Monday, April 07, 2008

East Village Opera Company Redux

A.C. Douglas at Sounds and Fury posted recently on an interview he'd heard by the East Village Opera Company.

The comments of the Company, as well as A.C. Douglas' comments on their stance, reminded me of a post I had written on one of my old blogs, the name which shall remain forever'll note the striking similarities between my post and that of Mr. Douglas, although I would note that I go to great lengths to explain what he assumes needs not be said.


On Studio Sparks, Eric Friesen asked listeners for their opinions on his guests, the East Village Opera Company, who came to the CBC studios in Ottawa to sell some records yesterday. Here goes…

They suck. No, that's not quite right, nor fair...

The East Village Opera Company was formed by a couple of Canadians who take opera arias and turn them into “rock” songs, to make them more accessible.

There is a long-standing tradition of popular artists pilfering classical music for tunes, all with varying degrees of success. I don’t mind this. If you can make it work, by all means, pilfer away. The East Village Opera Company does not, and I am afraid they do not even fail badly enough to put them in the category of Florence Foster Jenkins, and therefore worth listening to.

However, their tepid popera stylings (you can listen here) were not what really rankled me. Instead, it was their shameless use of common pop culture tropes about classical music to help sell their records.

The narrative goes something like this:

Mean, conservative classical musicians wouldn’t let them near the sacred bookcase containing the good opera music, so they had to go and find a way to bring this music to the masses, so it would reach out and touch more people, and get more people in the seats of the, for example, sold out Canadian Opera Company season. They're doing the classical world a favour, by making this music more accessible.

Not by singing it in English, of course. Nope, the Puccini arias are in Italian, the native language of rock. To boot, the lead singer’s voice is that of a young Aaron Neville, so you know he’s got that rock edge to his sound.

It got worse. There was their feigned surprise that classical musicians didn't despise them, or try to kick them out of the classical musicians club for raiding the sacred bookcase.

Check out their web site. Don't these guys look edgy, standing around, arms folded, on their East Village stage set, while accompanied by their edgy cremonese cellos?

Go watch the video. I think it sums up this project nicely.

The aria being performed is the very famous cabaletta from Verdi's Rigoletto, La donna è mobile. For those of you who don't speak Italian, what he's singing about is that women are fickle, unpredictable, like feathers in the wind. But you'd never know that watching the video.

The women should be slapping him for what he's singing, and at least that would have been a nod to what the song was about. Instead it's all E-infused 20-somethings clubbing to opera.

Now I know some of you re thinking, "But don't classical musicians do this all the time? Sing this stuff out of context?" Yes, but most classical musicians don't pretend to represent the intentions of dead composers if they were alive and composing today, as this pair did on CBC.

The frontmen for the group went on and on about how they felt that if Mozart were around today, he'd be using microphones and electric guitars. Sure, and he'd be writing his rock songs in Italian, just like everyone else.

Look, I don't doubt the skill or the sincerity of the musicians involved in this project. What I find frustrating is that their marketing sets them up as a bunch of rebels, who somehow got those stodgy old men at Decca, the giant classical music label, to let them record an album.

But here's the rub - I suspect that's exactly what happened. Some record exec took a look at this, and thought, "Hey, there's a whole segment of the population out there who want to look sophisticated but don't want to take the time to learn all the ins and outs of opera. Let's sell them this. They'll think they're getting "culture", and these nice boys are more than willing to be the front for us."

More power to them, because it appears to be working. Go check out the Amazon reviews for the CD.

Reading straight from the marketing copy, this light rock take on opera seems to be a hit for all those people who are frustrated with all the stuffy, boring, traditional approaches to classical music.

Make no mistake, the East Village Opera Company makes classical music fun!

All you have to do to believe this is to forget that the classical music recording industry pushes out these controversial, fun artists with an astonishing regularity that, surprise surprise, mirrors the popular music industry. Given that they're all owned by the same people, this shouldn't come as a surprise.

Or what about all this need to make classical music more accessible? Here we find some twisted logic, a logic many classical music lovers support enthusiastically - the need to "convert" people over to classical music.

Indeed, the East Village Opera Company, while trying to make classical music more "accessible", find their very footing in the proselytizing zeal which grounds the classical music industry.

They are part of an infrastructure which assumes that classical music is in dire need of help, and that if only people got to hear it they would become fanatics.

But how about the possibility that classical music doesn't need any help? Like all other musical genres, not everyone listens to it - do you see folk musicians going out there saying things like this?

And just take a look at the local classical music scene here in Toronto. You can go to a concert at lunch and attend one in the evening nearly every day this month.

In fact, you're spoiled for choice! Or how about, if you took the combined listening audience of CBC Radio 2 (even now) and classical 96.3 FM here in Toronto, classical music has one of the largest market shares in the city?

No one's listening to classical music? HA!

So please, East Village Opera Company, do your thing, just don't sell it as a kind of public service, and just let it be the capitalist music industry confection that it is.


James Ashley said...

I have long considered turning Proust's A la recherche du temps perdue into a comic strip to make it -- you know -- like more accessible. I'll want to shorten it to just Lost Time, of course. Your post gives me hope, Andrew.


Andrew W. said...

James, I'm glad I could be of service - might I suggest also that you tell people that if Proust were alive today he would also be writing self-help books under the pen name of Alain de Botton?