Once is not enough

We know that technology is changing rapidly.  Can you imagine that human perception would somehow remain unchanged, or is it more likely that with all the new platforms, applications, and media, that our brains might work in new ways?

Such questions are on my mind because…

1)      I was watching the American conventions on television (last week was the GOP, this week it’s the Democrats’ turn).  It’s been at least a half-century that we’ve been speculating about the impact of media on the electoral process.  The results of US Presidential election in 1960 were among the closest in history, likely influenced by the televised debates.  Since that time we’ve seen increasingly sophisticated forms of persuasion, from the use of attack ads to the recent mobilization of social media.

2)      September is the traditional back-to-school month, a time to reflect on education and the educated.  The nature of intelligence seems to be changing, with new skill-sets emerging from our recreation.

3)      September means TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), as film-goers’ thoughts turn to cinema.  The new technologies have changed the ways films can be made, but also changing the nature of the filmgoer.

When the sensibility of the circus was confined to a different place & culture to the mentality of academic scholarship –to name two usually distinct discourses segregated by genuine boundaries—there was no problem.  You might occasionally see circus acts on Ed Sullivan or on a street corner, but never at a conference or in a journal; and nobody expects to hear a conference paper at the circus.

Modern media have changed that, probably forever.  While I can find PBS or some other educational channel on my television, offering a patient and thorough analysis of news, a click of the remote takes me to music, sports, or a host of other sorts of instant gratification, requiring far less time to unfold. The juxtaposition of wildly divergent media is far more extreme on other platforms such as your iphone or PC.

Or maybe the changes we seem to see in humans are a matter of taste.  Whether we’re talking about a political speech, a lesson in a classroom, or the cinema, communicators have been told repeatedly that humans have a shorter attention span than in former times.  It may not even be true, but just a low estimation of human behaviour that encourages our audiences to sink to the lowest level, a cowardly refusal to challenge the listener.

No wonder that all discourses seem to be different.

When I go see an opera nowadays, it’s a rare director who allows the overture to play with the curtain down, and no visuals added: trusting the musical text to do its job.  No, the usual practice is to add something, as if the audience might pull out their iphones and start tweeting their bored displeasure.  While I am open to adventurous direction –and embrace the wildest examples of Regietheater—I still feel estranged from these classical media.  I am intrigued to see concerts with additional visuals added (for instance, the butoh-influenced movements of Melati Suryodarmo during the Beethoven Marathon), and accept changing fashions.  But in another time, I recall being hypnotized by performers in black, a bottomless well of inspiration to be found simply in the body language of a performer in concert even before the music starts.

And some works simply don’t unfold in a single hearing.  Gustav Mahler is my touchstone for the way our ears and eyes may be educated.  Mahler only came into his own in the half-century after his death through the medium of recording.  Curiously, technology (regularly dissed for changing us into an ADHD world with no ability to concentrate) was part and parcel of a change in how we understand music.  Richard Wagner’s Ring operas (once among the most popular operas in the world, if you go back a century) are again being produced more and more in the last decade, likely because of such influences as

  • The saturation of the market with many recorded audio versions
  • DVDs capturing different directorial interpretations
  • Social media to generate buzz for particular directors, productions & opera houses

Philosopher & Freudian Slavoj Žižek

For much of the past century it’s been a truism that opera is dead.  Slavoj Žižek– a Freudian critic writing in Opera’s Second Death—alleged that opera had been killed by Freud. How?  Opera had been our therapy, our place to go to cry in the dark, and now, said Žižek, western culture uses a shrink instead.

I don’t buy it.  If opera was killed –and I don’t think it was—there’s a smoking gun.  The last opera to enter the ranks of the most popular was Puccini’s Turandot in 1926.  Coincidentally, talkies date from 1927.  Since that time?  One can look to Prokofiev’s operas, but must also remember his scores to Alexander Nyevsky or Lieutenant Kijé.  Bernard Herrmann set Wuthering Heights, but does one need to even bother to ask who’s heard it, compared to those who might have heard the scores to Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Psycho, or Taxi Driver?

Oh sure, I can hear you say.  Opera isn’t the same as film.  Perhaps not.  But what is the real difference?

  • That in film, the composer is cut down to size (as one of several post-production collaborators held to firm deadline), whereas in opera –to paraphrase Kerman—“the composer is the dramatist” (and therefore the deal-breaker).
  • That in film, the composer makes a ton of money, whereas in opera, a composer might make money but needs another job, perhaps at a university or working in film & TV.
  • That in film (at least the commercial sort of film), the audience usually expect the work to be intelligible in a single viewing, whereas opera is more demanding.

Remembering the Mahler-Wagner dynamic I spoke of above –where some works require multiple hearings to really be understood and find their true audience of devotees and maniacal fans—new opera is in a difficult place.  But it’s been in this difficult place for a long time, perhaps its entire history.  In 1800 –when there was no alternative, and when a composer such as Rossini could pump out an opera in 3 weeks—this was a viable model for a commercial money-maker; note too that Rossini’s operas were eminently intelligible.  By 1900 this was still possible, even though composers were becoming increasingly remote from their public, whether in the complexities of their sonic world or their stories.  And so I believe opera was later in competition with film, just as it had previously had to compete with other public entertainments throughout its history.

Nowadays?  “Opera” normally means something rarefied, complex, difficult.  Opera could also include something written for immediate consumption, but considering the expense & the challenges of production (for one tiny example, getting a cast of singers to learn all the parts), it rarely works that way.

Singer Fides Krucker

Fides Krucker, who appears in Julie Sits Waiting, beginning Sept 14th

Those devoted to the medium include composers & performers willing to invest the time even if there is no promise of a future production.  My recent 10 Questions for Fides Krucker brought me into contact with someone committed to the medium of opera and theatre. From a commercial standpoint, it’s almost incomprehensible to picture opening a factory with an assembly line to pump out a single widget, and then close the factory. Clearly artists like Krucker aren’t motivated by money, but are as devoted to voice and theatre as if this were their religion.

I fervently believe we’re talking about changing taste not actual changes in cognition.  Media and technology are supposedly the problem (for the alleged change in our collective attention span) but also sometimes offer solutions (ie in helping Mahler & Wagner find their audience).  Can there also be a solution for the composer of the new opera?

I think for example of the way Justin Bieber or Valentina Lisitsa invented themselves on youtube.  Could someone do the same thing with an opera?

In any case I think it’s premature to suggest that opera is dead, too soon to dismiss technology as bad for culture.  For every Bieber there’s a Lisitsa.

We’ll see.

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