On Rescuing a “Dead Art Form” — A Landmark Book on Opera in Performance (Joe Horowitz, 8/26/2018, Arts Journal)
During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when classical music was a lot more robust than nowadays, High Fidelity was the American magazine of choice for lay connoisseurs and not a few professionals. Its opera expert, Conrad L. Osborne, stood apart. “C.L.O.” was self-evidently a polymath. His knowledge of singing was encyclopedic. He wrote about operas and their socio-cultural underpinnings with a comprehensive authority. As a prose stylist, he challenged comparisons to such quotable American music journalists as James Huneker and Virgil Thomson—yet was a more responsible, more sagacious adjudicator. In fact, his capacity to marry caustic dissidence with an inspiring capacity for empathy and high passion was a rare achievement.
Over the course of the 1980s, High Fidelity gradually disappeared, and so did C.L.O. He devoted his professional life to singing, acting and teaching. He also, in 1987, produced a prodigious comic novel, “O Paradiso,” dissecting the world of operatic performance from the inside out.
Then, a year ago, he suddenly resurfaced as a blogger, at conradlosborne.com—a voice from the past. Incredibly, the seeming éminence grise of High Fidelity was revealed to have been a lad in his 30s. And now, in his 80s, he has produced his magnum opus, Opera as Opera: The State of the Art—788 large, densely printed pages, festooned with footnotes and endnotes. It is, without question, the most important book ever written in English about opera in performance. It is also a cri de coeur, documenting the devastation of a single precinct of Western high culture in modern and postmodern times.
Essentially, Tom Wolfe on opera.
Interview: Why ‘Opera As Opera’ Author Conrad L. Osborne Asserts That Artform Is In Creative Decline (David Salazar, 12/23/18, OperaWire)
It all starts with the repertoire. Osborne posits that the main staples of the operatic canon start with the major works of Mozart and stretch through until the operas of Richard Strauss; he calls this the Extended 19th Century or “E-19 for short.” Osborne does note that many operas from before and after this period have become part of the repertoire, but in his view, these works are the ones that are part of the “renewable re-affirmability that sustain our operatic institutions.” Moreover, he notes that operas of this period showcase similarity of content in terms of the music, plot and themes they tell, even if there are marked differences of style throughout the period.
In his view, there is a general “flight from E-19” with new operatic creators placing more emphasis on theory and philosophy with regard to how the artform is created, de-emphasizing the narrative roots that were at the core of major staples.
In musical terms, he points to the “atonalists and serialists, creating a whole new language that forbid diatonic melody and sought to express things in different way.”
The idea was taken up by the musical intellectuals, pedagogues, and institutions, leading to the idea that “simple, expressive melodies” were outdated for expressive purposes.
“And if you did [use melodies], then it had to be so harmonically disguised that the listener couldn’t pick up on it anyway,” he added.
“That’s a central problem as far as opera is concerned,” Osborne further opined. “The singing-actor is the center of the operatic experience and characters are expressed through their individual vocal achievements. If you don’t have melody to sing or take advantage of how the voice has been developed over 400 years or so of operatic history, you don’t have much of anything at the center of the form’s expressive possibilities.”
He noted that the result is opera getting built up of other things.
“Modernism is built up of materials and structure. The content is not the subject. The subject is the materials.”
He referenced the idea that in modern art, the subject of the painting is not what is being depicted, but the paint and canvas itself. In music, the harmonic structures, rhythm, and instrumental timbre are given preponderance over melody in modernism.