20 January 2017

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Bridging the genre gap—what Madama Butterfly can learn from Mrs. Brown

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Sixties Soul, Still Going Strong - PETER NOONE of Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone [Photo by the author - Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, San Antonio, Texas; 20 March 2016]Sixties Soul still going strong: Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone in performance in the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, San Antonio, Texas, on 20 March 2016
[Photo by the author]

There is an oft-cited quip suggesting that, if you can remember the 1960s, you were not there. Now, a half-century after Motown drove across the continent and the British Invasion reclaimed the colonies, there are less-jovial connotations to that quaint maxim. Illness and injury are continually decimating both the memories and the mortalities of those who witnessed and participated in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and too many of those who, like me, were born in the less-interesting decades that followed have never queried the sources of musical munificence in their own homes about the sounds and experiences that defined an era. If our grandparents, the courageous women and men who selflessly abandoned their everyday lives and battled not for the status quo but for preservation of the freedom for there to be a status quo, were the Greatest Generation, then our parents, the children of the turbulent but tremendously tuneful Sixties, are surely the Grooviest Generation. The photos of their haute couture and piled-high coiffures amuse us now, but follow George Jackson’s and Bob Seger’s advice, take any of those old records off the shelf, and there arises from the scratch of stylus on vinyl an atmosphere shaped by far more than words and lyrics. Better still, return to the source: hear an artist like Peter Noone, still playing in excess of 130 gigs each year with undimmed enthusiasm and professionalism, and the subtle and substantial changes in music of all genres are plainly, painfully apparent. Ours is a brave new world that has lost both its bravery and its novelty, especially in the exalted realm of Classical Music. There are ears that will ever respond more readily to Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII than to Herman’s Hermits’ ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am,’ but there are many questions that gnaw at the core of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century that might find no better answers than those proposed by still-swinging Sixties showmanship.

That this undoubtedly seems an unlikely theme for Voix des Arts necessitates a brief stint in the confessional. I principally write about Classical Music because this is my comfort zone. During my youth in the last millennium, I studied violin [no Arthur Grumiaux, to be sure], piano [no Artur Schnabel], and voice [no Caruso, Gigli, or even Poggi]. Regardless of whether I seriously considered a career as a professional musician, it is impossible to ascertain whether I possessed less ambition or talent. Despite having studied it in some depth, I love music. Loving music, I lead a double life, my Clark Kent guise boring the Classically-inclined public with my Tolstoy-length, excessively-detailed reviews by day and then, by night, donning my cape—a glow stick, actually—and transforming into a freeway-burning follower of Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone. [There comes a time, fellow travelers, when what one claims to be one’s parents predilections should and must be acknowledged as one’s own.] With today’s incarnation of the Hermits, comprised of master musicians Vance Brescia, Dave Ferrara, Rich Spina, and Billy Sullivan, Noone tours in the United States and abroad, appearing in as many different kinds of venues as there are towns to build them. Friday evening might find me critiquing a performance of Carmen; Saturday evening, singing along with ‘Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.’ Rather than complicating my focus on the former, I find that the latter markedly sharpens my perspectives on all music.

I have during my time in the trenches met a few ‘serious’ singers, and, rightly or [mostly] wrongly, have even considered a few among them friends. For me, opera is life—not a means of making a living but life itself. I try to convey this in my writing and to apply this passion to my analyses of performances and recordings. Whether the work at hand is a Bach partita, a Bellini opera, a Brahms symphony, or a Bacharach song, a musician’s endeavor deserves attention from the critic at least as great as the effort expended in the performance. A performance of two hours’ duration, prepared over many more hours, seldom merits being assessed—or, more accurately, dismissed—in a single sentence, and, in those cases in which this is warranted, there is no complaint that cannot be stated civilly. My credo, unimpeded by editorial limitations, is profoundly simple: be thorough, honest, and courteous; and, if there is nothing positive to be said, say nothing at all. Complementing my great appreciation for his music and his unwavering commitment to making it at the highest level is my recognition of Noone’s embodiment of the critical tenets of my philosophy. He falls ill, experiences disappointments and losses, has aches and pains, and faces days when the voice wants rest, but audiences who discern this in his performances are far more perceptive than I. There are no cancellations, no complaints, and no excuses: the priority is the quality of the ticket buyer’s experience, not cosseting the artist’s ego.

As an opera lover [barely] under the age of forty, I am fascinated and admittedly mystified by tales of opera-going of generations past. Reflecting on the passing of Roberta Peters, a gracious lady rightly acclaimed as one of America’s most gifted and giving singers, I find it almost impossible in the context of today’s Classical Music environment to fathom an era in which singers like Peters, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Renata Tebaldi received their fans like friends. In a classic case of diving in at the deep end, my first exposure to professionally-produced opera was the Franco Zeffirelli production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, a 1997 performance with Denyce Graves in the title role and Plácido Domingo as Don José. To her credit, Graves was a throwback to the divas of bygone days, amiably holding court with her admirers at the stage door. In this aspect of the operatic experience, the going has for the most part been downhill from that auspicious start.

Many keystrokes are expended in discussions of the struggles that opera and Classical Music face, especially in the United States. With funding imperiled on virtually every front, financing opera is a challenge of epic proportions, one that companies must meet with intelligence and innovation. Fundraising is a necessity, but it is also a significant current in the tsunamis of arrogance and elitism that have drowned opera in America in recent seasons. Yes, opera has almost always been and will likely always be perceived as an elitist art form, not without justification, but the language and stylistic barriers that frighten potential new audiences are made still more off-putting by the disconnect between stage and seats. The interaction that caused a boy from North Carolina to feel that Denyce Graves cared about whether he enjoyed her performance is now so often lacking. Graves is as charismatic a lady in the MET parking garage as she is on the MET stage, but many of today’s younger singers are also kind, insightful, approachable people—and there, dear readers, is the rub. Of what use is approachability when one can never be approached?

To be sure, ours is a world unlike the one inhabited by Sutherland and Tebaldi; unlike even the one in which I first attended a performance at the MET, for that matter. Security is a paramount concern. Artists’ safety is an inviolable right, but it is not often than an enthusiastic child is denied the opportunity to greet an idolized performer after a show because of security concerns. No, there is a private reception for donors, an invited-guests-only function, some sort of ‘Average Folks are not welcome’ event that adds another layer of bricks to the wall separating Art from Public. This is understandable and unavoidable but undeniably disheartening. I have often wondered whether I would have been so keen to return to the opera had Denyce Graves not taken five minutes from her life—five minutes to which my ticket emphatically did not entitle me—to say, ‘Thanks for coming to the show, kid. I’m glad that you enjoyed it and proud to have been part of your first night at the opera.’ For me, the obsession was already growing, but what about the child who now has no opportunity to utter awe-induced nonsense to the Figaro, Papageno, or Rodolfo who has won her heart?

When Peter Noone performs, it is the Herman persona that sent teeming crowds into frenzies in the 1960s who takes the stage. When he greets newly-won and decades-loyal fans in post-performance autograph lines that sometimes seem interminable, it is an amalgamation of Herman and Peter Noone who remembers names, inquires about absent spouses and children, and carries on witty banter worthy of Benny Hill. There of course are private receptions, backstage meetings for a fortunate few, and closed-door concessions to the pockets that pay venues’ bills, but Noone’s dedication to converting every creature in a seat into a fan is why, fifty years after he charmed Ed Sullivan and the youth of America, I remember as many Herman’s Hermits lyrics as da Ponte and Hofmannsthal libretti. Artistic responsibility is a two-way street. Perhaps I was not the most eager of attendees the first time that I heard Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone in concert, but I immediately sensed the abiding cognizance of responsibility for my enjoyment that Noone and the musicians with whom he surrounded himself exuded. I therefore felt a similar responsibility to switch off my prejudices and let the music minister to me on its own terms. I have felt that in the opera house, too, but the toil is greater. How many potential opera lovers and benefactors never deem it worth the effort to make the kinds of connections that open minds, hearts, and checkbooks?

However greatly we have come to rely upon social media and technology for communication, there is so much more to meaningfully enjoying, promoting, and supporting art than liking Facebook pages and following Twitter accounts. Art is an exchange, a sharing of ideas from which no one can be excluded if art is to remain viable. That opera has become a commodity that is bought and sold on a closed but visible market is abundantly apparent. Such is progress, and, if managed properly, opera and its future can benefit from it. No one would admit more quickly than Noone that singing ‘Leaning on the Lamp Post’ is not as strenuous an undertaking as performing Isolde’s Liebestod, but no one is more aware than Noone that selling ‘Leaning on the Lamp Post’ is as vital to the success of a Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone as the emotional and musical power of a soprano’s Liebestod is to the effectiveness of a performance of Tristan und Isolde. In an unpoetically commercial sense, the essence of artistry is the sales pitch. As pivotal in the effort to preserve opera as in that to keep music from the 1960s playing is convincing consumers to buy something that they know that they do not need.

What can Madama Butterfly learn from Mrs. Brown? One might think that the view from high atop the hill overlooking Nagasaki’s harbor is ideal for peering over the horizon into the future of opera, but that view is too often obstructed by reflections of the dizzying misfortunes to which opera in the Twenty-First Century, like Cio-Cio San, is susceptible. Still, Herman would remind us that ‘it ain’t no good to pine.’ I fear for the survival of opera not because of the quality or validity of the music or the aptitude of young singers but because the pressures of sustaining a career in too many instances no longer allow singers to be the kind of crusaders for opera that Peters, Sutherland, and Tebaldi were, garnering as much veneration after the curtain fell as when on stage. It is upon veneration of singers and singing that the perseverance of opera depends. Opera could learn much from Peter Noone about the elusive art of maintaining uncompromising seriousness in one’s artistry without forgetting that the surest method of earning a listener’s respect is to sincerely and palpably reciprocate it.