A bit of a rant about “modern” music

owlIt’s received wisdom in the opera (and, more generally, classical music) world that “modern” works are a hard sell.  “Modern” appears to mean anything post Puccini plus anything from the early 20th century that’s perceived as “difficult”, like Bartok or Janacek.  This is reflected in programming.  In the last five years COC has programmed precisely one work written this century and in the last two seasons the most recent works were written in 1957 and 1945.  Next year is even worse with nothing written after 1914.  It’s no wonder people say the opera house is becoming a museum.

Now I don’t think opera house managements relish this state of affairs.  They do it because they feel the audience gives them no choice.  I’m not absolutely convinced of this as I know that works like Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Reimann’s Medea have played to packed houses.  That said, it does seem to be true that a significant number of season subscribers, especially the ones in the most expensive seats, are quite allergic to anything in the least out of their very limited comfort zone.  It’s always interesting to look at those expensive seats and see who hasn’t shown up on their subscription night.  It’s sadly true that for a piece like Peter Grimes there are empty seats (and many more after the intermission).  It’s particularly annoying because the pieces that frighten off the old fogeys are usually precisely the ones that my younger, less opera experienced, friends enjoy the most.  So pandering to the fogeys turns off the new potential audience and thereby reinforces the problem.

There’s another aspect to this that really annoys me.  The excuse for this behaviour is the notion that modern music is “difficult”.  This was famously exemplified by Robertson Davies’ remark about “owls screeching in a bicycle factory” which might well serve as an exemplar of all that is most depressing about middle brow Philistinism.  OK so there was a period when the critical and academic mainstream was deeply enamoured of certain kinds of theory driven music making and that produced works that few people beyond a small avant garde ever came to love.  But, and it’s a big but, that experiment pretty much died the death thirty years ago.  Most music written in the last few years is far from theory driven and I just don’t see what is difficult in the music of Thomas Adès, Jake Heggie or John Adams.  Certainly it should sound no stranger to modern ears than Fidelio or Tannhäuser or Don Carlo did to contemporary audiences.  Add to that that the works from the (roughly) 1920-1980 period that have made it into the standard repertoire are by composers who bucked the more severe academic modernist trends.  Berg, Britten, Strauss and Henze are in their different ways often intensely lyrical.  Why then is there still this refusal by certain sections of the audience to engage with some really wonderful music?  I don’t have a scientific answer but the temptation to assume it’s sheer bloody laziness is very strong.  In any case it’s very sad because it deprives us of opportunities to see some marvellous operas in favour of a baby food diet of Carmen, La Bohème and Traviata.

muetteWhat prompted this line of thought was listening to the work of young student composers on Thursday night.  It was all exceedingly accessible and the main influences seemed to be Hollywood and minimalism.  Probably a sound move if one wants to make a living as a composer but frightening in a way.  If twenty somethings aren’t even trying to shock the going on elderly like myself then the world is becoming a very dull place.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing to get back to the days when music mattered, to composer and audience alike, enough to provoke riot or revolution?

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14 thoughts on “A bit of a rant about “modern” music

  1. I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to avoiding modern opera, based on the assumption that the music will be “difficult.” But I know that’s a prejudice I should really try to overcome. In the Met’s 2012-13 season, “The Tempest” was the performance I looked the least forward to, but it surprised me by being my favorite of the year!

    • It is always a bit of a risk. There are recent operas that I’ve seen and really not liked. I don’t think I’ve really enjoyed anything by Tan Dun for example. Equally though I’ve sometimes been disappointed when the piece is trying so damn hard to be accessible that it becomes bland and boring.

  2. Should COC be looking at new ways to get those abandoned subscriber tickets into the hands of the potential new-music audience?

    • It rather depends what the subscriber does. If they just don’t show up then there isn’t much anyone can do. One can return subscription tickets in which case they are treared as a charitable donation for tax purposes. I guess when that happens they go back on sale, probably in the half price rush sale. But half of $350 is more than most younger opera fans can stump for.

      • Yeah, I’m wondering if there’s a way to a) incentivize beyond the tax deduction — often a completely pointless benefit, at least down here — to get people to be more proactive in giving up their unused tickets, and b) for COC (or any other opera house, for that matter) to then connect those tickets up with the alternative audience for super-cheap and in a more efficient, user-friendly manner than a rush line.

  3. One problem I think is that a lot of music critics often describe this music as difficult and it scares off the “fogeys”( many of whom for some reason do not find Wagner “difficult”)” There is also something about opera audiences in particular that just want to hear the same familiar works over and over. It just can’t be tourists and newbies who fill all those seats whenever the Met does the Zef Boheme. It is puzzling–when the Met revived The Nose–which was a huge hit a couple of years ago–there were many empty seats. Ditto last season with the McVicar Cesare an opera the Met had done many times over the past 25 years in a new (for the Met at least)
    production that got rave reviews (I can’t believe the fogeys find Handel scary). I love The Third Man, Throne of Blood and The Godfather but
    I like to see new movies too. This does not seem to be case with many opera goers.

    • You make a really good point. I’m reminded of the scene about chips and egg on Thursdays in Shirley Valentine. I’m told there is an equivalent too in the restaurant trade. There is a market segment at the expensive end of the market who want the same familiar dishes every time they dine. Perhaps the effort involved in making (or inheriting) lots of money is so ennervating that even the most modest effort required to adjust to something new is too much?

  4. I think there’s a trend right now towards very conservative seasons. Vancouver just announced their season: Carmen, Fledermaus, Sweeney Todd and Stickboy. Granted the latter is a new opera which I guess is quite daring in an only 4 show season but the price seems to be that the other three are quite “safe”. I hear it said that even Wagner scares off a lot of the audience so even he is a risk. These are very difficult times for cultural organizations as corporations and governments pull back and selling tickets can be a challenge. One of the results is safe repertoire choices. It’s fine to wish for more new opera most certainly but the companies need to survive if we’re to have any opera at all!

      • Totally agree. I guess it’s a catch 22 because it’s the older, established patrons who can pay closer to full price for their tickets which is what companies depend on in part. The much sought after “young” audience often can’t/don’t want to pay full price. Maybe this is why many larger companies are trying to woo this audience with newer works in smaller venues which don’t take 2000 people to fill.

  5. Let’s all be clear about why more adventurous operas are not programmed more often (at the COC or elsewhere) – it’s not economically feasible. Obviously all opera loses money, but new operas (and modern productions of traditional operas) for good or ill repel subscribers and single ticket buyers alike. None of us like it, but it’s a fact. If opera managers program this way season after season, attrition in the subscriber base can be unrecoverable. Just look what Aida. Cenerentola and Love from Afar have done for the COC. What about fundraising you say? Unless you have mega funders (like Mr Maersk in Denmark – remember A Handmaid’s Tale? 6 or 7 containers – a stage revolve. and a commission. Massive) it’s unlikely that companies can take risks on mainstage productions more than every other season. Philly Opera, on the other hand, has developed a model that works well – traditional operas in their traditional space and chamber and new works in smaller spaces, or found spaces. The older audiences get what they want (and remember the company in their estate plans – that’s why I don’t care if the audience is old. they have assets and if you treat them well, they will provide for you) AND David Devan very smartly properly capitalized his company before taking on these risks and co-produces and has major commissioning funders in place BEFORE announcing. I didn’t see any co-producers for Hadrian at the COC, nor donors – anon or otherwise.

    So instead of handwringing about why new opera doesn’t happen at the COC, enjoy it at Tapestry, or Volcano, or Against the Grain or Soundstreams (remember The Children’s Crusade? terrifying and wonderful). Or budget a trip every other year to Calgary Opera, to see what Bob McPhee has in store. Moby Dick was transporting. and co-produced. Will if come to Toronto? perhaps, but don’t hold your breath.

    My rant over!

    • Your points are all quite valid. FWIW I wasn’t hand wringing about the behaviour of opera company managements so much as the philistinism that drives that behaviour. Perhaps there’s a good side to our current harsh winter.

      I am curious about your comment about Love from Afar. Both times I saw it the house looked quite full and it was clear that many people had travelled from out of town to see it. Was it such a disaster at the Box Office?

      And, if you’ve read this blog at all you will know that few people are more assiduous about attending performances by Toronto’s more experimental opera companies than I.

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