Tuesday, February 21, 2017

An email to my friend about opera

I haven't seen or possibly even heard anything of I Puritani and I don't think I've seen a Bellini opera. Can't think of one right now. The superb films of The Met productions have given me wonderful evenings of entertainment at Donizetti and Rossini operas that I wouldn't have got to all my life either, with phenomenal singers like Juan Diego Florez, Natalie Dessay and JoyceDiDonato.
But my musical tastes, as you know, are later and for the orchestra, not the voice, and in opera, for all the music, not just the arias. I'll give you two exact instances how this came about for me. 
The first opera of which I ever heard anything (I know this for sure) was Boheme: my mum had bought at some time Heddle Nash singing Your tiny hand is frozen - yes, in English - and I must have known it by heart by the time I was 6 or 7. Boheme was also -  I am forever grateful for it - the first opera I saw on stage, age 17.
But when I started to read and find out about opera, it was the rest of the story, the bits around the arias, I wanted to know more about, not just the beautiful arias themselves that your husband introduced me to when we were at school. I can remember very distinctly reading the plot of Boheme and wondering what the music would be like when the friends are just talking to each other in the attic, not singing the aria I knew from childhood. Che fai ..? - those first words in Act I: how would the music go for that, after that? From the start that was the intriguing thing.
As regards the role of the orchestra, I heard the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod first without the voice, when I was 18 and had already moved on to serious orchestral music. It changed the whole world.

Shortly afterwards, because I was following up everything Wagner composed, I was listening to some man talking on the radio about Die Meistersinger, which I didn't know at all. I can't remember now who it was talking or anything else about the programme, except for this. He was saying that a critic at the first performance had hated the opera and complained he'd never heard anything as terrible as 'the awful bellowing of that cobbler'.
'Bellowing indeed!' exclaimed the speaker in mock reproach, and he put on Sachs' Fledermonolog to set the record straight. 
I can still remember as I type this how it seemed to me I had never heard anything more glorious and great, an orchestra weaving more wonderful music behind the human voice.

As I type this now, it is one of the very few moments to make me at least consider it, if some dark angel tempted me with the chance to live my life again.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why on earth would anyone not like the musical La La Land?

I emailed a friend enthusiastically recommending the movie La La Land. She replied:
Sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I didn't like it and found it trivial. I'm really surprised how much you enjoyed it but there you go. Seems to me, if you like opera as much as we do, you can't like or appreciate musicals 'cos I've yet to find one I like apart from West Side Story! xxx
To which I replied:

Oh dear, I'm sorry you didn't like it, but then I didn't know you didn't like musicals - I naturally thought you did like them when you said you were going to see it or I would have told you on no account go. You couldn't possibly like La La Land if you don't like musicals, because what are called 'musicals' are/were a very particular Hollywood genre and this is the first in many years to take it on again - as you know - to huge acclaim.
This can only bore you, I fear, but the 'Hollywood musical' is essentially a movie form - not, that is to say, a Broadway show transferred to film like Show Boat, say, Carousel, Oklahoma! My Fair Lady or even the blockbuster The Sound of Music, none of which I would personally call a proper Hollywood musical. 
The genuine (or, in fact, highly stylized) article is a frothy confection, best described as 'romantic', no more weighty than a chocolate eclair, that features songs and dance in circumstances and locations that suspend reality - living rooms, streets, rooftops, down by the river (the Seine, not the Potomac and definitely not the Thames)  - all to a fairy tale storyline ('plot' would be far too heavy a word) of boy-meets-girl, boy-girl-have-mild-misunderstanding, boy-girl-have-happy-ending ... generally to a reprise of the main number/love song.
Triviality cannot be a criticism of a Hollywood musical, therefore, because it is a requirement of it. It is pure escapist entertainment. 
The form flourished in the '40s, early '50s - titles like Cover Girl, Anchors Aweigh, Three Little Words, Two Weeks with Love, Rich, Young and Pretty, and reached its apotheosis, in the opinion of many, with Singin' in the Rain.
West Side Story, playing in Jo'burg now as I write, contains some very fine music and was a monumental success, but it was never a Hollywood musical as defined. Those films never presented a drama, but only beautiful and splendidly talented people who played themselves and were only intended to do so: Rita Hayworth, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Frank Sinatra and, the most emblematic, Gene Kelly. 
La La Land is unmistakably in this tradition, with many allusions and nostalgic references to it. Among other things, it therefore swept me back to my teens when a school friend Mike was really the one who introduced me to a lighthearted movie form that has given me hours of pleasure, pretty girls to fall in love with, and happy memories all my life.  But, absolutely unlike opera though it is, absolutely like opera, you either love it or you don't.
I could go on more about this and about music if I don't stop right now. Perhaps I should have been there to hold your hand like they do in the movie. That might have made all the difference. xxxx
To which she replied: 
Just read a review by Mariella Frostrup and thought I'd quote it here:

"The multi-Bafta-nominated musical La La Land looks pretty enough, but this one-tune wonder with a couple of derivative dance numbers set in the world of make-believe they call Hollywood has to be one of the most banal movies of recent decades. If this forgettable musical scoops more awards then any other film in history it will only confirm our current desperation to escape the precarious real world..."

I have to say I agree with her every word but know you don't!
Love from dark and very cold GB xxx

To which I replied:

What interests me with regard to our little disagreement - if, that is, you remember bits and pieces of the things I've written - is not the difference of opinion, which we can expect, but the causes of differences over the mystery of music. Is its appeal and our reaction to it inborn? Are our likes and dislikes something we've learned? 
I believe it is a bit of both but, if that's certain, the proportions still remain an utter mystery. All my life I've met people who "don't like Wagner", whereas those who do are often fanatical in their devotion. One interviewee on Desert Island Discs raised much criticism and considerable mirth by taking with him eight Wagner pieces, I remember. In the film Hawking, our genius had an ongoing disagreement with his girl friend over whether Wagner or Brahms was to be preferred. What is this? Is it a question of the way our brains or ears are constructed, or our 'souls'? What about those who don't like music at all, or are tone deaf or, most strangely, are tone deaf and able to tell they are?
People like Mariella Frostrup go to The Merry Widow, we must imagine, and may well be stirred to write a dusty article afterwards because it lacks the metaphysical profundities of Tristan and Isolde, or spurn Die Fledermaus and Daughter of the Regiment for wanting the gravitas of the Messiah. Unjust though that appears to be, one must still account for why she (and you, in the case of La La Land!) can't stand certain types of music or musical entertainment. The answer cannot lie in the 'facts', for La La Land itself is the musical entertainment it is for all of us, delightful to some and not others - like La Boheme, which even Mariella, I trust, would not dare call banal make-believe.
It could be 'upbringing' then, environment and accident. I have acquired a broad taste in music propped with a tolerance - at least, that is what I like to think it is - for many varied performers. I love Johnny Mathis singing Begin the Beguine and Barbra Streisand singing Melancholy Baby, George Shearing and Hoagy Carmichael (he was mentioned in the film, along with many other heroes who have passed on, remember? Sebastian kept a stool he had sat on.)

But don't ask me to like that ghastly rock or heavy metal that seems to entertain millions, or ever to enjoy what is supposed to be the most popular pop song ever written, boring Yesterday. There are limits, dammit. xxx

To which she replied:

What an interesting email, Paul! You certainly have a gift for writing and putting things into context. However, it doesn't make me like musicals any more although I understand now what it's all about! xxx

I took that, gratefully, as a dead heat.