Thursday, October 18, 2012

Opera Audiences, Then and Now

Last month I wrote a post entitled “Putting the Claque in its Proper Perspective,” based on my experiences in reading William L. Crosten’s book, French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business. I had previously thought of the claque as a publicity engine, designed to shape the opinions of audiences that could not think for themselves. I was a bit surprised to discover that the claque also provided a model for proper decorum. This was basically a coy reminder that the manners of the market, so to speak, were not necessarily those of the opera house or any other venue for music where performance was part of the experience. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised, since much of Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier is about the nature of decorum in the face of the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Ultimately, however, Crosten’s primary message was that the success of opera as a business had a lot to do with telling people what to think. This often involved the delicate matter of providing content consistent with their expectations and then shaping their opinions around that content. Thus, in many respects, this paragraph from the final chapter is a representative take-away from the entire book:
To a bourgeois society that had lost all contact with the past glories of the French lyric theater and that had shown itself singularly unable to appreciate the finely­modeled, individualistic style of a Mozart or of a Rossini at his best, grand opera of 1830 came as a revelation. Seasoning originality with compromise, it spoke to its auditors in a language they could understand. While the older aristocracy took its patronage to the Théâtre-ltalien, the bourgeoisie stormed the doors of the Académie Royale de Musique, for there they found an art made in their own image—an art that was at once revolutionary and reassuring, that extended one hand towards Romanticism as it held fast to conventionality with the other. Grand opera's luxury, size, and complete seriousness gave it an appearance of greatness which was both stimulating and flattering to its audience; yet there was always enough commonness in its expression to keep it easily accessible. Tied to no program, either classic or romantic, it was in all essentials a popular art keyed to the tempo and taste of its day.
This state of affairs may be a bit harsh for contemporary audiences, whose appreciation of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gioacchino Rossini is probably at least a bit more refined than that of the Parisian bourgeois of 1830; but I am not sure it is that far off the mark. While I have any number of good things to say about Bart Sher’s production of The Barber of Seville for the Met, I still have to admit that it prioritizes spectacle as the primary vehicle for making the music palatable. If Rossini needs that kind of assistance in achieving “the appearance of greatness,” then we can imagine how Met audiences must feel these days when Mozart is on the bill.

Claques did not exist over here during my years of learning to be an informed member of the audience. Now, with everyone glued to their smartphones, they no longer need to exist as they did in 1830 Paris. You may be instructed to turn off your smart phone during the performance, but during intermission you can tweet all you want and follow others doing the same. Opinions are still being shaped; only the medium has changed.

Needless to say, this is a bit demoralizing to those of us old-fashioned enough to believe that opinions should be informed on the basis of more than a tweet. Still, I suspect that those of us who prefer the well-wrought description to the summary judgment, however well-honed it may be by rhetoric, have always been in the minority. Thus, we really have not come particularly far since 1830, even to the point that business interests still trump aesthetic ones and are likely to continue to do so for some time to come.

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