Pageants of Power

Whenever a new pair of presenters come out onto the stage at the Academy Awards, the pit band begins to play something suitable.

Nobody does that when I walk into a room.

I was thinking about this after reading some negative commentary –again—about the COC’s recent production of La Clemenza di Tito.  It closed Friday night, a production I loved without reservation, even if that view is not one shared by some people.  There was a recent piece in a newspaper about this production (and the COC Tristan) claiming that opera is “moribund”.

I need to be careful I don’t lose my way, distracted by my own passion for this subject.  There are several ways in which one can read my headline, about pageants of power, and I hope I can make them all work.

I begin this in hopes of exploring some of my favourite music while putting it into a meaningful context.  And while I am at it, I will do just as the newspaper has done, namely to say something controversial and upsetting to blatantly attract attention to myself.

When a reviewer makes a strong statement I believe there are usually two conversations going on, that are inter-connected.

  • The reviewer is telling us about something
  • The reviewer is telling us about themselves

No, a reviewer doesn’t say “look at me, I am a musicologist and an expert.”  But in various ways, their comments about the opera or movie or The Oscars will tell you possibly something about the subject (opera, movie or The Oscars), while implicitly telling you a lot about the reviewer  as well.  You’ll quickly get a sense of their competencies (or lack thereof), in their use or avoidance of technical language, in their use of buzzwords, in their familiarity with what’s hot or not hot.  And of course, as you judge them, perhaps you’re measuring yourself, figuring out whether you, dear reader, are their peer or perhaps not (and zillions of permutations besides).

Let’s think a bit about what’s going on in an opera like Clemenza di Tito, which may resemble some of what I described in the Oscars show.  As I said, when I walk into the room nobody plays a loud fanfare or a burst of a tune that in any way can be associated with me.  Hopefully this is not surprising.

I bring this up in context with opera seria and Shakespeare.  Haha, I bet you didn’t see that one coming.  Shakespeare?  No he never saw an opera seria, given that the form wasn’t invented until quite a long time after his death.

In Shakespeare a funny word pops up from time to time.  Here it is in The Merchant of Venice


Go in, Nerissa;
Give order to my servants that they take
No note at all of our being absent hence;
Nor you, Lorenzo; Jessica, nor you.

A tucket sounds


Your husband is at hand; I hear his trumpet:
We are no tell-tales, madam; fear you not.

Aha, but what’s a tucket?  The fact that Lorenzo says “I hear his trumpet” is a clue.  In fact a director (who was telling me what to compose for that show) explained to me that a tucket is a kind of fanfare, usually associated with a person of nobility.  I remember fondly the way he demonstrated, with a kind of tah-ta-rata-TAH.

Indeed, when they say “his trumpet” it’s in more than one sense.   The trumpet is played by a servant (which is all that musicians amounted to, until quite recently), so that’s one way that it’s “his trumpet”, indeed it’s his trumpet and his trumpeter in every sense.  But the tune would be the same tune each time, as though Wagner had written him a leit-motiv.  It was indeed a signature tune.  Nota bene that at this point in time everyone used false advertising.  Unlike, say, the music Wagner gave Hagen, you’d have a tune that would portray you as a straight-shooter, a wonderful person.

And the more money you had, the more power you could signify with your entourage.  Indeed, this is the whole point of an entourage.

So I think we’ve made the connection between Shakespeare and Oscar: at least as far as those introductory tunes go.  It’s the same deal, of course, when someone wins, which is then accompanied by some music associated with the film.  The winner comes to the front of the auditorium accompanied by this tune, gets to talk for oh twenty seconds or so, before the band starts playing again. And where its previous playing signified honour, this time the music signifies ignominy: that you have to shut up and shuffle off the stage.

That is only one aspect of the Oscars that i dislike.  There are others, but again, i don’t want to veer off topic.  (For example, it’s the 10th anniversary of Michael Moore’s courageous acceptance speech, calling Bush’s bluff on WMD, which was greeted with more boos than you’d expect if you were a Jew crashing the Nuremberg rallies.  It was not Hollywood’s finest hour.)  But i digress.

So you may wonder, what does this have to do with Opera seria?  The pattern of the tucket can be seen in opera.  The power pageant that is underscored by a tatataratataTAH –or something like that—is fundamental to opera.

Let’s  compare two examples.

Consider recitativo secco also known as “dry recitative”.  Dry? Because there’s almost nothing there except the bare bones of accompaniment plus the singing of text.

This style was designed for persons of no particular class.  Note that Mozart has here taken it to use in a dialogue between a servant and a noble.  But Don Giovanni?  Haha, the man and the opera break all the rules.

And what of recitativo accompagnato? In this example you can see that it’s a mixed blessing, being both less flexible for dramatic purposes, and also easily capable of drowning out singers (especially when the conductor isn’t even looking).

In any case, the understanding at the outset—before Mozart started breaking the rules—was that the operas containing persons of high rank (aka the pompous people of opera seria) would use accompanied recitative, music signifying that you were a somebody.  And if you were a nobody (the usual classes found in comic opera), your music would underline this.

It should be obvious that loud music is something we use to tell the listener all sorts of things about power relationships.  Who has the loudest entourage?  I quoted a bit of the Mozart Requiem in a review a few days ago, that demonstrated the moment in the Judgment Day narrative when God announces his arrival.  Mozart’s God?  very civil & stylish.  Notice that when Verdi or Berlioz come to this moment (because the Requiem Mass employs more or less the same text) they seek to scare the crap out of us.  Oh and if you play this, turn the volume up.  Don’t worry, it’s just music, not the actual trumpets of Judgment telling you that the world has ended

Viva Verdi..!

And so pageants of power can take many forms.  When you get a film –and it can be Biblical Epic or sci-fi—the same dynamic applies.  Why not cite the most blatant example, the most oft-imitated of all? 

This opening was, first and foremost, a hymn to itself.  In this set of opening credits Kubrick proclaims –with the help of Richard Strauss– the power and importance of this film, and who are we to argue?  Oh and yes I do love this film.

Let’s backtrack a bit.  I decided to write this while listening awestruck to a couple of passages in La Clemenza di Tito, blatant celebrations of power.  When Mozart wrote the opera he was simply hoping to encourage the viewer to trust their sovereign, to blissfully let the power music wash over them, while they trusted in their king.  If you listen to this, pretending that the French Revolution never happened, that absolute rulers can be as excellent as the one Mozart shows in this opera, you do not fight the manifest power of this music, but are at one with the chorus singing Tito’s praises.

Mozart himself seemed ready for revolution, having already embraced Figaro a few years earlier, in a play that wasn’t so much a catalyst for change as a symptom of changes already underway.  If we can remember that this is the same man who wrote Clemenza di Tito, a man with a superbly developed sense of irony: why can’t conservative critics?

Christopher Alden managed to give us most of Tito with a lovely veneer of irony. In the final scene (which by the way, begins with the very choral procession I played above:  see the picture below), Tito and the populace enter.  The Emperor is in the process of becoming an icon, a statue, and who can blame him, when almost everyone onstage has at one point or other betrayed him?

  • Sesto (sought to kill him)?
  • Vitellia (asked Sesto to do it)?
  • Servilia (turned down his marriage proposal)?
  • Annio (pleaded for Sesto, and is the reason Servilia turned Tito down)?

If opera companies actually presented operas exactly as they were written centuries ago, as though the stage were some sort of museum?  Then indeed opera would be less than moribund.  It would be dead.

Recalling my assertion –that reviews are always about two things, namely the topic being reviewed and the reviewer—there’s a lot of irony in a newspaper pointing its finger at an institution and saying “you’re moribund”.  Newspapers are themselves being tested for signs of life.  Was the provocative headline meant to proclaim that an art-form was in trouble, or perhaps an attempt to signal that the newspapers weren’t irrelevant…?  Or not dead yet…?

Michael Schade as Tito (standing), and the chorus in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La clemenza di Tito, 2013. director Christopher Alden (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Michael Schade as Tito (standing), and the chorus in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La clemenza di Tito, 2013. director Christopher Alden (Photo: Michael Cooper)

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8 Responses to Pageants of Power

  1. Irony abounds wrt the Corcoran piece. Surely it isn’t beyond the wit of man (or even Corcoran) to recognise that irony infuses Clemenza. I find it really quite funny too that a newspaper that set out to be revolutionary; it was a deliberate attempt to fuse (or blur the line between) news and comment in a thoroughly Fox News fashion, should be dying at approximately the same speed as other print publications. Do you think that now they have Corcoran covering opera there’s some chance they might move Kaptainis to the business beat? I would love to read his reports of company AGMs that don’t honour the founder of the business’ original intentions.

  2. ian says:

    Irony? One whiff of proto-Romantic revolutionary sentiment and Leopold II, Emperor of Austro-Hungary and commissioner of Clemenza, would have had Mozart in the nearest dungeon. This was not a politically insensitive guy. As for Alden, not seeing a searingly insightful pov here wherein the composer’s true intention is revealed. Just an over-abundance of regie ego.

    • barczablog says:

      True enough (that Mozart had to keep a lid on it). But why do we? are we still quivering in fear of our masters? Nope. Now of course we don’t need to over-react, to spraypaint over the text in anger, although i loved that painted “sic semper tyrannis” conceit especially hot on the heels of Spielberg’s Lincoln. Tito pardons Sesto, but why shouldn’t he be conflicted? Oh that’s right, Mozart wouldn’t want his boss to be upset. But wait, they’re all dead now. it’s the 21st Century, and the only tyrants i’m aware of are the ones sitting there with closed minds, refusing to give artistry a chance.

      That phrase “composer’s true intention” has a nice ring to it, almost as antique sounding as “opera seria”. In the 1950s it was already very solidly established that texts were “autonomous verbal constructs” (Frye), and that trying to chase after an author’s intentions was a mug’s game at best. Dismiss this as regie ego if you wish, and i am sympathetic that you can’t see a searingly insightful pov. But perhaps that’s because you took your seat in search of the composer’s true intention. Try sitting down with an open mind, and open eyes instead. Look at the stage, see the artists in front of you, try to appreciate their struggles for better or worse. You can agonize about what they’re not doing (as i might be tempted as they continue to program opera X when i want to see opera Y); or perhaps invest yourself in what they actually put in front of you. Yes i get that it’s expensive. Sometimes i am sad to see reflections of a cynical or half-assed process on the stage. But that’s not what we got this February from the COC. The pairing of Tristan und Isolde & Clemenza di Tito were in my opinion the strongest pairing the COC has ever offered.

      Excuse me if i seem to be going on at length. I was CRAZY for the production of Semele last year (and said so over and over), but as far as i know, nobody agreed with me. And that’s okay. Sometime in the next few days i will likely write something about Argo, a movie that really bothers me. To my knowledge everyone in the USA is infatuated with it, possibly because it makes them feel so good about themselves. How healthy is that? It’s not normal when everyone likes the same things, when dissent is stifled, when whole countries march in lockstep. I welcome disagreements & discussion, and recognize that sometimes i am just plain wrong. The one thing that really makes me uncomfortable, though, is dismissive talk. So long as there is a conversation, i’m happy. When the lid is slammed shut, though?


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