Preferred Citation: Littlejohn, David. The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.

Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing


These people are not all objecting to the same things. As a hybrid form of drama combined with music, or as an institution—and (in either sense) as something that has changed greatly over nearly four hundred years—opera has offered its detractors a great many things to dislike. Simplest-minded of the antiopera crowd are the imagination-deficient literalists, who object to anything less on stage than absolute naturalism; those tiresome people who protest that characters in opera (or theatre or ballet or, I presume, puppet shows) do not behave the way people do in real life. Tolstoy appears to disdain the very use of costumes, sets, and stage lighting.

Others, slightly more tolerant, object that opera is more unnatural than other forms of theatre, further from "real life," because in real life people do not

[2] A curmudgeonly and populist columnist—briefly editor of The Spectator —Gale regularly attacked all forms of subsidized art, among other sacred British cows.


regularly express themselves by singing or "converse in such a way as recitative." The fact that operas are sung, moreover, and frequently sung in a language other than that of the audience renders a large portion of them incomprehensible as drama. Beyond these basic stumbling blocks, such critics object that opera performances are full of dramatic absurdities no audience would tolerate in a spoken play. Although operas may look like drama, they argue, in fact they have none of the thought-filled, intellectual substance of serious plays.

In some ways more interesting than such critiques of opera's "unnaturalness," or its deficiencies when contrasted to the spoken stage, are objections based on its perversity, even its wickedness as a social and economic institution. One may discount the claims, made by patriots of one nation or another, that imported operas are dangerously "foreign" and thus unwelcome. The argument that opera is extravagantly costly is more complicated, involving as it does fundamental social and political values. A good deal of criticism is directed at opera audiences as much as at opera itself. The institution of opera, it is claimed (the claim was made in past centuries, as it is made today), plays a meretricious, antiartistic, exclusionist role in serving primarily as a self-certifying symbol of "cultural chic" for those who can afford to patronize it: hence the palatial houses, the private boxes retained by old families (or auctioned off to social climbers), the high price of tickets, the ritual of formal dress. Part of the attack on public subsidies for opera, which have replaced court and aristocratic support, is based on the argument that it does not —as it may have done at other times and places—enjoy sufficiently broadly based appeal, accessibility, or popularity. (Statistically, this argument is open to question. In some cities, more people attend opera than attend professional sport.)

Some antiopera attacks are openly moralistic in a more personal sense: opera is bad for you. This attitude is apparent in attacks on Wagner by people like Tolstoy and the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who attacked the Ring (and the phenomenon known as Tristanism) as a vaporous, antirational, thought-dissolving drug especially dangerous to women; and in claims that the vain and vulgar showiness of opera (which includes exhibitionist vocalism as well as lewdly costumed dancers), the flashy tricks, and the opulent spectacle appeal to people at their most mindless, undiscriminating, and base.[3]

A large part of this criticism—and of opera criticism generally throughout the centuries—has been directed not so much at the genre itself as at inadequate realizations; not so much against all opera as against bad opera, or (most often)

[3] Not only Lulu, Salome , and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (which are all explicitly erotic) but also Carmen, La traviata, Louise , and Tosca were roundly attacked on their first appearance as obscene and immoral entertainments. In a New York Journal editorial of January 21, 1907, William Randolph Hearst himself expressed his disgust at Strauss's Salome : "In a public performance, a woman is made to declare a desire to bite the lips of a severed head, 'as one would bite a ripe fruit'!"


against opera badly produced and performed. Tolstoy declaiming in 1889 against thick legs, cheesy costumes, or singers "waving their arms about," eighteenth-century observers protesting against extravagant stage spectacles and show-off vocalizing can be regarded more as judicious critics than as Jeremiahs, as sympathetic observers suggesting ways in which opera could be better.

In fact, a good deal of what might appear to be radically antiopera criticism is written by people who actually like opera, who take it seriously, and who wish that those who produce and perform it took it seriously as well. What they are objecting to, often fiercely, are the weaknesses or excesses of opera production practice—and, to some degree, the overly tolerant embrace of the established repertory—at the time or place they are writing.

In 1720, the Venetian composer and civic leader Benedetto Marcello depicted the grosser excesses of contemporary Italian performance practice in a satirical essay, at once revealing and clever, entitled "Il teatro alla moda" ("or A sure and easy method to compose well and produce Italian operas in the modern fashion"), addressed in part to his colleague and fellow Venetian Antonio Vivaldi. Marcello's fundamental point, in this richly detailed essay, is that spectacle-conscious impresarios and egocentric singers were calling all of the shots. All that the poor composer and librettist could do was to follow their orders, whatever the cost to dramatic or musical integrity. By means of his numerous "recommendations" (to writers, composers, singers, impresarios, musicians, stage designers, the soprano's parents and protectors et al.), Marcello compiled a catalogue of abuses, only very slightly exaggerating the grotesque, artistically indefensible circus that opera had become in many Italian theatres by 1720.

Real life is imparted to the opera by the use of prisons, daggers, poison, the writing of letters on stage, bear and wild bull hunts, earthquakes, storms, sacrifices, the settling of accounts, and mad scenes. . . .

The librettist should pay frequent social calls to the prima donna since the success of the opera generally depends on her. He should change his drama as her artistic genius may order him to do so, making additions or cuts in her part or that of the bear or other persons. . . . [The composer] should speed up or slow down the tempo of the arias according to every whim of the stager and he should swallow all their impertinences, remembering that his own honor, esteem, and future are at their mercy. . . .

In an ensemble scene, when addressed by another character or while the latter might have to sing an arietta, he [the male lead] should wave greetings to some masked lady-friend in one of the boxes, or smile sweetly to someone in the orchestra or to one of the supers. In that way it will be made quite clear to the audience that he is Alipio Forconi, the famous singer, and not the Prince Zoroastro whose part he is playing. . . . When he reaches the repeat in the da capo aria he should change it completely in any way he pleases, regardless of whether or not these changes will go with the accompaniment of bass or violins, and whether they will distort the tempo entirely. . . .


As soon as she [the seconda donna] receives her part she will carefully count both notes and words. If there should be fewer of either than in the prima donna's part she will resist that librettist and composer change this by making both roles equally long. She will be particularly insistent about the length of her tram, the ballet, the beauty spots, trills, embellishments, cadenzas, protectors, little owls, and other equally important paraphernalia.

Between 1883 and 1894, George Bernard Shaw wrote reviews of London musical productions for a number of papers, under a number of names. Collected in three volumes, they comprise, for all of Shaw's idiosyncrasies, one of the wittiest, soundest, and most salient commentaries on "music as performed" ever written. During that time, he wrote reviews of hundreds of opera performances, (the greater part of which he disliked) including the British premières of Otello, Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci, and Manon Lescaut .

Sometimes it was the work that displeased him. He "saw through" Meyerbeer and his imitators earlier than most operagoers and critics. Le Prophète , he wrote, "meant to be luridly historical, is in fact the oddest medley of drinking songs, tinder-box trios, sleigh rides, and skating quadrilles imaginable." "Who wants to hear Samson et Dalila? " he once asked, rhetorically. "I respectfully submit, Nobody." Of a mediocre new Italian opera that had been paired with Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana in 1891, he wrote, "Any grasshopper with a moderately good ear could write reams of such stuff after spending three months in Italy. Offenbach's lightest operetta looms in intellectual majesty above this brainless lilting, with its colorless orchestration and its exasperatingly light-hearted and empty-headed recitatives, accompanied by sickly chords on the violoncello with the third always in the bass."

There can be no question that Shaw was a devoted and serious lover of opera. He was, in fact, an uncommonly prescient and perceptive admirer of the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. What he hated was what Victorian London was doing to them. The wonder is that he was able to maintain his fervent admiration for their great works through the mutilated, Unmusical, and antidramatic performances in which he inevitably saw them on stage.

Ever since I was a boy I have been in search of a satisfactory performance of Don Giovanni;[4] and at last I have come to see that Mozart's turn will hardly be in my time. . . . The vigorous passages were handled in the usual timid, conventional way; and the statue music, still as impressive as it was before Wagner and Beethoven were born, was muddled through like a vote of thanks at the

[4] So have I.


end of a very belated public meeting. The great sextet, "Mille torbidi penslen," . . . deprived of its stage significance, became a rather senseless piece of "absolute music." . . . I am sorry to say that alterations of Mozart's text were the order of the evening, every one of the singers lacking Mozart's exquisite sense of form and artistic dignity. . . . [Zélie de Lussan] is one of those Zerlinas who end "Batti, batti" on the upper octave of the note written, as a sort of apology for having been unable to do anything else with the song. The effect of this suburban grace can be realized by anyone who will take the trouble to whistle "Pop goes the Weasel" with the last note displaced an octave.

Verdi's opera [La traviata ] is one thing: the wilful folly of the Covent Garden parody of it is quite another. Take any drama ever written, and put it on a stage six times too large for its scenes, introducing the maddest incongruities of furniture, costume, and manners at every turn of it; and it will seem as non-sensical as La Traviata , even without the crowning burlesque of a robust, joyous, round-checked lady figuring as a moribund patient in decline. . . . The truth is that La Traviata , in spite of its conventionalities, is before its time at Covent Garden instead of behind it.

The popular notion of [Verdi's operas] is . . . founded on performances in which the superb distinction and heroic force of the male characters, and the tragic beauty of the women, have been burlesqued by performers with every sort of disqualification for such parts, from age and obesity to the most excruciating phases of physical insignificance and modern cockney vulgarity. . . . At the thought of that dynasty of execrable imposters in tights and tunics, interpolating their loathsome B flats into the beautiful melodies they could not sing, and swelling with conceit when they were able to finish "Di quella pira" with a high C capable of making a stranded man-of-war recoil off a reef in mid-ocean, I demand the suspension of all rules as to decorum of language until I have heaped upon them some little instalment of the infinite abuse they deserve. Others, alas! have blamed Verdi, much as if Dickens had blamed Shakespeare for the absurdities of Mr. Wopsle.

"I hate performers who debase great works of art: I long for their annihilation," Shaw wrote in 1894. Among the debasers he heard and hated were singers now regarded as part of one of opera's "golden ages"—Jean de Reszke, Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé, Victor Maurel. Of Calvé's performance as Carmen, he wrote: "She carried her abandonment to the point of being incapable of paying the smallest attention to the score." Of de Reszke: "His acting as Otello was about equally remarkable for its amateurish ineptitude and for its manifestations of the natural histrionic powers which he has so studiously neglected for the last fifteen years." Of Katerina Rolla's Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera : "Her acting consisted of the singular plunge, gasp, and stagger peculiar to the Verdi heroine, whose reason is permanently unsettled by grief."

Shaw cared profoundly for the music of good opera, as witness his outrage at the


casual mistreatment and butchery of scores. But he was fundamentally a man of the theatre, and (as his appalled descriptions of Victorian opera acting suggest) he was most distressed by the blind, blank inability of contemporary productions to realize the vivid drama (even melodrama) implicit in the better opera scores and texts.

In 1962, another magisterial "man of the theatre"—Eric Bentley, at the time America's most insightful and authoritative drama critic, a great admirer of Mozart's operas and of the opera productions of Walter Felsenstein in East Berlin—undertook to describe a season at the Met for Theatre Arts magazine. (In 1955, Bentley had edited a paperback collection of Bernard Shaw's best music reviews.) At the Metropolitan, Bentley was appalled by the empty-headed foolishness of the audiences, which seemed to wake up only to cry out "Bravo" (or, to demonstrate their knowingness, "Brava ") at the end of arias. "The provocation for these little interruptions," he wrote, "is commonly an extremely high note sung very loudly, preferably (this season) by a soprano. . . . The spontaneity of the Italian outcries is suspect." To many people present, he thought the opera was no more than "an interruption of the intermissions."

While acknowledging that some great music was played (although often too loudly), that some great voices were on display (Richard Tucker's, Birgit Nilsson's), and that a few haute couture designers had been hired, "the issue for me," he wrote, "is the art of opera. Singers would sing had opera never been invented. The question of opera is the question of musical drama"—and drama was precisely what he found missing at the Met. Although every great opera composer, according to Bentley, is at heart a great dramatist, "the Met ignores dramatic values." whether comic, romantic, melodramatic, or tragic. "The Met employs singers, not actors; it provides a dog show for soprano-fanciers."

He preferred what theatre director Cyril Ritchard did to Offenbach's La Périchole (for all its lack of essential French values) to the Met's dead, waxworks stagings of Verdi: "At least it was something , something produced, something directed." Better second-rate music (like Offenbach's), or second-rate singers (like Felsenstein's), if the result is living theatre. "I have been speaking," Bentley concluded,

of two things: the public and the performance. Together they make up a perfect specimen of the effete. The public: overprivileged, overfed, overconfident, exclusive, uncommitted, uninvolved. The performance: overdecorative, overinflated, overcharged, chi-chi, lush, a mere exhibition, whether of coloratura or chiaroscuro. It's the familiar phenomenon of the jaded palate and the overspiced condiments that are used to please it. It is possible that nothing can be done except exactly what Mr. Bing is doing [Rudolf Bing was general manager of the Met from 1952 to 1974], in which case one can either admire him


for his sense of reality, or pity him for his helplessness. But if it is inevitable that the Met be what it is, it is not inevitable that one continue to go there.

Andrew Porter is probably the most knowledgeable and influential music critic writing in English today. After writing in London for the Musical Times , the Financial Times , and Opera , he began serving as regular music critic for The New Yorker in 1972. In 1974, the composer and critic Virgil Thomson wrote, "Nobody reviewing in America has anything like Porter's command of [opera]."

He has also translated into English the librettos of several important operas, produced operas by Handel and Verdi, and performed scholarly investigations of Macbeth and Don Carlos . Most of his reviews, in fact, incorporate a fair amount of (sometimes irrelevant) state-of-the-art scholarship, to the point that reading them en bloc (they currently fill five volumes) provides one with a serendipitous education in musical history. Porter is open to new music and new production ideas, and frequently finds things to admire in the work of smaller (even amateur) opera companies, lesser-known festivals, and works dismissed as unimportant by other critics and scholars. But his published response to the "grand" opera of his day—which has generally meant, since 1972, the Metropolitan Opera in New York—is depressingly similar to that of Bentley and Shaw.

Between 1972 and 1990, Andrew Porter made more than passing mention of some 140 productions at the Metropolitan Opera in his New Yorker reviews. Writing a century after Shaw, he is disgusted at the sloppy, tasteless things that producers and singers are still doing to Verdi. "The Metropolitan Opera's current production of Verdi's Macbeth ," he wrote in 1973, "is a limp, bloated relic." Eleven years later, he found a revival of the same opera equally depressing: "The Met chorus is surely one of the dullest and least dramatic opera choruses ill the country. The choristers stood or sat about like dummies—features blank, postures inexpressive, eyes on the conductor—and produced much the same sort of timbre and attack whether they were playing warriors, courtiers, exiles, bards, or witches."

Of a 1973 production of Il trovatore, he remarked, "All in all, it was the sort of evening that brings grand opera into disrepute and keeps musical people away from the Met. . . . The time has come to treat Verdi's music as seriously in opera houses as it is treated by serious musicians." Of the Met's Aida and Trovatore in 1976, he wrote, "From a dramatic point of view both productions must be deemed failures." Eleven years later, things were no better: "At the Met, it was grand opera as usual—no, worse than usual—on the first night of Il trovatore ." Taking note of the noises of displeasure that greeted the designer and director, Porter wrote, "Booing is an ugly sound, but here it reflected recognition that this staging is ill-conceived—inimical to the drama and unhelpful to the singers. The cast needed


help. Luciano Pavarotti, who took the title role, is no sort of actor, physically, visually, or, any longer, vocally." Joan Sutherland's Leonora was distressing to hear; the Azucena and the Count de Luna both sang off pitch. "The performance made a poor case for [Il trovatore ], and for grand opera in general."

A 1983 presentation of Verdi's La forza del destino "was put on with a lineup of big names . . . but it was an unworthy, an almost meaningless representation of Verdi's drama. . . . If there was any line or purpose in John Dexter's direction, I missed it." A new production of Ernani that year "was a tame and vapid affair," its stars (Leona Mitchell, Luciano Pavarotti, Ruggiero Raimondi) "dramatic ciphers. In the remarkable trio that constitutes the last act, they stood in a row, as if lined up before microphones in a recording studio. One forgives singers who can't act if by their singing they bring the drama to life. These singers didn't."

What appears to dismay Porter most, on the basis of the increasing number of "failing" reviews he gives to Metropolitan Opera productions, are poor singing by famous singers (colorless, weak, forced, off-key), many of whom cannot or will not act; bloated, extravagant, vulgar visual productions that contribute nothing to—in fact often war with—the drama; radical choppings and changings of the original scores, in works such as Handel's Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare; and a boring, depressing, overall absence of any sort of spirit or dramatic content: operas that are little more than what he calls "concerts in costume," and often not very good concerts at that. "The whole was undramatic, untheatrical, unworthy," he wrote of the Met's new Der Ring ties Nibelungen in 1989. "This was a shallow, unpoetic, mindless account of the great drama." He was scarcely happier with the Met's previous Ring in 1975.

Again and again, Porter grows angry and bitter at the company's penchant for costly and overblown productions—the Zeffirelli Bohème and Traviata , a gross and joyless Die Fledermaus , an elephantine Manon . "While other big opera companies seek to rediscover dramatic values in familiar works of the past—sometimes stylishly, sometimes with reckless abandon—the Metropolitan Opera prefers elaborate, extravagant spectacle. . . . The company cultivates an audience that doesn't really listen to a score, that is eager to drown the music with its applause for scenic effects and for the entries of well-publicized artists."

Much of the weakness Porter traces to "the company's repertory system, essentially unchanged in a hundred years, [which] precludes the single-minded attention to one opera at a time which many European houses can now afford." He himself is often more enthusiastic about opera productions at less richly endowed companies and festivals in the United States and abroad.

The vociferous objections in all four of these last cases come from people not radically opposed to opera; not even from people who like operas only when the works performed are very, very good (Shaw defended Mascagni, and Porter has


admitted to enjoying Meyerbeer); but from people who take opera seriously and who acknowledge, as I do, its potential as the "ultimate art." They are dismayed and disgusted by the ways in which producers and performers have betrayed this potential, either by the injustice they have done to the music, or by the fact that they have ignored the importance of opera as drama.

Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing

Preferred Citation: Littlejohn, David. The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.