On excellence and paint-by-number opera


Images of excellence: Anna Netrebko (here as Manon at the Metropolitan Opera last year) is one of the best sopranos around today. To some, she represents excellence; to others, great potential, with perhaps room for improvement. Is she your idea of excellence? And if not, who is? (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )

In today’s more-faster-better information-driven culture, we are increasingly defining quality in terms of quantity. Placido Domingo’s achievement was being measured in the number of roles he’d taken on (I’ve done it myself) long before he started breaking out into baritone territory. And I often hearken back to the young singer who told me the single piece of treasured advice Renee Fleming once gave her: it was about how to budget enough time to learn roles. For a young artist today, the pearl of wisdom from a reigning superstar concerns not art, but time management. This is not a criticism of Fleming or the young singer she mentored, but I do think it’s an indictment of the state of the field.

I don’t know if traditional standards of excellence can still hold in a world in which simply showing up is a more and more difficult feat. I don’t mean this facetiously or figuratively: look at the schedule of a major touring artist, and you’ll see a schedule that is physically difficult to follow. Everyone’s lives seem busier today, more filled with e-mail and obligations and multi-tasking, whether we be teachers or secretaries or factory workers or artists: a byproduct of the information/technological age.

Of course this is reflected in our art. And it’s certainly reflected in a traditional art form, like opera, that has long operated on a different kind of clock. It’s not that opera isn’t complicated: it’s terrifically complicated, and has a lot of moving parts. We’ve broken these parts down, and work on these parts with young singers, and the result is that watching some performances is like seeing the unfolding of an elaborate paint-by-number picture. Each component is polished to within an inch of its life; each singer is working like crazy to fill in each field crisply and neatly, to leave no line or chink of white untouched. It’s quite a feat on their parts; it’s a tremendous amount of work; and yet what you get is an image that is, like paint-by-number images, more or less attractive, but somewhat two-dimensional, and lacks a distinctive voice or vision of its own.

Above: Two big voices, Caruso and Destinn, have their way with a duet from Gomez’s “Il Guarany,” showing the lighter side of voices that could go plenty big when called on to do so.

In real life, working on paint-by-number pictures is not going to teach you how to turn out accomplished canvases of your own. The difference lies in a sense of ease, fluidity, virtuosity: the ability to sing a high B as if it were simply a necessary part of the music rather than a feat at the limits of endurance; the ability to make the voice large and small, dark and light rather than simply straining to be heard. I hope that my analogy breaks down somewhat, and that some singers are able to make the transition: Joyce DiDonato may be an example of someone who came through the process and emerged with a real artistic voice.

It remains true that the people with the most distinctive, unusual talents will be the most polarizing: the most loved, but also the most disliked, which is a scary thing for a young artist to contemplate. It also remains true that opera is not rocket science. This is an art form about opening up and giving expression to basic emotions -- love, anger, excitement, sadness -- at the top of your lungs. I was listening to old recordings the other day, and I was moved to intense frustration at how big and direct and overwhelming some of those voices were and still are, and how seldom I hear that kind of sound in the opera house today. It would be great if our definition of “excellence” in today’s opera-land could open up again and look beyond the boxes that conservatories and young-artist programs and teachers expect their students to fill in.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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