Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Opera! So highbrow, amirite?

I haven’t updated the blog in a while, mostly due to medical issues (I’m adjusting to a new chemotherapy regime). That hasn’t prevented people from writing stupid things about music, sadly. The study about how Mozart is better than ABBA for lowering your blood pressure is continuing to circulate, and I’ve already said my piece about articles like that.

Fortunately, for some bits of bad music journalism over the past month, other writers were quick to respond. Around Independence Day, a picture of Stravinsky made the rounds, purporting to be a mugshot from when he was arrested for his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Carly Carioli of The Boston Globe thoroughly debunked this myth. Accuracy triumphs again!

As for clichéd topics, Philip Clark of The Guardian lamented “Where have the great composers gone?”, yet another article about how music just isn’t as good as it used to be, you know, in the past. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle took him on directly and answered, “Looking for the great composers? They’re all around us.”

So, even though I wasn’t keeping my own blog current, I was at peace with how others were handling things and decided it wasn’t so bad to focus on my own recovery for a bit. But then the clichés struck in a medium very dear to my heart: the comic strip.

I love comic strips, from the funny pages, to the compilations my parents kept on their bookshelves, to the fantastic webcomics being produced today. The newspaper strips are mostly dinosaurs, but I still have affection for them, which is why I love Josh Fruhlinger’s blog The Comics Curmudgeon. As he points out, yesterday’s Shoe was pretty incoherent:

Panel 1: [Cosmo, typing(?)] Opera was invented in the late 16th century ...
Panel 2: and has been annoying lowbrows ever since.

Fruhlinger comments, “Oh, man, way to stick it to opera, am I right? Or, wait, no, maybe it’s actually sticking it to lowbrows who don’t like opera? Either way, this is a strip that clearly doesn’t care what toes it steps on!” Yeah, I don’t know what this strip is trying to do. What a weird target for ire.

Anyway, when I saw the first panel as a preview, my interest was piqued because Brookins and MacNelly did the barest minimum of research to get the date right. Jacopo Peri’s Dafne is considered the first opera, and it was written around 1597. I’m usually okay with people saying that opera was invented “around 1600” because it’s close enough, but hey, the strip was even more accurate!

But the second panel features two clichés and a historical inaccuracy:
  • Cliché 1: Opera is highbrow.
  • Cliché 2: Opera is annoying.
  • Inaccuracy: Opera has always been highbrow (and annoying).
This type of historical inaccuracy annoys me the most—it’s assuming that the way things are now are the way they’ve always been. It’s lazy and reveals a lack of imagination.

I’m not going to spend words debating whether opera is annoying (a matter of opinion) or even whether it’s highbrow; I’ll concede that most people now consider it highbrow. I’ll even accept the highbrow/lowbrow division here so as not to go off on how these labels are culturally assigned and blah blah blah.

Opera hasn’t always been “annoying lowbrows.” In fact, at times it even catered to them! Even though opera began as a way for aristocrats to show off the splendor of their courts by being able to afford lavish productions, it soon became a commercial venture, with the first public opera house opening in Venice in 1637. And for opera to make money, it had to appeal to a broader audience.

Operas started incorporating more comedic elements, often borrowing liberally from commedia dell’arte, a pre-existing improv tradition with stock characters that featured some very lowbrow humor. These comedic interludes were interspersed between the serious scenes, but eventually they became so popular that they spun off into their own operatic genre, called intermezzi.

Attracting audiences meant more than using slapstick and dirty jokes (though that was a big part of it). Opera singers were superstars, and opera houses and impresarios spared no expense in getting the big names involved with their productions because they knew it would sell tickets. This lead to some practices that we would find very strange today. Many singers had a signature aria, a piece that showed off their talents and was strongly associated with them. Their contracts would stipulate that they got to sing Their Aria in whatever opera they happened to be appearing in—regardless of whether it fit the plot, the musical style, or the character they were portraying. Imagine Eliza Hamilton suddenly belting out “On My Own” from Les Mis. But, hey, when people paid to see that singer, they paid to hear that aria! The sense that an opera was a unified expression of high(brow) art hadn’t really caught on yet.

Opera houses also served refreshments, including doughnuts and wine. People tended to talk through the shows, mostly because opera was a social endeavor as much as—or even more than—an artistic one. The upper classes came to see and be seen, and the middle-to-lower classes came to take in the spectacle, both on the stage and in the boxes. But then, just now I just made the easy mistake of conflating “lowbrow” with “low class,” and they’re not really the same thing. “Lowbrow” refers to taste, not economic status, so merely pointing out the presence of non-aristocrats at operas isn’t enough to dispute the error in Shoe.

Nevertheless, opera has had its times of lowbrow appeal throughout its 419-year existence, even if there are few examples from the past century. Never assume that the way things are now is the way they have always been, especially when it comes to an institution as old as opera.


Shoe by Gary Brookins and Susie MacNelly, 7/26/16

“Solid journalism there, Perfesser, can’t understand why newspapers are dying” on The Comics Curmudgeon by Josh Fruhlinger


  1. Wonderful post! I might put "Never assume that the way things are now is the way they have always been" right into my syllabus! :-)

    1. Going off on a tangent, I've dealt with students who so strongly associate Christianity with anti-intellectualism because of the current political climate that they are BAFFLED when I point out times when the Church promoted literacy and preserved ancient texts.