Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Debate Continues over Opera "Ripped from the Headlines"

I was not particularly surprised to find, through Google Analytics, that my “Existential questions about opera and Anna Nicole Smith” piece for rewarded me with an uptick in page views.  My guess is that there are still quite a few Google Alerts out there for Anna Nicole’s name, and the technology just happened to be doing its job on my behalf.  I even wonder whether or not the two comments, both of which had to do with why the sleazy nature of this woman’s character made her totally unfit for opera, came from readers who had set up Google Alerts explicitly to fulminate over the subject.

As I made clear in an earlier piece on, I have no strong feelings about Smith one way or the other;  and I suspect that, were I fortunate enough to be at Covent Garden for the world premiere of the Anna Nicole opera, this would be to my advantage.  The sorts of personal feelings that surfaced in those comments would not influence my experience of either the music or the staging, whether it involves the invention of score and libretto or the execution of those inventions through performance.  However, the authors of those comments seem to have missed the point I had been trying to make, which had to do with whether or not John Adams’ Nixon in China (which received its first performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday night) had grounds for comparison with Anna Nicole.

As I see it, the arguments I made about Adams’ opera can address those comments I received about Smith herself.  This also has to do with my conclusion that Nixon in China is less an opera and more a meditative oratorio (like a setting of the Passion), where the primary topic of meditation is the abuse of power.  From this point of view, at least four of the characters are responsible for such abuses at a level that is, at best, reprehensible.  Those characters are Richard Nixon himself, Mao Tse-tung, Henry Kissinger, and Chiang Ch’ing;  and my personal feelings towards these individuals definitely color my experience of Adams’ opera, for better or for worse (mostly, I am afraid, the latter).

I suppose the important conclusion is that any opera that is “ripped from the headlines” takes on a great risk.  This is the risk that most of the people in the audience will be paying more attention to the headlines than the opera.  This puts Anna Nicole at an advantage.  Unlike Nixon, she was never more than a sideshow for American journalists and probably not even that much for British tabloids.  Thus, for Covent Garden audiences, there is no reason that the subject matter should be any more (or less) distasteful than that of Dmitri Shostakovich's 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  (I give this example because Eva-Maria Westbroek, who will be singing the role of Smith herself, has also performed the title role in the Shostakovich opera.)  My guess (or at least hope) is that, when (note that I do not say “if”) this opera receives its American premiere, its audiences, regardless of the city of the performance, will be about as neutral as the Covent Garden set.

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