McNally's nights at the opera
The three Terrence McNally plays that the Kennedy Center recently presented under the heading “Nights at the Opera” raised some interesting questions about classical music’s relationship to the rest of what we, for lack of a better word, term “culture.” I saw “Golden Age” and “The Lisbon Traviata,” the two plays I hadn’t seen yet (“Master Class” being the third) and was left, beyond the sense of a guilty pleasure experienced, with a sense of wistfulness at how odd, how very distant opera seems from the real world.
This surely wasn’t McNally’s intention: each of the plays is in its own way a love letter to opera. And one might think of them as doing a kind of missionary work in bringing opera to theater audiences who aren’t normally exposed to it. (Tangent: I’d love to know how many WNO subscribers went to “Nights at the Opera,” and how many of the play-goers are also regular opera-goers. My guess is that there would have been a lot more overlap forty years ago than there is now.)
(read more after the jump)
McNally certainly wants to make it all accessible, but he tends to do this with a steady stream of overeager jabs of the elbow: in “Golden Age,” set backstage during the premiere of Bellini’s “I Puritani” in 1835, the gags included a singer who kept stuffing his pants with fruit to create a suitably impressive bulge. The intended point seemed to be that it was all wacky and wild and wonderful. Unfortunately, rather than giving much new insight into opera, the play reinforced old stereotypes -- those dueling sopranos! -- and a hoary, romantic vision of an artist’s single-mindedness, genius, and human deficiencies. (At one point, the composer’s wish to listen to his own music rather than the outpourings of one of the characters -- who included the historical sopranos Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta -- was presented as a sign of his self-absorption; in real life, the composer would probably be listening even more keenly.)
Many classical music lovers do what McNally has done: emphasize the stereotypes of the field in order to bring it across to others who have no idea how to approach this strange beast. This has the effect of pushing away exactly what they want to bring closer. Conveying the idea, as McNally does, that opera is an elevated farce may work for laughs, or even for grand-guignol tragedy (the end of “The Lisbon Traviata,” when opera invades life). But I’m not sure it works to make people actually more interested in the form; rather, it’s serving the form up for laughs at its own expense, rather like someone making fun of her partner at a dinner party for the amusement of the assembled company, but not of the partner in question.
I’m curious how the plays work for people who know nothing about opera at all. For me, it struck a sour note that it was so obviously play-acted. The actors in “The Lisbon Traviata” didn’t know the correct Italian pronunciation of some words that true opera buffs would never miss (like “Pesaro,” Rossini’s home town) or the actual tunes of the opera arias they tried to sing -- small details, to be sure, but ones that made the characterizations more campy for me than revelatory. And then there was the question of technique: the actors’ declamation in “Golden Age,” rapid and unsupported and hard to understand, might have benefited from more classical training. Those may sound like insider quibbles, but I believe they're exactly the opposite. I think that classical-music insiders tend to overlook or excuse the kinds of small lapses that put off non-aficionados (like the shoddy-looking costumes in a small-time "Carmen"). I think the more attention you pay to detail, and the realer you make something, the more likely you are to reach people who aren't already captivated by the charm of your premise.
McNally did put some insider-only touches in both plays as well (I wonder if the final quote from “Carmen” in “The Lisbon Traviata” was meant to separate the opera buffs, who couldn’t help but recognize it, from the drama critics, who were less likely to note its provenance). There’s no question that he himself has a genuine love of opera. After seeing “Golden Age,” I found myself on a “Puritani” kick for a couple of days (“Credeasi, misera” became a new earworm). Part of what drove me to it was the fact that I couldn’t actually hear more than snippets of the opera during the play: in fact, a work written to highlight the opera turned it, literally, into background music.
Any contrasting thoughts on the McNally plays? Or -- throwing open the door -- nominations for books, movies, or plays that have effectively depicted the realities of classical music or opera?
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