Kristen Gaylord

Kristen is a California native, New York transplant, working on her PhD in art history at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. She writes for Untapped New York and edits the Contemporary Art Consortium.

In Celebration of Esoteric Spectacle: Operatic Observations

This piece was originally published in September of 2013. Consider reading it alongside Laura Tokie’s opera piece, also originally published last year and available for you again on the homepage. 

The only sport I can watch with any amount of interest on television is soccer and, on a good day, basketball. But golf? No. Baseball? No. Football? No. I simply can’t. I’ve tried, and I’ve been told what I’m missing, but nothin’ doin’. I watch soccer because I played for many years. I am a minimally “educated” viewer, while I know that there are skills and abilities that are invisible to me as an uninformed baseball-watcher.

Because I study modern and contemporary art, my entire life has become a struggle to justify specialized and particularized practices and argue for their wider relevance. Mine is a precarious position, defending esoteric spectacle and informed viewing while trying to stamp out the rampant privilege and elitism that so often accompany. And visual art isn’t the only realm in which I do battle—happening to love opera doesn’t help.

I used to hate opera. I mean, they sing in shrieking voices and clomp around and get all melodramatic. I could handle “opera lite”—some Bocelli pop, some Pavarotti arias—but I left the vibrato and the breastplates to rich old people. Then I spent a semester in Florence, and had to choose an elective: it was either a studio art workshop or History of Italian Opera. Since any pedestrian on the street has as much artistic talent in her pinkie finger as I do in my entire body, I chose the academic course.

Our class learned about the different voice types and periods of Italian opera. We suffered through early Baroque pieces, and zipped through the classical and Romantic ones. We attuned our ears to the new sounds of 20th century works. All along the way we tried to note as many of the myriad variables as we could about every production—the conductor, the director, the singers, the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the stage. And that very little survey—that introduction to the broadest of concepts in the most superficial of ways—has made all the difference.

***

A key factor of our pleasure in art is our recognition of it and in it. When you turn the second corner on the fifth floor of The Museum of Modern Art, you’ll see a crowd clustered with smartphones and digital cameras around van Gogh’s Starry Night. Starry Night is not, in my opinion, the best painting at MoMA. It’s fantastic for many reasons, but that’s not what is compelling people to photograph it. Two years ago Placido Domingo complained of exactly this effect to Stephen Colbert, of all people —how “La donna è mobile” is “so known that the whole evening the public is sitting in the auditorium, and when it comes “Ta ta ta re ta la, pum pum…’ everybody says ‘Rigoletto!’ And it is in the fourth act.” We respond more easily to what we recognize, but we can’t recognize something without exposure to it. That anticipation of the audience for “La donna è mobile,” so rightly frustrating to Domingo, is also why Rigoletto is one of the most-performed operas worldwide.

After reading Laura Tokie’s recent piece on “What’s Opera, Doc?” , I found the short online and watched it for the first time in probably 15 years. Within seconds I was cackling out loud at the send-up of Fantasia in the opening, and, in one of many nods to Wagner, Elmer’s use of “Ride of the Valkyries”. Next I recognized Siegfried’s horn call in Bugs Bunny’s first recitative, and appreciated the parodic twisting of words and pauses to make his lines fit the tune. Then the clichéd operatic reveal of the beautiful woman (Brünnhilde on her white stallion, Grane), although this time it is the horse who has junk in the trunk. Elmer and Bugs’s duet (“Oh Brünnhilde, you’re so lovely!” “Yes, I know and I can’t help it.”) mimics hundreds of love arias whose sentimentality I’ve laughed at or cried to. And the balletic interlude had me reminiscing about my annoyance at the Act I Nutcracker duet that I watched at least five years in a row at my old dance studio—the overly aestheticized “pursuit” and “submission.” I quickly remembered another classic episode—this one a parody of Il barbiere di Siviglia—and settled in to enjoy it just as much.

I’m not really a music person: I have little experience with theory, and none with composition. I know that I’m missing a lot when I watch opera, the same way I know that the intricacies of NASCAR racing technique escape me. But, at least for me, the little work I’ve done has so far been enough, and only spurred me on toward more. I have become accustomed to the singing style; I respond to the stories and the lyrics; I critique the costumes and the design. When I read reviews by Alex Ross I know I’m not perceiving a tenth of what’s there. Yet in the end that’s exactly how I know it’s so rich: even though I’m watching and listening with insufficient eyes and ill-informed ears, I am engaged.

We are in the positions of historians as well as viewers and participants when appreciating the art-ifacts of an earlier time. Sometimes they’re wrapped in funny clothes and odd singing voices, sometimes they’re mysterious sacred objects, sometimes they employ arcane language and passé literary devices. But always they are created by humans, and always they touch something human in us. And sometimes we can’t find that something until a bunny points the way.

photo by: mt 23

Hugo’s Hope: “Les Misérables” on Screen and Stage

As with many popular films, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables received a mixed critical response. The movie was guaranteed to garner attention no matter what, using as its source material a beloved musical, itself based on a 19th century classic novel. Critics generally dislike it, while audiences flock to see it. This pattern mimics the musical’s reception, which was not entirely favorable when it debuted in 1985—but Les Misérables has since run continuously, seen by around 60 million viewers.

Criticism has focused on the film’s cinematography, live-singing renditions, and general lack of subtlety. Catherine Shoard at The Guardian ends with a doozy of an indictment:

The experience of sitting through all 160 minutes of Les Mis can feel less like an awards bash than an epic wake, at which the band is always playing and women forever wailing. By the end, you feel like a piñata: beaten, in pieces, the victim of prolonged assault by killer pipes.

Although the soundness of Hooper’s directorial choices is open to debate—his use of close-ups and visible CGI effects are especially censured—there’s not much he could do about the “overbearingly maudlin” effect without rewriting the musical and, in fact, the 1862 novel. The movie, and the musical, are emotionally manipulative and blatantly so. But so is Hugo’s original.

***

I grew up on musicals and, being a somewhat delusional teenager, I eventually decided that if I could handle “opera lite” like Les Misérables I could handle its source material. For weeks my irritating attempts at dinnertime conversations began with, “Did you know that in the book ….?” Over the years I’ve lost my fondness for musicals—all except one. I can still be caught with my headphones on, gesturing grandly to “Red and Black.”

Considering the subject matter, is there any other way to gesture? Hugo tackled history, politics, philosophy and theology with sincere conviction, and the team of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and librettists Alain Boublil and Jean-mar Natel catches some of that fervor while adding typical musical theater exaggeration. Kyle Buchanan of the Vulture humorously describes this process: “Perhaps the source material was sober and straightforward, but once you add singing and stick the whole production on a glorified Lazy Susan, you’ve got to contend with an additional camp allure that’s unavoidably transformative.” Every time I hear the stark and overwrought contrast between young Cosette (“Please do not send me out alone, / not in the darkness on my own”) and Madame Thénardier (“None of that! Or I’ll forget to be nice!”), I burst out laughing. But it’s a joyful laugh, not a mocking one.

Les Misérables is a 1500-page tome (in English translation). The musical necessarily condensed the story, and although I should throw a bone to the “The book is always better!” crowd, I think it does an admirable job. Whole backstories are referenced in a few lines. “He slept a summer by my side, / but he was gone when autumn came” covers the two-year relationship between Fantine and Félix Tholomyès. In the novel Javert is not present at Jean Valjean’s confession, which takes place in a different city where the unfortunate Champmathieu is under arrest in his stead; Jean Valjean leaves while everyone is shocked, and Javert catches up with him later. (In this, and other instances, Hooper’s movie makes movements back towards the novel.)

A key area of condensation is on Hugo’s interjections. Hugo devotes a whole book (there are 365 chapters in 48 books in 5 volumes) to the battle of Waterloo, digressing from detailed battle descriptions to comments on heroism and memory. One book is on the argot of the 19th century French criminal world; another is on the background of a religious order, the Bernardines of the Obedience of Martin Verga. These sections can be tortuous, but through them Hugo claims the entirety of the novel—with its use of firsthand experience (“the author,” “the narrator”) and often pedantically expressed opinions—as his own.

The movie attempts to rectify this omission, also. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times summarizes, “Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest.” From the early scene of Jean Valjean pacing Bishop Myriel’s chapel to the clarification of his escape with Cosette to the convent at Petite Rue Picpus, Hooper certainly doesn’t shy away from “religious themes.” But theology? There he misses Hugo’s voice almost completely.

***

The musical tells the story as a choice between two interpretations of Christianity: the mercy of the bishop, instilled in Jean Valjean, and the justice and order of Inspector Javert. Javert throws himself into the Seine because of the seeming incompatibility of these visions: “There is nothing on earth that we share, / it is either Valjean or Javert!”

While this version captures Hugo’s emphasis on mercy, forgiveness and grace, it is inevitably reductive. I find a better counterpoint to Valjean in the innkeeper Thénardier, used in the musical and film as comic relief but in the novel a much more evil and tragic figure. Of his family Hugo writes:

Undoubtedly they seemed very depraved, very corrupt, very vile, very hateful even, but people rarely fall without becoming degraded. Besides, there is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les misérables; whose fault is it? And then, when the fall is furthest, is that not when charity should be greatest? (744)

This passage hints at Hugo’s theology of social liberation, expressed in the book through the characters as well as his own digressions. First, society is responsible for the degradation of humans, and therefore mercy is not simply praiseworthy, but required. Bishop Myriel, the original conscience of the story, says “The faults of women, children, and servants, and of the weak, the indigent, the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise” (13-14). Jean Valjean repeats, “There are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators” (165). Hugo himself writes of political revolutionaries, “Those who are hungry have just cause” (847) and that “these words, intended for insults—beggars, rabble, ochlocracy, populace—indicate, alas, rather the fault of those who reign than the fault of those who suffer; rather the fault of the privileged than the fault of the outcasts” (1170).

Second, the rich are continuously to blame, “As there is always more misery at the lower end than humanity at the top” (8). Thénardier, in speech “hideously evil and yet bitter as truth,” (798) rails against philanthropists:

Rags not worth four sous, and bread! That’s not what I want of the rabble! I want money! But money, never! Because they say that we’d go and drink it away, that we’re drunks and do-nothings! And what’ve they been in their day? Thieves! They wouldn’t have gotten rich without that! Oh! Somebody ought to take society by the four corners of the sheet and toss it all into the air! (754)

The drunken skeptic Grantaire muses, “Oh, if the good hearts had the fat purses, how much better everything would be! I imagine Jesus Christ with Rothschild’s fortune! How much good he would have done!” (1098)

In response to this “gloomy social edifice” (1176), Hugo’s solution—mimicked by the men at the barricade—is social utopia. He was a staunch progressivist, viewing each development towards liberty and equality as part of an eschatological arc that would create better conditions on earth, completed finally in heaven. Education is the answer.

Destroy the cave Ignorance, and you destroy the mole Crime.
We will condense in a few words a portion of what we have just said. The only social peril is darkness.
Humanity is similarity. All men are of the same clay. No difference, here below at least, lies in predestination. The same darkness before, the same flesh during, the same ashes after life. But ignorance, mixed with the human composition, blackens it. This incurable ignorance possesses the heart of man, and there becomes Evil. (721-22)

And Hugo himself claims that this evolution is what Les Misérables is about:

The book the reader has now before his eyes—from one end to the other, in its whole and in its details, whatever the omissions, the exceptions, or the faults—is the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. (1242)

Humanity’s depravity is the fault of the society it has constructed; when the human race is raised, “the lower strata will quite naturally leave the zone of distress. The abolition of misery will be brought about by a simple elevation of level” (999). Thus, the fates of Hugo’s characters are guaranteed without intervening acts of infinite mercy. Fantine, an innocent working-class woman, falls because of the social forces of poverty and the subjugation of women. Jean Valjean is a lost cause—hardened by 19 years in a place that “permits the irreparable loss of a sentient being” (84)—until Bishop Myriel displays grace and forgiveness. Cosette and Eponine are antitheses. Cosette has a savior in Jean Valjean, while Eponine does not; one ends rich and happily married, the other lives a life of crime and hunger until she dies young. Perhaps most starkly, the convicts Valjean and Thénardier; in the book Valjean is much more depraved at first, even stealing money from a 10-year-boy after his release. But one is lifted into light while the other sinks into unfathomable evil and misery. These figures are partly responsible for their own fates, yet Hugo’s message is not condemnation, but pity, understanding, compassion and self-sacrifice, even unto death.

***

I prefer the first half of the musical; many of the tune repetitions of the second act seem lazy or overdone. But one of my favorite moments in the entire production is the last two minutes, and I eagerly anticipated how Hooper would set the refrain of “Do you hear the people sing?” So, after enjoying the film, I was devastated by the last scene: revolutionaries brandishing weapons on a supersized Parisian barricade.

This is not the end goal for Hugo, nor the musical. By keeping its eyes on violent overthrow and material misery, the film misses an opportunity to portray the sincere hope centering Hugo’s utopian beliefs. Hugo was no disinterested Frenchman: he wrote Les Misérables in exile, avoiding Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire government. But the musical’s militaristic yet optimistic finale includes new lyrics that locate the 1832 June Rebellion in the totalizing movement toward paradise on earth, tying what was in Hugo’s view necessary bloodshed and the specifics of French politics to a social progressivist eschatology typical of the 19th century. The goal for Hugo is earthly peace—“To bring the duel to an end, to consolidate the pure ideal with the human reality, to make the right peacefully interpenetrate the fact, and the fact the right, this is the work of the wise” (826), culminating in heavenly perfection.

The musical echoes this: the entire ensemble walks out to stand behind Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine, in regulated rows with empty hands. Instead of “the song of angry men” who warn that “the blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France,” they deliver a hymn with its eyes on paradise.

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night,
it is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies:
even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share, they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring when tomorrow comes.

 

See also

Stuff Christian College Kids Don’t Like

Just a few months after graduating from a Christian college, I found an article that encapsulated the curiousness of the community I was leaving. Called “One Island Under God,” it was based on a Facebook conversation by authors Anna Scott and Brian Buell that listed a very specific category: stuff Christian college graduates like. The inventory of interests unearthed by Buell and Scott is jarringly familiar—and perplexing. It includes The Princess Bride, Sufjan Stevens, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, “Social and/or sophisticated or exotic forms of smoking” (pipes, hookah, cloves, cigars), certain fantasy series (Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings), and Settlers of Catan. Does anyone else feel like a pinned butterfly?

The authors didn’t seem able to explain exactly what held together this heterogeneous group, but Anna described its effects well:

The great success, the genius of the “Stuff White People Like” website was due to the fact that it struck a resonant chord: we all thought we were the only ones who liked Mos Def, watched Arrested Development or read the The New Yorker. The analogous list for Christians is one that, likewise, calls us out on the things in non-Christian or “secular” culture that we think are above stereotyping or pigeon-holing, because they are not overtly Christian, but, it turns out, are beloved by thousands of other young Christians.

I’m sure many readers could amend and update this list. I’d add Wendell Berry, Mumford and Sons, taking some sort of “stand” against technology (typewriters, Instagram filters or actual Polaroids, venerating people who don’t have Facebook), Wes Anderson, Iron & Wine, 19th century non-British “classics” (by Dostoevsky, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dumas), T.S. Eliot, the BBC, Abstract Expressionism, Frisbee golf, and the following words: “community,” “generative,” and “vocation.”

Granted, this is a pretty specific demographic, but it’s sizable: 20-something Protestant Christians, overwhelmingly from white and middle-class backgrounds. Why are so many of us drawn to this “stuff”? What are we looking for, and are we finding it?

Anna hints at one possibility with her placement of quotation marks around the word “secular,” and her hedging use of “overtly” before “Christian.” While many of the listed interests couldn’t be found in a Christian bookstore, they are “covertly” Christian: respectable yet not evangelical. Christians take pride in Sufjan Stevens’s faith, in the reputation of T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Did you know he was Christian?”), in the vaguely Biblical language of Iron & Wine and Mumford and Sons. While the trend Anna identifies is certainly true, I don’t think it entirely explains the appeal. There are other unifying characteristics of many, if not all, of these tastes we seem to independently develop: they are innocuous and nostalgic.

Why does this demographic tend to like Franny and Zooey more than Catcher in the Rye, or prefer 19th-century novels to 20th-century ones? Catcher in the Rye is more discomforting than Franny and Zooey: more specific, more despairing, more enraged. Similarly, 19th-century novels of the ilk mentioned before are grand, epic, and all-encompassing. Besides their treatment of faith, Hugo and Tolstoy condemn what is from our vantage point easily condemnable: serfdom, abuse of clerical power, lack of opportunities for women. In a sense, the outrages are on a level extreme enough to be generally agreed upon. While I’d argue that there is radicalism present in these works, they can also be appreciated at a safe level, with the particularities of their contexts detached enough from our own that any risk is neutralized.

Similarly with nonrepresentational art: although many of the Abstract Expressionists had all sorts of positions and intentions that young post-Christian-college adults would squirm at, the art itself asks nothing but aesthetic appreciation (in fact, the vacuum of defined referents is one of its greatest failings).  It is not to everyone’s taste, yet very few people are actively offended by it. So, young Christians can justify their up-to-dateness, their participation in the “secular” world without danger: “I like modern art—I like Abstract Expressionism!”

What happens, as Anna identified, is that we construct a parallel pantheon to the “secular” one:  young Christians find suitable alternatives to Precious Moments and the Left Behind books, but unwittingly stereotype themselves by the very act of their idiosyncratic congregation. By reading Tolstoy and listening to Iron & Wine we think we are somehow above the stereotypical Christian world. We choose things that neither side of the “Christian / secular” dichotomy can disagree with: we find our space in the middle of the Venn Diagram.

The possibility of “nostalgia” is a related desire, and a widespread one. Hence the pipe-smoking, Eliot-quoting, herb-growing, internet-disparaging 20-somethings that you and I both know. But I have to keep this nostalgia in quotation marks because it is false; it is longing for the idea of worlds that few of us have experienced: the fantastical realms, the sepia-tones of the Inklings’ England, the agrarian life.

It would be tempting to say that the referent is Edenic or Elysian, but that would be too easy, and not quite true. Besides the tautological argument that we can’t miss something none of us has actually experienced, it’s hard to imagine that these selections bear anything more than a glimmering resemblance to paradise. The particular realities of the world of the Inklings—of sexism and elitism and class privilege—or of agrarian existence—of hardship and insecurity and powerlessness—are not what we long for. But the distance imposed by time, and lack of firsthand experience, adds an attractive patina to complicated reality.

Thus, for this group of young, Christian-college twenty-somethings, charity work is good, but political work is iffy. Protesting against contemporary slavery is honorable, but protesting against discriminatory hiring prejudices might take things too far. Non-objective art is beautiful; feminist art is discomforting. Talking about community is commendable; talking about alternative economic systems is extreme. We, like Goldilocks, are uncomfortable with the “too hot” (The Guardian) or “too cold” (Focus on the Family)—we like our porridge “just right” (the BBC).

When Jesus called Christians to be “set apart,” this list of tastes is probably not what he had in mind. He was a blazing flame of extremity: having prostitutes over for dinner, calling his followers to be homeless, subverting social hierarchies. When he wasn’t lecturing about human universals, Jesus mucked around in the particulars of his context, modeling specific political and cultural revolutions at radical risk. I have a sneaking suspicion that to his fellow citizens, Jesus looked more like the Occupy movement than World Vision.

I am not trying to claim that we don’t need World Vision, but we do need something more. Young Christians should be the most radical of us, attracted not to the inoffensive but to the sharp and controversial. Too often we abstract the particular just to a level of palatability, through ideological detachment or historical displacement. We take a cotton ball, and then pull at it until all that is left is a soft mass of cotton. The abstracted form is beautiful, but the cotton ball was useful.

 

Further reading: