What's Opera Now, Doc?

While Broadway Lives the Puccinian Past, William Bolcom Gives the Met a New 'View'

It's a topsy-turvy world: Puccini's La Boheme, sung in Italian with supertitles, is on Broadway. William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge, a new opera based on Arthur Miller's play, has been uptown at the Met. Both have been much applauded, and their consequences, for good or ill, are likely to be lasting. No wonder the snobs, and reverse snobs, have been even topsy-turvier than usual. Who'd have imagined we'd hear opera pedants bitching that Baz Luhrman's cast isn't old and unattractive enough to represent Henri Murger's scruffy 1840s Bohemians? Or find Broadway visitants at the Met grousing because Bolcom's opera doesn't contain enough showstopping tunes? As Guildenstern remarked to Hamlet during an earlier (and equally futile) theatrical controversy, "there has been much throwing about of brains," and there's sure to be more, along with a good bit of bandwagon-jumping on both sides. Before it ends, we may yet see Charles K. Friedman's 1952 opus, My Darlin' Aida, back on Broadway, with Audra McDonald as a heroic slave to the daughter, not of Pharaoh, but of "General Farrow," in a somewhat different Memphis, during the Civil War. I forget how Friedman's Aida dies, in lieu of getting trapped in a pyramid, but it can't be any sillier than Luhrman forcing poor Mimi, in the age of electricity, to go out on the roof to get her candle relit.

This isn't to condemn Luhrman's Boheme, only to say that the fantasy trip it works on Puccini's beloved opera is very far from the movement Italians of his time called "verismo," which pressed for more realistic detail and truth rather than less. Puccini's achievement was to create a perfect balance of romantic sentiment and gritty reality. Matters like young love, artistic struggle, and early death strike a chord with every audience, and are easy to exploit. Convincing the audience of their existence by anchoring them in the life of a specific place and time is somewhat harder, even when your composer is a master of stagecraft who is also a master of melody. Which is where the difference between electric lights and candles becomes a big issue. If young people respond that they can't understand opera any other way, the reasonable reply is: Maybe you shouldn't try so hard. There's no law that says everybody has to understand opera. The real test may be how many of Boheme's young fans go on to find out more about this old and complex realm full of hidden treasures.

Of course, the inability to accept Boheme except via Baz is vital in one respect, though not to the art of opera: It's the money. As opposed to a living operatic repertoire, sustained on behalf of the public good, this Boheme is a property, put up solely to make profits. This act too has a long operatic tradition behind it: Unfortunately, it's a tradition of fiscal flimflammery and artistic shabbiness, the innumerable disasters of which essentially caused the rise of the subsidized opera-house system. Anyone who's read Colonel Mapleson's memoirs knows what I mean. Whatever Boheme may do to lure the young to opera, it can't do much for the vitality of the art form, or for the gifted young singers now trapped on its rotating schedule, with unending Bohemes and no other operas in sight. The long-run method has been debilitating enough for musicals; setting it loose on works of Boheme's difficulty will lead only to worse performances of fewer operas, and to more events like the suicide of Adolphe Nourrit, who found himself trapped, in mid-career, with no voice and only one role in his repertoire.

A View From the Bridge: "Paper Doll" Hits the Met.
photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera
A View From the Bridge: "Paper Doll" Hits the Met.

But young singers don't need to end up like Nourrit. Bazzians who yap about "regular" opera singers being old and unattractive can't have been going to the opera much. These days, a shockingly avant-garde production of Salome means one in which the heroine doesn't finish her dance completely nude; the appearance of Nathan Gunn's name on a program automatically makes fans ask in which scene he'll take his shirt off. We've lived through two sumptuous generations of young, attractive singers since Beverly Sills last wiggled her bare navel onstage in Le coq d'or; a lot of them are damn fine actors, too. But, of course, if you're busy chasing media glitz, names like Ramey, Fleming, Hampson, and Flanigan don't mean anything to you.

The singers I've mentioned all happen to be American—we have a wealth of gifted vocalists in this country, where more people attend operas than NFL football games—and they've all given impressive performances in American operas; their English diction is generally excellent. This raises the other curious question about Boheme: why, alone in the history of operas on Broadway, it should be sung in a foreign tongue. There was a curiously convenient flurry, as it opened, of declarations about the notorious unsingability of the English language, news that would certainly have startled countless composers, from Handel to Richard Rodgers. La Boheme, of course, has been sung in English since the time of its premiere, and there are dozens of translations, some (big surprise) better than others, just as (even bigger surprise) some singers' diction is better than others'. But the nonsense about "we can't understand what they're saying" is purely nonsense: In no language, ever, can you understand every single word of an opera, not even Italian. Opera's, um, not about the words. Though every singer with half an ounce of brains knows that getting them right is the only sure way to music drama.

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