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The Freedom of Music: Opera ‘n’ Roll

February 27th, 2011
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freedom-of-music-header

One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Opera gets a bad name in modern western culture. It’s where guys have to go to appease their wives, the penitence demanded before they can go “to the big game.” It is Carmen’s Habanera that is playing when a sitcom camera enters a gay characters living room. Last year there was a Juicy Fruit gum commercial in which a bathing suit clad doofus was at an opera. On stage was a great cow of a woman with a Viking hat on her head caterwauling painfully.sidebar-7It’s a bad, and unfair, rap. Opera is, at it’s finest, some of the most sublime music ever crafted, pieced together into a story and presented in dramatic form.

Last week the Royal Opera in London premiered a new opera: Anna Nicole: The Party Always Ends is a presentation of the life, and death, of Anna Nicole Smith in song. Starring soprano Eva-Marie Westbrook as Anna Nicole, the opera features Westbrook in oversized prosthetic breasts – back to the great cow theme – and simulating oral sex in a strip club. It all seems really quite sordid, and out of tune with the seriousness that opera is supposed to have.

Except opera never was meant to be deadly serious. It is music, entertainment, and was always treated as such before the 20th century. In the Italian tradition, rich patrons would take a picnic and entertain their friends at a box at the opera rather than feed them at home because it was cheaper. They would yell at the stage, boo missed notes and sing along. None of the hushed solemnity that people demand at performances now.

Opera’s themes have always been a bit sordid. The first operas recreated the Greek tragedies that were considered important cultural touchstones, but were being lost. Themes of lust and love, sex and money, life and death run through the opera repertoire. Considered from a greater distance than we are able to master, a Anna Nicole Smith is a classic operatic heroine

The reviews of Anna Nicole seem to miss this point. They have been generally positive about the music, in some cases raving. They have universally been very positive about Eva-Marie Westbrook, calling her a tour de force (Reuters), excellent (Sky News), first rate (theguardian) and splendid (ABC).

Then there’s that jazz trio during the strip club scene. The bass player looks familiar somehow… it’s… um… wait a minute that’s John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin.

But what’s a jazz trio doing in an opera? some critics seriously sniff. It’s opera, stuffy, fussy and boisterous, not some laid back, breathless singer purring Summertime at the Iradium Jazz Club.

What people don’t realize is, Gershwin himself once wrote an opera. Wanting to be taken more seriously, and wanting to try his hand at a musical format he admired, he tried his hand at opera. He wrote a pretty good one too, Porgy and Bess, which is recognized by opera buffs as one of the 20th centuries, and Americas best operas.

Based in the south, and calling for a cast of African Americans, Porgy and Bess has been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, broadcast on their famous Saturday Afternoon at the Opera broadcasts and is “regularly performed internationally.” The most well-known piece from Porgy and Bess? Summertime.

That’s right, the breathless singer at The Iradium is singing an opera standard, as she also is when she breaks into Mack the Knife, by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht from The Threepenny Opera – for that matter, when the Doors broke into The Alabama Song (“show me the way to the next whisky bar…”), they were singing a Weill and Brecht song, from the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany.

And opera is not, never has been, one type of music. The aforementioned Habanera from Carmen is a Cuban style piece (Habanera is a Cuban dance), in a French opera, sung in Italian with a setting in Spain. Really I think there’s enough flexibility in the genre to handle one scene in which a Jazz trio – featuring one of rocks best bassists – performs a piece.

No what galls the reviewers is that the creators of this opera dare take on a modern tragedy, instead of a classic one. Something like Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, a story of a hunchbacked court jester (Rigoletto), who hires a killer to kill his master, the promiscuous Duke. Rigoletto’s daughter, unknown to him, is in love with The Duke. The killer unwittingly kills Rigoletto’s daughter, instead of the Duke. The first song in Rigoletto, Questa o quella per me pari sono (this one or that one, it’s all the same to me), is a tribute to women and promiscuity.

So no, Anna Nicole is not unsuitable material, even if it is a bit tame by operas standards.


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