Thursday 27 January 2011

Journalism and the contempt with which our newspapers treat music

Depressing but true: almost whenever one reads a British newspaper article concerning a subject about which one knows something, one finds it littered with factual errors, even before considering the dubious opinions generally voiced. (Quite apart from anything else, it makes one reluctant to believe a word from other articles, concerning subjects about which one is not informed. In which case, how does one inform oneself? Certainly not from newspapers...) A reader kindly sent me a link to a recent piece in The Independent (click here). It starts unpromisingly, entitled 'Do we really need to sex up opera?' Could the unimaginative pandering, the manufacturing of a non-existent controversy (this is not just newspapers: consider much broadcasting too) be more obvious? But let us leave the silly question aside for the moment. On a cursory glance, I spotted the following errors or dubious claims:
  • Opening sentence: 'More nonsense is talked about opera than any other single art form.' Is not the publication of such an article a self-fulfilling prophecy concerning such 'nonsense'? Is opera a 'single art form' at all? One might argue that much of the point is its combination of different forms.
  • Second sentence: 'It may be the nature of the form itself, all hysterics and extremes of passion.' How can 'hysterics and extremes of passion' constitue the 'nature' of a 'form'? Even if we let that pass, is does the description really pass muster for most, let alone all, of the repertoire? Is not the writer presenting a caricature, perhaps even an 'hysterical', 'extreme' caricature?
  • The next paragraph broaches Anna Nicole, the new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage, due to be premiered at Covent Garden next month. In case any readers have been on Mars and have somehow missed the marketing bombardment, it will concern the life of Anna Nicole Smith. '"Shocking," say the opera purists,' we read. '"Needed," retorts the opera house, "if we are to attract new and younger audiences."' Who on earth are these 'purists'? I doubt that anyone would be shocked by the prospect; some may not be interested, but shocked? Did a spokesman for the Royal Opera House actually say what the writer claims? Perhaps, yet our suspicions might just be aroused.
  • At last, a little sense: '"Naughty girls",' we read, 'are indeed the stuff of opera.' So why manufacture this silly controversy, since the 'purists' are presumably aware of works such as Carmen, which the writer has just mentioned? In any case, the (relatively) good work is undone in the next sentence, which opens: 'The work which started it all, Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, of 1643, has as its heroine a woman who sleeps and murders her way to the top...'. One can (sort of) grant Monteverdi starting it all; despite the existence of earlier examples in the 'form', it is not unreasonable to consider him to have written the first great operas. However, Poppea is Monteverdi's final opera; even leaving aside those that have been lost, we have two preceding masterpieces, not to mention dramatic madrigals and so forth.
  • ' Alban Berg's unfinished Lulu, first performed in 1938...'. We can all make mistakes, but is it not the job of sub-editors to check facts? Lulu was first performed in its two-act version in 1937, in Zurich. There is then a passage which at best confuses, concerning the end of the work as completed by Friedrich Cerha (or in Berg's own Lulu-Suite), but which the innocent reader would think referred to the two-act version. 
  • 'Some of the best classical composers of our day – Philip Glass, John Adams, Harrison Birtwhistle, Thomas Adès and Mark-Anthony Turnage – have set their hands to writing operas.' Whatever one may think of the eccentric, entirely Anglophone selection of composers, it would be preferable to spell Sir Harrison Birtwistle's name correctly. We all make typographical errors, of course, but it is telling that a sub-editor would not pick up on what ought to be a matter of common knowledge. (Doubtless it would be different in the case of someone important, such as a footballer's wife, a Big Brother contestant, or Anna Nicole Smith.)
  • 'Asked whether he had a view of what theatre should be, Verdi replied "Yes. The theatre should be full." And he was able to fill it, then as now, with operas which combined the most perfect melodies with the most dramatic plots and lots of really big (and expensive) sounds.' Again, whatever one may think of Verdi, does he really deserve so childish a description as that, at which even Classic FM might blanch? A schoolteacher would, I hope, chide such inanity if it came from the pen of a dull five-year old.
  • 'The cost of seats doesn't help, although I have sat in the Covent Garden amphitheatre listening to Placido Domingo sing Simon Boccanegra, with a full orchestra and choir, for less money than I then had to pay for a West End production of Arthur Miller's View From the Bridge with a cast of half-a-dozen, no music and no better seats.' Does the foregoing make any sense? If the latter evening were the more expensive, why should this help explain an alleged fall in the 'pre-eminence' of opera? The cost may well be a problem; if so, what is the relevance of the Miller reference?
  • 'State-subsidised houses have also tried to prove their worth by commissioning new works, of which Anna Nicole is one. If there is a complaint from composers, it shouldn't be a lack of outlets. They now have a far better lot than aspiring film directors.' I do not mean this as a criticism of the Royal Opera House or indeed of any other house, but just how many new works do they present? Does this really present an array of opportunites to composers? Sadly not: perhaps the writer should speak to some 'real-life composers'. I can assure him that they do exist. Moreover, why is 'commissioning new works' presented as if it were some new idea? How does the writer think Mozart's - or Monteverdi's - operas came about? Presumably he knows, in which case his point remains at best obscure.
  • 'Serial music, minimalism and atonality have excited musicians but not the general public, who prefer the melody and directness of musicals. It's not the subject matter so much as the cerebral nature of so many modern works that puts them off.' It had to come; it is of course all Schoenberg's fault, or should that be Philip Glass's? I cannot be bothered to go into the substance, such as it is, of the claim right now, but what a strange assemblage: 'Serial music, minimalism and atonality...'. It suggests, shall we say, a little haziness concerning the meaning of the terms.
  • 'Music can make you feel what you want to feel – pride, pity or patriotism – but opera can also make you sense what you don't want to – the dangerous yearning for a new beginning in Wagner's Parsifal, sympathy for a witch in Handel's Alcina, admiration for a philanderer in Mozart's Don Giovanni.' I am not at all sure what he is getting at here re Parsifal, though fear it may be a stereotypical 'Wagner was a (proto-)Nazi' idiocy. 'Sympathy for a witch' though? Are we back in Miller-land (The Crucible)? Has anyone ever thought this was an apt way of characterising any response ever experienced to Handel's opera or its eponymous sorceress? Moreover, to describe Don Giovanni as a 'philanderer' seems akin to describing Faust as a 'student'; there may be a rather large point or two being missed. The distinction made between feelings engendered by 'music' and those by 'opera' eludes me entirely. Is it really the case that other music cannot 'make you sense what you don't want to,' assuming that the phrase means anything at all?
I have had enough: doubtless there would be much more, had I the patience. (I could not summon up the energy, though maybe I should have done, to treat with that ridiculous description, 'elitist'.) Why, though, can we not have someone writing such articles, even articles with manufactured controversies, who knows a little more about the subject matter? Could some such person at least not be asked to comment? We now have to endure footballers and gardeners commenting on Proms performances, whereas no one would think of asking Daniel Barenboim or Salvatore Sciarrino to offer a little half-time football analysis. Perhaps, though, the absurdity of the Culture Industry's cult of 'celebrity' - which in most cases appears to mean 'someone you have never heard of and have no reason whatsoever to have heard of' - is the very point Anna Nicole will make. If so, the 'case of Anna Nicole' will be well worth considering, though it will have nothing to do with 'elitism', nothing to do with an alleged dispute between purists and the Royal Opera House, and nothing to do with an alleged lack of appeal to 'the general public'.