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US opera boss slams snobby NY critics

September 1, 2015 by norman lebrecht

33 comments.


David Gockley, head of San Francisco Opera, has hit out at New York critics for praising anything foreign and ignoring US composers. His particular target was  British composer George Benjamin’s ‘Written on Skin’ which left him (and many others) unmoved but was raved over in NY media as the hottest thing since Lulu.

Gockley on New York’s opera establishment and critics:  “They are willing to dismiss (anything outside NY) as being pap, and therefore, when something like the Benjamin comes along they can jump on that and think it’s the bee’s knees. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just rehashing the modernism that has bit the dust again and again over the last 50 years.’

Full rant here on WQXR.

Written on the Skin ? opera by George Benjamin


Comments (33)

  1. John Borstlap says:

    It is not difficult to see that Gockley is entirely right. Classical music, including opera, IS a bourgeois art form. Instead of being an instrument of condenscension, the term ‘bourgeois’ merely defines the basis of the modern world which came into being after the french revolution of 1789.

    Benjamin’s score is, however, a repetition of the early 20C modernism of Schönberg and Berg, the end stage of romanticism, exploring the morbid, nihilistic nightmares of that era, and the established fashions of post-1945 masochism, and therefore conservative through and through. It therefore exposes the odd 21C problem: what is a ‘contemporary’ musical language in the 21C if the most ‘advanced’ language available is already 100 years old?

    It shows that the notion of ‘advanced’ is meaningless, and it always was.

    “The challenge for today’s composers is to find their own sweet spot between being truly contemporary, and writing in the moment of 2015, and finding a way to connect with the audience.” But you cannot have your opera and eat it. Being ‘truly contemporary’ is the easiest part since everybody living and working today, is by definition contemporary. Connecting with audiences simply means: using the receptive framework that traditions offer, and they are not restricting orthodoxies. A more traditional language does not immediately mean: banal, imitative, conventional etc.

    Benjamin’s music for this opera, with its snippets of dissolving romanticism, is written on the skin of a corpse that could only live at one moment and place in history: the Vienna of 1910 and is therefore a very conservative, reactionary work. But it will be very popular with masochists.

    1. jaypee says:

      Critics and music lovers from Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, Toulouse, London, Vienna Munich, Tanglewood, Paris, Bonn, Lisbon, Stockholm, Madrid and New York seem to think otherwise…
      Must be a conspiracy, right, Mr. Borstlap?
      Why can’t you just say that you don’t like modern music and move on to something you really like? You don’t have to comment every time you see the name of a modern composer on slippeddisc in order to display your hatred for new music. Just say: I don’t like it.
      That’s OK. There’s plenty of good music I don’t like either. I don’t feel I have to use coffee-shop psychology explanations to justify my dislike.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        What a nonsense…. Benjamin’s score is in itself very good, but not as good as Wozzeck (an opera I like very much). It is not a matter of taste, but of propaganda, convention, misunderstanding of what the art form is or should be, and plain conservatism in the guise of ‘progressiveness’. I merely say what thousands of people think but don’t know how to say it, fearing to appear ‘conservative’ and receive the odd criticism like yours, the unthinking pavlov reactions.

        I know that close reading is hard… try again.

        1. jaypee says:

          You’re so full of yourself that there’s no point in discussing with you: you obviously think that you’re god’s gift to classical music and that anyone who doesn’t think like you is not only wrong but stupid.
          Have a good life.

          1. John Borstlap says:

            Calm down…. just do explain then, why the Benjamin is such a good opera, and why it is OK that it is conservative and masochistic….wallowing in modernist morbidity… while we have already a brilliant opera for all of that: Wozzeck.

    2. Glenn Hardy says:

      Thank you, for, once again, cutting to the heart of the matter. As usual, it’s falling on mostly deaf ears.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        I’m an inverted Beethoven.

  2. Karen says:

    “Written on Skin” is deeply grounded in “Wozzeck”

  3. Luciano says:

    I have no doubt that NY critics are snobs and don’t take American work seriously enough. However, Written on Skin is a magnificent work. It is a pity people feel the need to denigrate this particular work to make their point. It has received glowing praise wherever it has been performed – Aix en Provence, London, Stockholm, and now New York.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Maybe it’s better than it may seem to some people…. like Meyerbeer’s operas in the 19th century. Let’s see what will remain of it in 50 years.

  4. Jonathan Cavett Dunsby says:

    == [Written on Skin[ has received glowing praise wherever it has been performed – Aix en Provence, London, Stockholm, and now New York

    Yes, I’m sure it has. I’ve heard it and admired the self-assurance of the composer.

    But John Borstlap is quite right to say that utltimately it’s a “very conservative, reactionary work”.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Thank you for your common sense reaction.

  5. Janis says:

    Am I the only person who doesn’t think it was a “rant?” It sounded like he was just thinking out loud.

    Sometimes I think people didn’t like “Cold Mountain” only because people go to opera to see either comedy or dead chicks, and that particular one didn’t deliver. When an opera gets dark and dramatic, the audience wants its snuff, basically. Call it what you will. “Cold Mountain” left people feeling cheated for that reason.

    1. william osborne says:

      Interesting thoughts.

      1. Janis says:

        Yeah well … you get sick of it after a while. I remember a friend of mine once saying that he didn’t want to see “Brokeback Mountain” when it came out because he had seen enough of his friends live miserable closeted lives and die already. Opera’s pretty much the same.

        I remember an interview of Renee Fleming where she said that she couldn’t understand why her daughter’s favorite opera, of all the ones she’d done, was “Rodelinda.” Duh — the woman goes through hell but comes out on top and lands Andreas Scholl in leather boots in the bargain, who kneels before her and begs her forgiveness for doubting her fidelity. No fainting flowers, no “she had sex she must die,” no “her father/boyfriend/husband/brother did something bad, so to punish him, we’ll kack his daughter/girlfriend/wife/sister — that’ll show him!” I love the music and singing in opera, but you seriously do get sick of that sort of crap after a while. It’s one of the major reasons why I like Baroque opera so much — it predates all that religious “punish the strumpet” garbage.

        Well, I get sick of it anyway. Apparently, I am the only living human being who does. Everyone else seems to get off on watching “Brokeback for Chicks” over and over again ad nauseum. Meh …

        1. william osborne says:

          You’re not the only one. See: Catherine Clement’s book, “Opera; or, The Undoing of Women” published in 1979.

          I’ve written a music theater work entitled “Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano” about a soprano who refuses to accept opera’s typical portrayals of women and who tries to write her own work to use for her Met audition. See:

          http://www.osborne-conant.org/Street.htm

          1. John Borstlap says:

            Very amusing and ironic…. but the pile of pretentious cultural-philosophical theory weighs it down. I think it works best if the explanations are not read.

        2. William Safford says:

          Fidelio is one of my favorite operas.

  6. Frankster says:

    There has never been a clearer example of the failure of American opera, lead by inept reactionaries and their acolytes, than this interview and comments here. Somewhere there is a brilliant, creative composer in America who would like to do something new. They read Borstlap and hear Gockley and understand that there is no place for innovation in America. In America you can do another whale opera or just shut up. In Europe, the intendant believes that opera is a living art it is his duty to expose his audience to new music and new stagings. They believe that the audience can be changed. In America, Gockley and his minions believe that opera, as an art, is dead and their job is to entertain and keep things banal.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      In contrary, I believe that new opera, including American opera, can be effective and good, if it can avoid the pitfalls of modernist conventions and finds a way to renew operatic traditions. Renewing traditions does not mean: copying what has already been done, or the other extreme: deny that there is a repertoire, but interpreting an existing receptive framework which has developed over some 400 years and which has shown such great variety.

      Look at Verdi. He simply took existing conventions, but interpreted them in his personal way, and found ever new realizations of certain formulas. And it is no coincidence that his last 2 operas, Otello and Falstaff, have very ‘classical’ music, but it all sounds as if only discovered yesterday.

      American artists feel, in general, more free from convention than in Europe. Probably the new great contemporary opera will be written in America rather than in, say, Germany.

      1. MWnyc says:

        What do you mean by “another whale opera”?

        So far as I know, there’s one. And several critics whom I trust seem to think it’s very good. I don’t know of any plans by a company to commission or produce a different whale opera.

  7. william osborne says:

    Culture is a tool for justifying economic domination. New York must maintain its monopoly on culture to justify its economic exploitation – both national and global. True culture, by contrast, is inherently local. The creation and funding of culture should thus be at the state and municipal levels. This is not allowed because would create a far less centralized country that would be anathema to the uniformity necessary for mass markets and the American corporatocracy.

    This means that New York must dismiss, if not suppress culture in all other regions of the country. It’s doesn’t really matter if the works are modernist or neo-romantic.

    Ultimately, a worldwide cultural hegemony is established as exemplified by Hollywood and the American music industry. New York covers the top brow hegemony, and LA the bottom.

    As artists involved with the so-called high arts, one of the best things we can do for culture, and even human dignity, is to defy New York’s cultural domination. It becomes one of the truest acts of subversion. From a polemical perspective, one might make the slogan “Forget New York” and symbolize it with the acronym FNY. The first letter could also stand for something a little stronger. In the end, it’s not about the city’s common people, who are the same as people everywhere, but about the more-or-less criminal nature of the financial/cultural industry that is based there.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but more and more it seems like artists, modernist or romantic, should make their pens weapons in the service of some sort of revolt. Enough is enough.

    1. Janis says:

      When it comes to something as expensive to stage as opera, I wonder if the “loft opera” idea isn’t the way forward for unusual works and real experiments (such as, as I said above, new operas that don’t end with a female corpse, preferably naked after having had unacceptable sex of some kind). You have a bunch of singers and … well, they take it on the road in damned near any space that can hold them. No sets, no costumes, none of that stuff that costs such a terrifying amount of money.

      Opera is a bit like running for president in that the amount of money you need to pull it off and even merely fail much less succeed almost ensures that only leviathans even manage it. Small companies with a small chamber ensemble — or even just a digital piano — could risk telling stories and using music that won’t conform. It’d make ticket prices cheaper, and if they were local, it’d also cut into travel costs for the company. Could even be livestreamed for dosh.

      1. william osborne says:

        All very true. The Met spends about $1 million per performance. Santa Fe spends $750,000 a night. Experimentation is thus very limited. I’ve attempted to put music theater in a test tube, as it were, where one can truly explore the problems that need to be solved if we are to move forward. Some of my theories and rationales of small music theater are here:

        http://www.osborne-conant.org/Miriam.htm#essay

    2. John Borstlap says:

      “Culture is a tool for justifying economic domination.” Really? Isn’t there more to it?

      “True culture, by contrast, is inherently local.” I sympathize with that idea, but again: isn’t there more to it? Why did all the artist go to the big cities, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, etc.? Melting pots are inspiring and bring forth great art and great artists. But then: the countryside should not be sapped dry. In France it has been a state policy over the last decades to support art, incl. classical music, in the provinces, and with success: lots of excellent orchestras and opera houses there. And in Germany, art institutions are evenly spread over the entire country.

      And reading Marx before reflecting upon art is, for some people, a serious mental danger: the economics of culture are only a part, sometimes small, sometimes big, of the art being produced. We know by now that history is not entirely determined by economics. People have stomachs, true, but also minds and feelings. For example, the current destruction of Palmyra in the Middle East by ISIS is not driven by economic concerns or the profound longing to liberate the proletariat. Those people like to do that for entirely different reasons.

  8. T. Manor says:

    It always makes me laugh when I see ‘classical’ music’s dismal following complained about by the very people that keep the masses from learning more of it…like those home videos of the guy walking on the rake so that it hits him in the crotch — you can see it coming a mile away, but it somehow still makes you chuckle when it happens.

    1. Janis says:

      “Those unadventurous, classless, low-brow, NASCAR-watching, uncultured slobs — why don’t they like us?”

      1. John Borstlap says:

        Osborne’s chamber opera is probably just the thing for you.

    2. John Borstlap says:

      But, you know, ‘the masses’ are very welcome at classical concerts and opera productions – as long as they are behaving in such way as not to disrupt the performance. When hooligans run onto the field at football matches and disrupt the game, aren’t they removed by force? Really, it is VERY easy to get into a classical music concert. You buy a ticket, you bring your coat, hat, cane, bag with shoppings, umbrella and baby to the cloak room where the goods are stored until you collect them, you wash your hands and comb your hair in the toilet, ask the staff were you may find your seat, then relax, read the program notes if they are in your mother tongue, and be silent, and listen. If uncertain when to applaud, watch your neighbours. How difficult is all of that? (For a football match you need to know what the rules are to enjoy it, for music that is not necessary.)

      Who is keeping the masses from attending? What is really formal and intimidating about a classical concert or opera? My impression is that the classical music format is intimidating for chimps, pinguins and garden gnomes, but as long as you have clothes on, you can come-in.

      1. Derek Castle says:

        Let them eat crisps….

        1. John Borstlap says:

          No!!! That will make noise!!!

          1. La Donna del Largo says:

            You know, monomania is treatable these days.

      2. John Borstlap says:

        So sorry…. Let me rephrase, in modern post-revolutionary fashion, to avoid my head getting into danger: All masses MUST attend classical concerts and should be forced, out of free will, into the concert halls, and MUST enjoy themselves on pain of detention and punishment by whip lashes, so that the art form may live on happily, uplifting humanity.


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