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Opera and Politics: From Monteverdi to Henze Hardcover – August 25, 1997
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Bokina is a political science professor in Texas. I heard him speak at the Wagner Society in San Francisco in 2002. At the Wagner Society we are grateful any time a speaker doesn't flagellate us over Wagner's anti-Semitism, but Professor Bokina's is a far more in-depth political view than that. He is no less a reliable thinker about opera for being first a political scientist and then a music critic, since he has if anything overcompensated with quite wide reading and detailed footnotes. He supports things many music critics would take for granted.
Regarding the present state of the art, Bokina does more than merely disparage the deadly dull seasons we are being offered all over the country, always the same warhorses, and the insane imbalance created by the decades-long hegemony of the directors over the composers or even over the impresarios. On the subject of the minimalists, he is certainly the boy who calls the Emperor's tailor's bluff: he states succinctly in the introduction "The political subjects of postmodern operas provide these works with a false aura of seriousness and significance, and that is all." So watch out, those of you in the Postmodern bubble. In the Postscript he gets down and dirty, deploring Glass's "ultimately pointless melange of pop icons... At a number of points, soloists or the chorus sing solfege or meaningless random numbers, with no discernible loss of intelligibility." He makes James Agee's observation about "safe fearlessness," saying "Satyagraha takes a courageous stand against an already discredited foe." He points out that in John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer there is no gain from the fact that the choruses of exiled Palestinians and of exiled Jews are of exactly equal duration, "Each of the Palestinians is finely etched... yet these same Palestinians kill an innocent and helpless man... The ship's captain commiserates with the Palestinians, then consoles Klinghoffer's widow." This is criticism in the wasteland, we have been dying for water, and we got chilled, sparkling orange juice.
Bokina misses a few musical references. He is attuned to somebody's claimed controversy that the final duet in Poppea might not be by Monteverdi, but he doesn't seem to notice it is a close variant of the earlier duet of the Valetto and his girl, and nobody doubts Monteverdi wrote this. So there is a facile case that Monteverdi wrote the duet in question; basically the doubting musicologists can be dismissed, they are probably of the over-arcane sort who don't use musical common sense to answer questions. Of Beethoven's opera Bokina very rightly says that "Leonore has tears in her eyes, but a pistol in her hand." But he doesn't bring in what the music for this is: clearly, the "Abscheulicher." Beginning with that one word, and then fully developed with lots of brass (i.e., metal) in the orchestra, Leonore had long since earned that gun. Bokina's criticism would benefit from greater attention to how the music does, or does not (as I think is the case with Moses und Aron) support what he is saying about it.
I applaud Professor Bokina's use of Theodore Adorno, a very valuable thinker too often ignored by writers on music lately, but as always with that writer there is the danger of getting drawn into his negative positioning. I think this sometimes happens with Bokina. But you might say Adorno was not a full-fledged dialectician: he always focused on the "antithesis," second stage of dialectic. He was far too willing to say that there was something essentially negative about musical Modernism, and to anyone who loves the stuff Adorno looks like someone who just isn't always all that good for the cause. Nobody says James Joyce is alienated from the audience, but Schoenberg was a far more celebrated artist in his lifetime than Joyce. But Joyce doesn't have a special prosecutor loudly saying he doesn't have an audience. Adorno has to be plucked as the special thorn from the side of musical Modernists, always dangerously willing to proclaim their alleged negativity in order to support his own theories. Plain-spoken Schoenberg hated Adorno, and could not stand his incessant blathering. Not without reason did Thomas Mann intimate in Doktor Faustus that Adorno was in league with the devil. Bokina's remarks about Moses und Aron take up some of the standard Adorno-derived notions, such as the estrangement of the artist from the audience, criticisms flawed with a too-ready willingness to throw in the towel and talk as though Schoenberg is an ungrateful audition. If ever there are valid criticisms about Schoenberg in this regard they are LEAST valid based on Moses und Aron, a truly fantastic and exciting work with probably the greatest opera chorus part ever written. The vitality of the Children of Israel as depicted by Schoenberg is a wonder of nature, but how is it Schoenberg is alienated from his public when he portrays the public so fabulously... and in such modern tones? It's wrong to overlook the fact that the public from which Moses is allegedly estranged SINGS THE SAME STUFF the "estranged artists" sing. The chorus-public part of the equation is never sufficient to discussions of this piece. Bokina credibly says that the chorus is the principal character, but if this is so then how is the work about the estrangement of the artist? The protagonist is the entire nation! And the nation speaks Modernism. The medium can never be absent from the message... this is a work with onstage orgies and naked virgins. Any talk about the alleged impotence of the artist is just not based on actually hearing the piece. This is another instance of Bokina not quite properly letting the music lead the discussion. Adorno on the estrangement of the modernist has to be taken with a grain of salt. (It is important to know that Adorno never heard Moses und Aron. Maybe he thought it was another Jakobsleiter.) There is also an irony in Bokina's discussion... he accepts the usual cant about Schoenberg's lack of relation with the audience but doesn't seem to notice that Schoenberg is the only of his composers with not one but two operas to discuss. The book is bucking the criticism.
As usual with Schoenberg the whole song and dance about alienation is created by critics. Dedicated conductors change everything. It is worth remembering the exact circumstances of the origination of the word "atonal." A Viennese music critic said of Schoenberg's music "This isn't music but IT'S INTERESTING TO LISTEN TO [my bold]... perhaps we should call it 'atonal.'" The critic LIKED the music, but to read the critics all that is left is the stigma of the term. The opera audience is not the audience to judge the popularity of dissonances. They leave the opera house and go to jazz clubs where there is a lot more dissonance, and they accept it without blinking.
Bokina's discussion of Parsifal is pertinent but he seems unaware of the fact that Parsifal was ILLEGAL in Nazi Germany from 1939 on. So the spin on his remarks is a bit off. His inclusion of a long chapter about Henze is important, and though the Bassarids is a strange opera, with certainly an overwritten libretto, it is useful to have some clear examples of a relation between a modern opera and the 1960s. Bokina's discussion is thorough and he is good at spotting most plot implications but he misses the fact that Bacchus escapes only thanks to a deus ex machina. This means there are important implications that mitigate some of Bokina's words. (He's also a little too nice to Henze about the incident of the Raft of the Medusa: the chorus was prompting him to just remove the red flag and get on with it. My take on the situation is that the chorus knew best, easy to believe since they may have been there when it was put up. Rather than do so he left the stage and only then did an incident occur. This is according to Henze's autobiography. The whole incident was some kind of meta-theater: at its premiere, the piece about the wreck of a ship called the Medusa was scuttled by its captain, who left without doing something about the banner that is the Medusa face itself, and the work puts a new spin on "succes de scandal." It's all a regrettable reinforcement of views like Adorno's. But I do not say I think it was deliberate, as we now suspect the scandal at the premiere of the Rite of Spring may have been.)
At the end of the day this very important book on opera and politics is only a beginning of a topic that merits much attention. Political scientists would find opera a field day if they would look in on it. It is certainly far grander than most actual politics. Bokina has much of the big picture but he does not see through one essential character of opera in our time, namely that no opera gets support if it genuinely deviates from the moral world of... someone has to say it: the eighteenth century. If you go to church you are admonished to embrace the morals of the tenth century; if you go to the opera house you are expected to embrace the assumptions of the Austrian Imperial court. Apparent exceptions are allowed, but only if they conform by being tragic. Any opera that depicts a libertine such as Don Giovanni or a sex god like Bacchus must either punish them or give them an at best ambiguous fate. Bokina would say that Bacchus's fate is not ambiguous but again I point out his success is not in human terms... and he leaves the place rather a mess I think. When I write my Casanova opera, my protagonist is going to get a lot of loving, die happy, spend his twilight as a librarian... and we'll just see whether that will be allowed to thrive.