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.