of them aren’t modern-reference mash-ups like Marie Antoinette, which Sandow holds up as pop-culture Exhibit A in his argument. Over the summer there was 300, Amazing Grace, and Becoming Jane. This week’s box office champ is a period western, 3:10 to Yuma. There was a well-received Edith Piaf biopic and a poorly-received Molière biopic.

Culture is always going to reference any point along the historical continuum it can get its hands on. Captain Blood was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1935. The other nominees included film versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Les Miserables; the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat, as well as Broadway Melody of 1936; the Charles Laughton Wild West comedy Ruggles of Red Gap and John Ford’s searing drama of the 1922 Irish rebellion, The Informer. In other words, old, new, and everything in between. Sandow is pointing to 1935 as some lost era of confluence, but, living in 1935, cherry-picking my cinematic experiences, I could make the exact same argument he makes today. It would have been specious then, and it’s specious now.


  1. As I read the comment on Don Carlo, he is referring to the MET Don Carlo staging, rather than the opera itself. If that´s the case, I´ll have to agree with him – I find this staging quite uninteresting and not contributing anything to my understanding of the work. If he, instead, refers to the opera itself – he is definitely out of his mind! It´s a fabulous opera. Just not in the current (looking very much forward to the new production) MET staging..

  2. I ought to read what Greg said, but I must here mention that in 2004 or 2005 he made the ludicrous claim that the events depicted in <>Doctor Atomic<> weren’t relevant in today’s world. I believe I posted a response on my blog along the lines of “what, the moral dilemmas faced by scientists have no relevance in today’s world? There’s no concern about the effects of weapons of mass destruction?”

  3. Greg is talking about <>Don Carlo<>, the opera, not the Met production, as I read the posting.The posting I was thinking about is < HREF="http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2005/10/not_so_new.html" REL="nofollow">here<> and apparently I did not respond to it, though I remember thinking he was just wrong.

  4. <>in Don Carlo he shows us the Spanish royal court as the 19th century might have imagined it… You really can’t do that any more.<>Do what, exactly? Depict the past? Depict the past from the vewpoint of the present? Depict the past from the viewpoint of a less distant past? However you interpret this murky claim, it’s false. But does Sandow even try to make sense, or is he just interested in trashing concert music and concertgoers?

  5. <>or is he just interested in trashing concert music and concertgoers?<>There’s that and also: make money by telling orchestras that classical music is dying and if they just have enough 20-Something Cocktail Nights, they’ll both boost attendance in the short term AND build audiences for those Birtwistle > Bartok > Stravinsky evenings. I simply don’t get why he’s taken seriously at all.

  6. Greg has access to information from some orchestras that they don’t release to the general public. I think that rather than having a particular message that generates money for him, his views are strongly influenced by what he is seeing personally in a somewhat limited sphere.Yes, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here. I’ve met him – we had a great lunch together, talked and talked and could probably have talked for three days. He is a smart and interesting guy. I think he is wrong on the death of classical music, but I do think he cares about the art form. He’s also a good composer. Check out “Quartet for Anne” on his personal web site. I wish someone would a piece that good for me.

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