Dayton Hare: Of operas and ash heaps

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 12:51pm

The more things change, the more things stay the same. As spring teases that it may be just around the corner here in Ann Arbor, out in the nation, the various great institutions of classical music have been, one by one, making their 2018–2019 seasons known — and while one type of season may look like it’ll soon be in bloom, another is turning out to be distressingly grey.

One metric I use when judging a given organization’s concert season tends to end up being the amount of new music they include in their program. Of course, this is an element of my own bias (I’m a composer, sue me), but I also genuinely believe that it can serve as a helpful barometer of an institution’s artistic vibrancy. If you aren’t programming any new work, more often than not you aren’t having any new ideas — and at that point, why bother with it at all?

But a subset of this consideration, due to historical factors, usually ends up being the quantity of composers from either minority or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds (read: not European-descended males). As it unfortunately seems to be necessary every year, this discussion reemerged a week ago, prompted this time by the announcement of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018–2019 season, a depressing catalogue of 27 operas that, improbably yet unsurprisingly, includes a grand total of zero women composers.

One of the most disheartening things about the whole affair is perhaps that, not only does the season do a disservice to the neglected composers, it also does a disservice to the art-going public. Setting aside the fact that you should include a more diverse range of artists because, say, it’s the right thing to do, it’s also an artistic imperative. You can only gain so much by hearing Wagner’s tetralogy for the 500th time. You’re never going to expand the art form by just rearranging the furniture and hoping the light catches the sofa in an interesting new way. You have to reupholster the couch. You have to buy a new one. Maybe even hire an interior decorator, if you’re feeling ambitious — but do something. And it would be almost inconceivable for that something to not include women composers: After all, in the words of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, “any serious consideration of the music of our time would have to include a large number of women.” Even looking back at The Met’s own recent history provides an excellent example of an innovative and boundary-pushing woman composer — in 2016 the company produced Kaija Saariaho’s “L’amour de loin,” a stunning work which I had the good fortune to review at the time. Shortly after the season which included the Saariaho was announced, The New York Times ran an article entitled “Met to Stage Its First Opera by a Woman Since 1903,” which, if nothing else, should give a clue as to how frustratingly rare this sort of thing is.

Of course, one also has to take into account the cultural moment. I doubt it’s escaped anyone’s notice that we’re in the middle of the #MeToo phenomenon, and that’s probably an element of why this particular season announcement is getting so much attention. Artistic pillars have sometimes liked to think of themselves as residing somewhere outside the political and social fray, but honestly, one can’t really look at this season, in this moment, without thinking that it comes off as rather tone deaf, especially given the fact that The Met’s own James Levine recently had his past catch up with him. Granted, planning an opera season is a lot of work and takes months upon months to pull together, so The Met can’t really be faulted for the specific sin of lacking timeliness. But the general trend is certainly fair game.

The Met certainly isn’t alone in this. If the organization regarded as America’s opera company par excellence got it about as wrong as you can this year (a production of Nico Muhly’s new opera “Marnie” is its one saving grace), it had company. Orchestras and opera companies from Chicago to Houston join it in its pitfall, failing to program female composers with a frequency matched only by a similar failure with respect to composers from minority backgrounds.

There are of course exceptions, examples which could be used as a template for a way forward. One is fortunately in our own neighborhood. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has programmed a promising array of new music, including much by female composers. Detroit, however, pales in comparison to the undisputed leader of the large-scale new music scene, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

A look at the City of Angels’ orchestra should be enough to make any competitor blush with embarrassment. There simply isn’t comparison — L.A. is a veritable cornucopia of new music. Last year a no less notable member of New York’s cultural commanding heights than The Times turned its coat to proclaim the L.A. Phil “the most important orchestra in America. Period.” High praise from the paper of record, but certainly not unwarranted. Over the last 15 years or so the orchestra has rocketed to new heights, notably under the leadership of a woman, Deborah Borda, who was last year snagged by the New York Philharmonic to be their president and CEO, just as Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society snagged the Philharmonic’s Matthew VanBesien. L.A. offers a constructive and innovative model for any forward-thinking musical organization to emulate, an aim which sooner or later, I suspect, will end up being existential.

If music is to be — as its most strident champions assert — the universal language, it has to do better with speaking in a universal voice. You can’t seriously expect the umpteenth symphony of the umpteenth dead Austrian to necessarily speak to the soul of someone whose ancestors were put into chains by someone who looked a lot like the old maestro. To have a universal appeal it has to draw from universal sources, and that means programming works by people who the canon left behind.

But more than that, if classical music is to have a future — and I assume that’s the idea — then it indisputably has to lie in the hands of the young, and the young aren’t going to put up with this for much longer. I’m not saying that the great masterworks should be thrown onto the ash heap of history, but if organizations keep trying to reburn the same classics without adding more wood to the fire, an ash heap is what they’ll get. Of course, no amount of admonishment from the sort of semi-professional opinion-giver who writes columns in The Michigan Daily is going to change all of this. But an ocean is made of individual drops, and, well, you know the rest.