Opera Rant

Hello Everyone,

I should know by now never to submit my work to competitions, but somehow I continue to get suckered into doing it. Generally, I think competitions exist to flatter the judges and their institutions--to puff up the social status of people who have no creative capacity of their own.

It is pretty silly to make struggling, risk-taking, innovative artists with brilliant things to say jump through administrative hoops with applications and work samples and references, and then make them pay submission fees to bureaucratic old conservative institutions with huge endowments, government grants, millionaire donors, etc.--especially since the odds of "winning" most competitions are absurdly small.

In this respect, arts institutions are a lot like academia: they want you to humbly beseech them to accept you, and then to build your self-worth around the fact that they embraced you as one of their elite, flattering all concerned.

In this case, I was foolishly swayed by a hope that the ethos of the state of Texas might make it more sympathetic to the subject matter of my opera (The Boston Tea Party). But that turns out to be irrelevant to a bunch of modern opera snobs even in that state.

I am speaking of the Opera Fort Worth New Frontiers program--which I stupidly held out hope over. I got from them a "regrets" letter which by itself would not have been particularly emotional for me. But here's the kicker: they want to be "helpful" by sharing some comments from their group of panelists. This is what has my blood boiling.

The shortest comment was: "The libretto is more sophisticated than than the music. There's not enough here to engage an audience."

I beg your pardon? Here is a group of quotes from members of the show's actual audience.

 
“An entertaining show which blends inspiring music, soaring vocals, and a story that honors the birth of our glorious country.” - Robert B.

“The story of what happened in Boston... came alive for me.” - Augusta P.
“I was struck by how many heroic characters there were--of course the revolutionary times demanded that--but also by how they were different from each other. They each had their own (heroic) personalities, voices, and expressions." - Anna F.

"an impressive marriage of history and music. The lyrics and music are wonderful and a credit to the composer's talents.... entertaining and educational.” - James S.

“An entertaining way to remember the principles that made America 'The land of the free'.” - Robert O.

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One of the Fort Worth panelists went on at length, and with maximum snark. (I'll insert my comments on the commentary here.)

"Creating a theatrical production based on well-known historical figures is a tricky business."

You are an opera expert? What is so fraught with difficulty about it? Perhaps the you should consult this list of hundreds of opera characters based on historical figures.

The snark continues: "The authors must take great care that their subjects do not appear oversimplified, stilted or pedantic.The libretto is problematic in this respect; it has a great deal of cheesiness to it,"

I definitely find this person's comments "oversimplified, stilted and pedantic" -- but as for whether my opera is, I leave that for you to decide yourself. (Note: because my submission was made anonymous, the critic assumed that the librettist and composer are two different people.)

And now this person's historical ignorance is revealed through an accusation of historical ignorance:

"at one point [the libretto] appears anti-historic (James Otis declares that the writs of Assistance are against "our constitution"; I was not aware America had a Constitution before the Revolution.)"

Check your history, buddy. James Otis was arguing at a time when the American colonists still considered themselves British, and Great Britain had a common law Constitution which was called by that name and known to the colonists. It was not a single paper document but the essential sum of British legal practice which limited the government to protect private rights. View the history and facts.

The critic continues, "The librettist wants to write songs that rhyme; that's fine, but the level of the language, and the contortions through which these words must go in order to provide the desired cadence is disheartening."

There are definitely some contortions going on here. My thoughts could be best expressed in a short poem:

 
If making lots of rhymes
Is art committing crimes,
Your standards good dispel,
So take them back to Hell.

I'm glad to have gotten that out of my system. It keeps me from feeling disheartened. :P

"The Scylla and Charybdis metaphor is old-fashioned and overblown.This reads like an 18th-century libretto; perhaps that is intentional, but I don't think it's a wise choice for an opera in the 21st century."

Why not? Because everyone today has to be like Dieter on Sprockets?

"The music is overly simple, and just not very good."

OVERLY SIMPLE??!?! I max out the capacities of every piece of music software I use, and push the limits of every performer I work with. The music is packed with richness.

What this "judge" really objects to is the fact that my music is orderly, integrated, melodious and harmonious, with flow and rhythm and continuity. Presumably what he wants and expects is the standard conformist "highbrow" music of today: chaotic, disjointed, random, noisy and incoherent like this bit of musical magic.

And now, as the critic especially flatters himself, we get to the climax of condescension: "With some training, both the librettist and composer might be able to improve the piece, but it's not clear to me that their skill level is equal to the task."

So much for the so-called highbrow ideal of being diplomatic, nuanced, open-minded, tolerant and non-judgmental. This guy is doing a real smack-down against something he perceives as a threat to his phony self-worth.

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The most favorably-disposed of the three "judges" is still very tepid about the opera, and makes himself sound much more justified. I think he's a more mature and masterful snob than the others. He's more adept at making you feel that he knows the lofty standards, and that sadly you just don't measure up--which is a snob's whole game.

The diffident compliments come first, then a string of very mixed, diffident insults.

"Potentially interesting subject matter, with political timely resonance -- opportunities for emotional expressive solos and ensembles (plus chorus, if they go in that direction) -- compare to "1776" -- seems like a serious re-telling of the political tyranny that contributed to the war of independence, with larger-than-life characters driven by a passion for social justice"

Fair enough--though, incidentally, there was no such concept as "social justice" in the Enlightenment; there was only plain old justice--justice for the individual.

Regarding the song that stole the show, Against Writs of Assistance: [its] legal, highfaluting language, while probably appropriate for the character and situation, is hard to follow -- has potential for major scena with dramatic implications, as the character is killed soon after; however, the strophic structure, while theoretically appropriate for the argument, is undercut by the accompaniment, which speaks more of Gilbert and Sullivan than Verdi..."

Apparently according to Sprockets standards, only imitations of Verdi are legit. But more importantly, the element of intellectuality in my opera is intentional: the characters are men and women of the Enlightenment.

"some of the word setting results in odd pauses that seem dramatically unmotivated"

I don't agree at all, but I know text-setting is a standard technicality that academics and critics fall back on when they cannot attack your work for other reasons. It sounds more objective and sends people searching for pimples, creating a fault-finding mindset instead of human experience of art.

This bit about the Elizabeth Adams' song persuading Richard Clarke to resign the tea cargo, "Scylla and Charybdis," is intricate:

"another missed opportunity for a character to make an impassioned plea at a possible dramatic turning point, but there isn't a clear musical or dramatic arc that speaks to the character's ability to be persuasive; hence, the rejection of the argument is expected and understandable"

First of all, "understandable" is considered to be a bad thing?!? Second, the critic misses the point of the whole scene--which is the unique combination of intellectuality and passion in these Enlightenment figures. (And incidentally, by enlightened standards, "understandable" is definitely a good thing.)

The critic continues: "I'm not sure how the [Scylla & Charybdis] metaphor works, given Clarke's situation, but it may be that I don't fully understand all the political nuances (and most in the audience won't) -- nice use of accompaniment to distinguish the contrast within the metaphor, but could be even stronger -- the use of a solo dancer is confusing; is that part of the overall aesthetic of the piece?"

Notice how he piles up a confused assembly of tentative semi-criticisms: textbook method for snowing people with words. Notice how he is so humble about, perhaps, not fully understanding--and then in parenthesis is absolutely certain that most in the audience will not understand the political nuances. I have a higher opinion of my audience.

This "judge" concludes: "[In] Summary: The tone of the piece is ambiguous; the synopsis and text read like a serious examination of the situation; the music is more light-hearted."

The music is styled to match the clarity of mind characteristic of the Enlightenment. Why does serious have to be treated as equivalent to heavy? (The other critic had complained about part of the show being "overblown"--don't these guys talk to each other?)

These critics are definitely burdened with their own significant problems. At any rate, this reaffirms my intention to treat the show as a musical rather than an opera.

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Thank you for hearing me out, shredding these infuriating and insulting comments. I hope you'll judge my opera for yourself and form your own conclusion.

All this reminds me of the extent of the intellectual, moral, and artistic corruption of our culture. Anything original and good faces a very difficult uphill battle. Against people like Dieter from Sprockets. :P

Best,
Matt

M. Zachary Johnson
Proud Composer
The Boston Tea Party Opera

P.S. Don't forget our event for Constitution Week next Tuesday if you want to judge for yourself!

 

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