Friday, August 19, 2011

If I Just Don't "Get" Opera, Does That Make Me a Bad Person?

We're in Santa Fe visiting my son Kyle who is working for the summer as a stage hand at the Santa Fe opera. The building is incredibly impressive, an open-air structure north of the city with fabulous vistas (and, as Kyle tells us, owls living in the roof structure). Last night we went to a production of "The Last Savage," which Kyle recommended because a) it is in English, b) it is relatively short, c) it is funny, and d) he has a walk-on part.

After seeing the opera (and whether this is a good, mediocre, or bad opera is probably irrelevant; it is likely a statistically valid representation of the form), I have to admit -- I don't get it. 

Now, I've had debates with people over the years who are not enamored of singer / songwriter music. One friend pointed out that most folk music is melodically uninteresting. I had to think about that. In the end, I decided he was right, but that folk music isn't about melody; it's about story telling and human connection, and thus if it didn't necessarily have zippy "Oooooooklahoma where the wind comes whipping down the plains" melodies, that was ok. Another friend who is deeply into Broadway opined that what I regard as human connection and story telling, he felt was amateurish and self-centered and badly in need of polishing so it could be more "entertaining." Viva la difference.

The point here is that, even with a musical form I don't like, I can usually understand what that musical form is about without necessarily liking it. With rap, for example, I can recognize that the form is about conveying of emotion and experience. That doesn't mean that I like it -- I don't; the subject matter, the rhyme scheme, and even the human motion of the performers all are alien to me and leave me cold -- but, again, at least I think I can identify what it's about.

I have had debates with people who say that that all rock and roll sounds alike, or all rap sounds alike. All that this statement means is that it issuer doesn't have sufficient exposure to that musical form to make any detailed judgment. Of course all rock and roll sounds alike -- it is generally produced with the same set of instruments. In the same way, all bluegrass sounds alike, all classical music sounds alike, etc.

Lastly, I am mindful of this issue of "refinement." When we are eight years old, butter and sugar sandwiches taste like the best thing in the world and vegetables are icky. As we get older, tastes get more refined. We learn to appreciate complexity. The earthiness of a morel mushroom, or saba (mackerel) sushi, is probably not for a child's palate. Maybe modern radio-ready rock and roll and country music is like that butter and sugar sandwich, and perhaps opera is that morel that my palate hasn't yet warmed to.

But all that having been said, I simply don't get opera. Opera seems to me like a Leonard Pinth-Garnell Saturday Night Live parody of bad opera. In fact, this particular opera included a 20-second section in German that I think was supposed to be a parody of German opera, but to me didn't seem any different than the rest of the opera (like that episode of Friends where Ross plays one of his ridiculous keyboard pieces, only he explains that this one is "supposed to be bad").

I had a debate with my son Ethan (who is a film guy and who, like me, over-analyzes everything). Ethan goes so far as to say that "the musical" is a fundamentally flawed artistic form. To Ethan, any musical seems as artificial as the scene in The Holy Grail where the prince who was saved in the tower (and is not quite dead) starts to sing his story, and the people in the hall start singing "He's going to tell! He's going to tell!" Unlike Ethan, I've never had a problem with the suspension of disbelief that goes along with watching a musical. 

Like the rejoinder to the person who says that all rock and roll sounds the same, I'm willing to chalk up my problems with opera's wildly exaggerated vibrato, the (it seems) intentionally a-melodic melody, and the lyrics that are as compelling as singing a newspaper column to my own lack of experience with the form.

But what is it for? What is it trying to do? What levers is it trying to pull? Is opera supposed to be about drama, conflict, and spectacle?  If it's not, I just don't get it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Doppelganger

For many years, I've been told that I have more than a passing resemblance to Eric Clapton. Of course, I've also been told that I look like both Arlo Guthrie and Charles Manson (hint: the way to tell me and Charlie apart is I'm the one who DOESN'T have the swastika tattooed on my forehead), but with both Clapton's and my tendencies to let hair get very short and very long, this is the comparison I get most often. With my hair getting long again, and very silver, if I put on 40 pounds, the apt comparison would be Jerry Garcia.

So imagine my surprise when, going through security at Richmond airport, a TSA agent looked at me and said "you're not... you're not that guy from The Bee Gees, are you?"

I was too stunned to fire back the obvious reply: "No, I'm that other guy from The Bee Gees."