Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Critique of Judging New Opera

I found it interesting to review Damian Fowler’s book American Impresario: David Gockley’s Life in Opera almost exactly one year after Matthew Shilvock took up the torch from Gockley as General Director of the San Francisco Opera. While there was much to enjoy in this book (including the sumptuous photographs), I have to say that it was Gockley’s own words, compiled in a “Finale” section entitled “Gockley on the Future of American Opera,” that set my own “little grey cells” buzzing. I enjoyed the extent to which these “text clips” could be frank and open without giving the sense that they were deliberately trying to provoke.

However, even if we set aside provocation, there are some passages that deserve to be held open to question. My guess is that different readers will feel different ways about which passages these are. For my part, I would like to dwell on just one of them:
And we must remember that critics have too often misjudged a work at its premiere, witness A Quiet Place and Nixon in China.
Now, without trying to speak for or against any of my colleagues, I feel it necessary to point out that, in many ways, a fully-staged opera is a bit like the elephant in that old joke about three blind men trying to describe it. Given my own predispositions, I almost always begin by grabbing that elephant by the music, trying the best I can to sort out how much of my listening has to do with the composer and how much has to do with how the music is being performed. Others prefer to grab the elephant by the libretto, approaching the music in the role it plays in telling the story. Then, of course, there are those who grab the elephant by the stage director, who sometimes has his/her own priorities in how to approach that story or the music through which the story is told.

However, what those of us who write try to do goes far beyond description. As Gockley rightfully observed, we need to draw upon description in the service of judgment. This is no easy matter.

Those whose knowledge of Immanuel Kant goes beyond any handy “bluffer’s guide” probably know that he wrote three major works that he called “critiques.” The last of these is the Critique of the Power of Judgment, and it was preceded by the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. These, of course, parallel the so-called “transcendentals” of the beautiful (judgment), the true (pure reason), and the good (practical reason). Furthermore, each is situated in what Jürgen Habermas chose to call a separate “world,” truth in the objective world, beauty in the subjective world, and goodness in the social world. Lest this all feel like an unnecessary sideshow, I should observe that I was first drawn to read the Critique of the Power of Judgment when I found out that the first half of the book was devoted entirely to aesthetics.

This is what takes us back to the Gockley sentence quoted above. Whether or not we admit it, those of us who exercise that “power of judgment” in our writing will probably agree that judgment is context-dependent; and we will probably agree with Kant that our own subjectivity is part of that context. Where things get tricky, however, is that, even if we know that there is a context, we are not always positioned to specify just what the context is. One reason for this paradox is that, for better or worse, each of us engaged in the act of writing cannot avoid bringing our own personal history into that context.

This is not meant to serve as an excuse when someone (such as Gockley) accuses one of us of “misjudgment.” Rather, the very complexity upon which judgment is contingent should affirm that, at least where aesthetic matters are concerned, there is no “misjudgment.” There is the exercise of judgment, and there is the possibility for argumentation when different conclusions of judgment disagree. However, because we are doing what we do in the subjective world, there is no exercise of “pure reason” that will unfailingly resolve the argumentation one way or the other. All there is is the inevitable premise that each of us has a point of view and some of us are better at appreciating another point of view than others are.

None of these thoughts are likely to be of much use in the real world. The general director of a performing arts organization has to reconcile fiscal solvency with the fact that the audience side of any performance space is going to be filled with a wide diversity of “powers of judgment.” At the end of the day it all comes down to donations and subscriptions; and, now that the Internet has created a culture in which we expect everything to be free, the game that the general director must play is getting harder and harder to win.

These days I am thankful simply for having capacities to both have and express opinions. However, those opinions are cultivated in a field of experiences, so to speak. Given prevailing economic and social conditions, I have no idea how long that field will remain fertile. All I can do is hope for the best!

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