The rumored surge in popular demand for yet another opera blog having failed to materialize, a few words about what can be expected here may be in order.
That word “critical,” I’d say, is the key. In my dictionary, the first definition of “criticism” reads, “The act of making judgments; analysis of qualities and evaluations of comparative worth.” That’s good. The adjectival form,“critical,” is also used in reference to a crisis or decisive moment, as in “This is the critical time for . . .” But I recently came across another way of putting it that succinctly describes what I’ll be trying to do. It popped up in The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., in an article by Melody Davis. She’s a professor of humanities, the discipline that teaches “critical thinking” to anyone who’ll listen. It’s very simple: “The application of prior knowledge to a problem.”
Anyone not historically informed and not yet at least into his or her forties can be forgiven for not having much awareness of how these processes might be brought to bear on operatic performance. We have textual criticism, some of it very fine. We have plenty of opinions, many of them entertaining and some well argued. But the standards that would render “acts of judgment” and “evaluations of comparative worth” worthy of note; the insight that would make any “analysis of qualities” valuable; and the “prior knowledge” relevant to the problems of opera when it actually is opera (that is, when it is performed) are seldom in evidence in what little is left of journalistic criticism. Of criticism at a critical time, we have very little.
And for opera, this is a critical time. Refusal to acknowledge that, a sort of denial by default, is criticism’s greatest failure now. Critics do greater harm through misplaced praise or through indifference, an indolent passing along, than with any considered censure. Opera’s present crisis has two principal components, artistically speaking. (There is also an economic crisis, a crisis of public acceptance. I’ll come to that down the road. For now, let’s stipulate only that these two crises cannot be unrelated.) The first component is creative: not enough new works are proving capable of standing with the masterworks of the classical repertory. This has been the case for a long time. The second is interpretive: the aforesaid masterworks are being inadequately presented, often to the point of being unrecognizable, and so cannot exert their magnetic hold on audiences.
Both components will receive attention here, but more will be paid to the second than to the first. There’s no shortfall of energy when it comes to the creation of new work, and in the media there is a kind of boosterish froth around it, a wishing into existence of a world in which contemporary culture and opera have found the grounds for an exciting new relationship. If there’s some truth in that, it’s happening mostly on the margins. The two most interesting new operas I’ve seen in recent seasons are Written on Skin (George Benjamin/Martin Crimp) and Dog Days (David T. Little/Royce Vavrek). They were both more compelling than any of those on offer from the Metropolitan or the New York City Opera in recent seasons (I’ve kept up pretty well). Neither seems a candidate for the status of repertory opera.