I must confess; I'm an imposter.
I am sincere, and my intentions are good—I am a music maker, and the importance of the art and my values around it are my foundation for criticism. And I’m no dilettante; I have performed over the decades at classical venues, CBGB, and weddings. I compose music that others play.
My dedication is serious. Why else write hundreds of thousands of words for less than starvation wages?
But as a critic, I’m an imposter. Without comped access, there’s no way I could afford to see any of the musical events I attend. In a way, I’m in disguise as an audience member.
That goes much deeper than holding tickets. I am there because I’m a critic, but I am amidst a group to which I could never belong—a stranger in a strange land, taking notes, reporting on the outcome. I’m simply not in their class.
Music is as heavily burdened with the destructive atavism of class in America as every other part of society. This country, which was supposed to be so free of class stratification, may in the end be destroyed by it. In this century we already have a brutal, nihilistic, and strategically stupid, endless war enabled in no small part by the class of establishment liberals like Al Franken, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Ezra Klein, who couldn’t deign to attend to the informed opinion of anyone outside their media-political-industrial complex social set. We have Obama during the financial crisis succoring the blue-suited, red-tied CEO set during the financial crisis—the only people who actually get to talk to a President—while the Home Affordable Modification Program, meant for regular citizens, languished. And now America is your angry, racist uncle who voted entirely out of class-based resentments.
Art is no refuge. Anyone and everyone who argues art is pure is wrong. Clement Greenberg’s idea of the purity of a single medium is meaningless when the painter, the English majors who form a band, or the modern dance troupe are all colored by the class from which they come and the classes of their audience. Painters need a market of rich people, while poets, novelists, and composers join academia, which has its own set of socio-economic values.
No art is pure; no audience is pure; it’s as much about class as the art. This is most prominent in music because music has always been a social activity. Subcultures have been forming around musical styles long before radio and recordings. Wagnerites, social dancing, and the like pre-date club kids, punks, Teddy Boys, and jazz hipsters by centuries.
And in an epoch when what we now call classical music was contemporary and essentially popular, there were operagoers. The word first appeared in the mid-19th century, yet the thing itself goes back past Rossini to at least Handel.
Operagoers today are an interesting subculture—a mix of the ultra-wealthy who donate to the Metropolitan Opera, people who find the spectacle entertaining, and those who aren’t interested in classical music but crave the diva personality cults. The Wagnerites—a special cult—are still around. And finally, there will always be those who go simply to impress their social peers; operagoing is a thing that can be used to powerfully signify one’s class status and aspirations.
In the middle of November, I was at HERE in Tribeca for a performance of Paul Pinto’s experimental opera Thomas Paine in Violence. Before the show, a small group of patrons, including an important opera and music theater producer, was discussing the run of Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel at the Met. One recommended that it be seen more than once. “You should see it from up top,” she said.
When asked if that meant the balcony (where tickets in the Family Circle can be had for $65), she responded, “No! The Parterre Boxes!” ($135-$445).
This was a beautiful, perfect nugget of class signification to preface Pinto’s work. His opera, which was absolutely brilliant and one of the few truly experimental operas I’ve seen in the last decade, both stood against that class of operagoer and in a quietly brutal way showed the forces set against equality and social mobility.
The Founding Fathers are the number one object of mass, secular worship in this country. They are publicly revered in the same way Jesus is, as a means to wave the bloody shirt of tribalism while avoiding any conflicts with their actual ideas and values.
Thomas Paine in Violence, Eddie Rodriguez Jr., Christian Luu, Andrew Mayer, Paul Pinto, (Joan La Barbara elevated). Photo by Benjamin Heller.
That’s why Paine is usually left out of the more august mix; he was a deist who can’t be glossed as a theocrat, and most prominently an advocate for the Enlightenment values of reason and free thinking, which are now universally passé. That makes him too radical across the political spectrum for our parlous, quailing times.
Paine wasn’t actually so radical. The title of his most famous pamphlet, Common Sense, indicates what he thought about himself and his ideas. As Joan La Barbara, who in the opera was the spirit of Paine, broadcasting from a radio station in outer space, stated, “radical ideas aren’t so radical.”
At the core of the opera was La Barbara, with a relaxed confidence and poised insistence, calling for and explaining Paine’s idea of a national income. In his 1795 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, Paine wrote:
“In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity...[Government must] create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.”
This idea is currently being revived in some corners of the internet, but it’s not radical—Paine’s argument is the intellectual foundation for Social Security. One would think this would be easy to implement. It not only puts cash in circulation, where it does the most good for the most people, but it is also a form of compensation from a government that expects much of its citizens but increasingly offers less and less in return.
But of course, this is America, where capital is king. It is immoral to be given something for nothing, unless of course you are rich. And the Paul Ryans of the world fret over how the safety sieve prevents the poor from enjoying the dignity of work. Though of course they see nothing wrong with the rich inheriting an unearned fortune.
But an opera about a political-economic concept? That must seem dreary as hell. Except that Thomas Paine in Violence was full of life, energy, and slapstick. La Barbara sat in what looked like an over-sized highchair, surrounded by a small group of musicians who doubled as disgruntled employees at her radio station—management sucks everywhere.
So a wacko narrative idea, but I’ve read comics that are stranger. The meat, the glue, the everything was a four-man chorus, all tenors (Pinto, Eddie Rodriguez Jr., Christian Luu, Andrew Mayer), dressed in black suits, white shirts, and skinny black ties. From moment to moment they were a Greek chorus, La Barbara’s audience, and her echo—all of this in pop style, like an avant-garde boy band. While La Barbara was implacable, they were manic, working at a pace that would have left Groucho Marx spitting dust.
This was provocative and extremely entertaining, but also confusing for a while. Then at the conclusion, La Barbara’s voice faded down, Thomas Paine evaporated out of memory, and the chorus came to the front, figuratively and literally. They sat side by side at a table, facing the audience, examining and passing around paper with a series of repeated, mechanical motions. And they sang a single phrase in which, in minimalist style, the words gradually changed from one to another through repetition.
What were they? Paper shufflers, bureaucrats of the worst kind, an institutional barrier that is designed to prevent any meaningful amelioration, or even change. They were inertia, the status quo—and the music was the strangely warm balm of American hopelessness.
Hopelessness is something you can get used to. It means giving up the desire to have anything nice in your life. These days the rich are why we can’t have nice things. Disproportionate and regressive tax cuts, concessions to businesses, public money used to build stadiums for sports teams, the current groveling before Amazon for the privilege of hosting a warehouse where most workers will be paid minimum wage—all of this has starved public education, transportation, infrastructure of all kinds, and contracted pensions for public employees. As I write this, the Republicans are on the verge enshrining their concept of political economy: reward the rich for being rich, punish the poor for being poor. Feudalism, in other words.
While opera post-dates feudal society, it began, literally, in John Cage’s words, as an ornament in society of those who have. Still, through the bulk of its history, it was popular entertainment, made by geniuses like Handel and Mozart. The rise of the bourgeoisie brought it back into the possession of those who hoard culture as a sign of their own special status in society. Verdi, a republican in the best sense, kept writing operas for his public, but in the 20th century, rich people began to think that opera belonged to them.
In this they were catered to by the likes of Robert Moses. What is available to all at the Moses-built Lincoln Center, like the wonderful Library for the Performing Arts, is contained inside a castle designed to honor and reflect wealth, like days of yore.
The rich go to the Metropolitan Opera, and in November they caught the American premiere of Thomas Adés’s The Exterminating Angel. I have seen bizarre mismatches of subject and audience before, but I have never seen one that so willfully ignores the obvious and explosive conflicts between the two.
The Exterminating Angel is a political opera based on the Buñuel film. It pretends it is in no way political, either because of Adès’s intentions or because he is blind to the world around him.
It met with universal praise and even raves from my fellow critics, and on the last night, when I attended, drew a much younger audience than I am used to seeing at the Met. I don’t share my colleagues’ views of the opera, and I suspect it is because I’m an imposter. I see things as an outsider from the classical music and opera world class.
The promotional run-up to the premiere focused fetishistically on things like the unusual instruments used in the orchestra and the high notes that soprano Audrey Luna, as the opera singer Leticia Maynar, would sing. This was a Guinness-Book-of-World-Records view of opera, and just as aesthetically and intellectually meaningful.
The program book whistled past the graveyard of political ideas. From a reprint of the introduction from the 2016 Salzburg Festival world premiere, there was the take that Buñuel’s film “defies attempts at systematic analysis” and hand-waved itself to the insight that “a formal dinner party is itself a form of theater.” No self-regarding bourgeois could have put it any better.
Annotator Gavin Plumley gently and hesitatingly cocked an ear toward the political implications: the “‘Ragoüt Aria’…suggests…the collapse of a social order. That is certainly one of the main lines of interpretation applied to Buñuel’s film…The opera now invites similar comparisons to today’s global socio-political situation.”
Spoiler alert: the movie is about the decadence of the ruling classes, which makes it as relevant to American society today as it was for Franco’s Fascist Spain in 1962. Why can’t these people leave the dinner party? They are crippled by their own unearned privilege—their inability to do, only to be served. They turn toward a petty viciousness that is their version of the barbarianism they imagine to be the state of the lower classes.
The opera was like J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, with better music and less thinking. Adès and librettist Tom Cairns turned Buñuel into a supernatural tragedy. According to them, the reason these people are trapped in the home of Edmundo de Nobile and his wife Lucía (tenor Joseph Kaiser and soprano Amanda Echalaz) is that Maynar, when asked to sing an aria to entertain the guests, demurs. In the end, what frees the guests is Maynar singing the aria, after everyone recalls and simulates the previous moment.
This was witchcraft—silly and frustrating, but in line with Adès’s work, which comes tantalizingly close to being great but is hampered by frivolity and lack of direction. As a composer, he seems unable to appreciate his own considerable skill and to hear where his material wants to go.
That was the story of the score. Adès is actually one of the few contemporary composers who knows how to structure music into an opera, rather than just a series of vocal or ensemble numbers, and The Exterminating Angel is built on the essential framework of modulating and transforming specific thematic material so as to make musical drama. Individual arias and duets were beautifully made, full of unnerving and fascinating turns of melody and harmonic movement.
And at the same time, the majority of the characters, not just Maynar, sing in the upper range of their registers from the very beginning. Placing the voice in that range produces the instinctive response that something urgent and fraught is happening. When the characters are mainly exchanging palaver, this makes no sense, and in the opera the effect was that when real urgency came, emotional and expressive modulation was impossible.
Even though everyone did their best to ignore the politics in the story, they were still there: this is The Exterminating, Angel after all. A major one was the bald, and deeply weird juxtaposition of the party guests and the crowd that gathered outside the house. More than just gawkers at a spectacle, this mob, decked out in chic ‘60s counter-culture garb by costume designer Hildegard Bechtler, tries to force its way into the house, past a cordon of police. Repulsed, the mob sings that the cops are “pigs.” So, the counter-culture came to save the rich? That is either witless or a Reaganite wet dream—“they really do love us!”
Then there was the finale, with art (the aria) as the means of escape. Art saves them from this prison of the supernatural (or of their own devising). The guests mingle with their new comrades in the streets—a cease-fire in the class war?—but then all are stunned and shocked and frozen by the final, dissonant chord.
Even within the limited extra-musical thinking in the opera, this was deeply confused. The guests chatter in condescending ways about lower class people—the same who attempt to rescue them—and are ultimately redeemed by the art they make. There was no transformation; each of the characters was trapped. Their confinement showed how terrible they were, but then one sang, and they were all free. Perhaps Adès’s has the English adoration of the aristocracy—he wants to save them—but to an American it was like the GOP’s attitude toward people not of their class: “You don’t deserve anything good in life, and you should thank us for that.”
Only a certain kind of politics—or lack thereof—can play at the Met, and it is not the house’s place to stage experimental works. The Met still does stage the socially and politically subversive operas of Mozart and Verdi, whose ideas are still relevant today, but these are easy to stage in a historical manner, set in a museum-like frame that lops away context.
Up the river in Hudson, there was opera with context—an admirably well-meaning attempt to integrate this expensive and status-conscious art into the fabric of the larger social community. But class was a stumbling block. The people behind the show, as much as they tried, couldn’t really see the people below them in the social structure that they were concerned about.
Hudson has been impoverished for decades, and despite its steady transformation into a place for transplants from New York City and day-trippers, 35 percent of its residents were below the poverty level in 2016 (the overall NY state rate is 19 percent and the official federal rate as of the last census, supplemented with later data, is 14 percent). Despite the art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants that line Warren Street—the main drag—and the renovated houses going for high six figures or more, Hudson as a community is not doing well.
But there is a lovely opera house, restored by the portion of the community that has either the money or free time. That was the site for a November run of The Mother of Us All, an opera from Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein.
There were several notable things about this production, the first being that it was done at all. Thomson and Stein made for an excellent aesthetic partnership; his style was a patrician view of Americana, and hers an intellectual view of plain speaking, but their other opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, is generally judged superior and produced far more often.
I have a soft spot for The Mother of Us All, and I prefer to listen to it over Four Saints. It’s less polished—the second act is much better than the first in terms of music and organization—but the second half is gorgeous and fun and moving. I like what it does, too, which is make a nice and messy political argument about the promise and failures of America through the fight for women’s suffrage, and the vehicle is a wonderful parade of American “characters”—not just Susan B. Anthony (the lead part, sung in an unusually warm and communicative way by mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens), but Stein, Thomson, Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, and more.
The staging came from director R.B. Schlather, who so far has a notable record of getting operas to speak directly to audiences, without condescending or dumbing down the original material. He had an important collaborator, writer and Stein expert Joan Retallack, a professor emerita at Bard.
Both reached out to the Hudson community. Schlather cast locals in the chorus, along with ringers with day jobs, like Dominic Armstrong as Jo the Loiterer and Nancy Allen Lundy as Stein; and semi-ringers, like composer and part-time upstate resident Phil Kline, singing Johnson with his reedy and wavering tenor.
Retallack examined the libretto, and understandably found a contemporary problem with two characters: “negro man” and “negro woman.” As she wrote in the program:
“The ethical issue their anonymity foregrounds (recalling slaves’ stolen personhood) is urgent as we stage this opera in the current atmosphere of white supremacist rhetoric, as we perform it in Hudson, whose population is 40 percent citizens of color, 25 percent of that African American. Our considerable attempts at community outreach in association with the production would be highly questionable were we not to deal with the remnant of mid-20th century modernist racism in Stein’s libretto.
“I proposed a way to bring the opera into constructive conversation with 21st century American history, starting with the names. Names, in fact in keeping with Stein’s well-known historical characters.
Manifested in the production, the generic characters became Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston, done by the full company singing the original parts.
I attended the final performance, which was loose, confident, convivial. The audience was seated all over, including the floor and the stage itself, and the characters flowed casually among everyone. The performances were good—Armstrong was a standout, very real and charismatic—though nervous feeling in the first act. The second act had a fine flow and was involving all the way. There is a tense artificiality when performers and audience mix, but that melted away in Act II.
But this production was trying to do something more than music. It was trying to forge social bonds and in some small way cure old and new wounds. Neither was a success.
Schlather and Retallack were responsible for one of the problems. By all means, revise the piece with Douglass and Hurston, but don’t have them played by the whole company. In an opera where each individual character is part of the story of America, a chorus is background, animated stage dressing.
The other problem was the community outreach. Good intentions and efforts on a small scale were just not enough to solve what is a real, and much broader problem. By my on-the-fly calculations, the cast (including chorus) was 3 percent people of color, and at this performance people of color made up 1 percent of the audience.
The opera is so separate from the lives of the poor and most people of color in this country that I would expect this outreach to fail. I believe that the production made “considerable attempts,” but what the poor of Hudson need, no matter their color, is not opera but money.
This is a class issue. Not a deliberately malevolent one, like our politics, but one of class blindness, neglecting needs one cannot see. And Hudson turned out to be the ideal place to set this into relief.
The town doesn’t need opera or an opera house. Yes to art, yes to creativity—there’s not even an argument about their place in human culture. We are homo sapiens because we make up stories; we perform together. Even Neanderthal men made music! (So consider conservatives who don’t want art in society to be Cro-Magnons.)
Despite everything, this is a rich country, and it can pay for art and pay artists. But where is the cash going in Hudson? Did any of the donations made to restore the opera house go to subsidizing tickets for the poor, for the audience that wants to see Douglass and Hurston “sing?” When someone drops four or five figures at a Warren Street gallery, or resells a restored house for a tidy profit, does that mean the public schools can keep art and music classes, buy instruments and material for the kids?
I doubt it. We love our own kids, but if public school funding is any measure, we don’t much care for other people’s. On the supposed right side of the argument, we decry trickle-down economics and regressive taxation, but liberals have their own version of it, like the $10 million the state gave for business development in downtown Hudson, with all those galleries, antique shops, and restaurants...
And then there’s the public money, from the state and the federal government, that supported The Mother of Us All. My complaint is not that the town got it, but that they should get much, much more. A town like Hudson is a place where it might be possible to bridge the classes—to put on something that speaks to a lot of people, and that most could afford, but right now, the places that soak up the most grant money are not the ones that need it the most, but the ones that spend the most of it on expensive things that end up pleasing mostly expensive people. To continue that, whether on the scale of the Met or in Hudson, is to ensure that the opera will continue to be an ornament for the class of people in this country who have—who have money, who have property, and who have the idea that those two things give them taste.
The problem and the solution are the same: money. If the opera, and so much art, is an ornament for those who have money, and we’re serious about having opera and art for everyone, that’s going to take ensuring that everyone has money. That’s going to take giving money to poor people. That’s going to require proper taxation, or people willing to hand over their cash to individuals rather than institutions. It’s going to take something like a national income.
George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.