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A Singing Death

I always find it curious when moderns harp on the problem of opera’s verisimilitude. Theorists of the genre began to grapple with such objections as soon as the genre was hatched as a rebirth of Greek drama, a renaissance that, as the music history books like to tell us, ushered in the baroque. People, at least most of them, do not go around singing in dialogue or simultaneously in real life when declaring their love and/or hate. Nor do they unfurl skeins of solo song in the midst of assembled company in ballroom or bedroom. If they do, they are quickly sedated and carted off to the booby hatch. That opera is for the crazy is an old trope: in the cultural imagination there is nor more fanatical fan than they.

With the advent of moving pictures, the cinema usurped opera’s spot at the top of the entertainment heap. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the Romantic musical strategies of emotional manipulation were taken wholesale into the newly birthed art form as well. Indeed, from Fritz Lang’s Wagnerian Nibelungen to Friedrich Murnau’s grandiose Faust to Lillian Gish’s sentimental La Bohème the silent screen was often unapologetically beholden to opera.

Yet as delivered by the cigar-smoking midwives of Hollywood, the creature that became American cinema could hardly be called natural or realistic. Look around at that creature’s descendants and then tell me that the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial fantasies stocked with surgically altered stars and digitally-altered action are any less far-fetched than the excesses and excursions of grand opera. In both modes of spectacle—which, like many relatives are more alike than they care to admit—realism is rarely the point.

The objection, for example, that long arias stop the dramatic flow on the opera stage seems utterly arbitrary when measured against the formulae of Hollywood blockbusters, where the demolition of people and buildings is never seen as a detour from the “plot” even though these sequences are hardly less stagey in their usurpation of the cinematic moment than the outbreak of a colorful ballet or a frothy chorus on the opera stage. The screaming siren is Hollywood’s coloratura, the squeal of brakes its cadenza, the explosion its thundering timpani and choral outburst.

The intertwined past of opera and movies has taken on a curious coalescence in the form of the simulcast pioneered by the Metropolitan Opera in New York nearly a decade ago. Now it is commonplace of a Saturday to encounter groups of gray-haired folks, some wielding canes and sporting neckties, jostling for position in the matinée queue at the mall box-office with hooded feral youth plying their devices with tattooed thumbs. This past weekend the elderly were not in this fluorescent purgatory to pick up tickets to the cinematic masterpieces on offer— Goosebumps or The Martian or Hotel Transylvania 2—but for Verdi’s Otello, the great bearded Italian’s last musical tragedy.

With respect to realism—whatever that might mean—all I can say is that surveying this ad hoc meeting of disparate generations against a backdrop of pumping limbs and flexing abdomens across the corridor at Planet Fitness is about as surreal as it gets. If all the world’s a stage, the one in the mall is the weirdest one of all.

Once you enter the house of mirrors that is opera through the portal of the Cineplex you encounter unreality and reality in infinite regression. The present production of Otello directed by Bartlett Sher and staged with gloomy glass sets has received much attention because for the first time on the Met stage the title character does not sport blackface. “Given our cultural history and political history in the United states … putting [Otello] in blackface was completely unthinkable,” Sher told the Guardian, as if having Otello not made-up as a moor would change anything out in the real world. Theatrical conventions such as this one prop up opera: knock them from under the stage and the whole structure might come crashing down well collapse like a Brünnhilde felled after pushing herself too hard on one of those elliptical trainers over at Planet Fitness. Soon trouser roles will be banished as being insensitive to those in transition between and among the various genders.

Given this sleight-of-face, it’s probably no coincidence that the distinguished African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens was enlisted to hosted the simulcast. The Met programmers thus unwittingly confirmed a deeper, more unsettling and more obvious truth: that there were no real black faces among the leads on stage. Similarly, I scanned the raked seats behind me in the Theater 11 for a person color: it was all white in the big dark.

Otello’s paranoia that his wife’s suspected infidelity might have something to do with his skin color is literally effaced in this production; the lines referring to his hue become unintelligible, surreal. Added to this amalgam of misplaced sensitivity and missed opportunities is the fact that tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, who took the title role, has a big meaty head that might have better receded into the shadows. He has an even bigger voice, whose hard edge projected villainy rather than tragic doom. It was hard to feel sorry for this Caucasian Moor—one of the strangest beings ever to tread the boards.

Thankfully, the pure evil of his counterpart Iago was embodied with riveting menace by the Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, his amoral soliloquy at the start of the second so rich and resonant in its hatred that it was paradoxically ennobling. The highpoint of the simulcast came not long after when Lucic exited from the stage for intermission and entered in the wings to be greeted by Owens only a few breaths and steps after his duet with Otello pledging to abet the plan of vengeance—Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro (“Yes, by the marble heavens I swear”). Lucic seemed to remain in character and told the African-American lurking in the wings: “I’ve done tons of Iagos.” This triumphant moral blackness was just business as usual, as Lucic’s haughty, self-ironizing sneer confirmed, thereby making for the best theater of the entire show.

But if blackfacing a moor is simply a convention, then whitefacing can be one, too. Even if this volteface is a wrongly administered antidote to the poison of race that should course through the drama, it is not as bizarre as watching Otello stifle Desdemona then see her revive in due course to sing her dying words. It hardly settles these qualms to know that she similarly comes up for air to confirm her husband’s error in Shakespeare’s play: “A guiltless death I die.”

Needless to say, the Verdians filling the mall seats were enraptured by the quick flight of this gorgeously faltering swan song taking off from the resolute throat of the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva. But singing much more than speaking displays the necessity of breath, and this disparity between the action and the functioning of the human respiratory system flirts dangerously with comedy right at the crux of the drama. Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito wanted his Otello to finish Desdemona off with a dagger, but Verdi could not bring himself to enact this ruthless, realistic touch. Among the multiplex audience there was not a titter when Desdemona sang her last, then expired for good.

For without a singing death there would be no life in many an opera. Still, as I exited the scotch-guarded dimness of Theater 11 and contemplated the fate of this white-faced moor and his wife, I reminded myself that if you break into song—any song—in the mall you will be thrown out on your ear.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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