Friday, May 23, 2014

What Makes Great Art?

Being an adult means seeing the world through an adult viewpoint. It means realizing you grew up in a world of lies and half truths. Not the standard accepted lies—that America is exceptional and great. It actually is. The lie was that it was perfect. Gullible idealists with childlike sensibilities took the imperfections for totality. They abandoned context and rejected the core truth.

Most of us have grown up in a culture of lies. For instance, that rock n’ roll isn’t merely entertaining, and historically important as a folk movement, but also artistically significant. From the start rock was created and marketed for thirteen year-olds. If you’re still listening seriously at age 40 or 50 to Van Halen or the Rolling Stones, or Bruce Springsteen, or Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, it means you haven’t advanced. Culturally you’ve remained an adolescent, with the tastes and sensibility of an adolescent.

The problem is that most of us of any age aren’t exposed to great art. We can’t appreciate that which is unknown.

I offer the premise that a single opera, “Turandot,” by Giacomo Puccini, is greater art than the entire history of rock music. The Beatles and Stevie Wonder included. As does all great art, “Turandot” reaches deeper into the soul, while at the same time it connects with the cosmos; the mysteries of space and time.


Due to fortunate circumstances, I was able to see “Turandot” twice at the Detroit Opera House during its recent run. The first time was an overwhelming experience. The second time I saw deeper into the opera, its depths and breadths, realizing more of what makes it work. Revealed to me were the commonalities it has with a handful of ultimate masterworks like “King Lear” or The Brothers Karamazov. You see, “Turandot,” not “Madame Butterfly” or “La Boheme,” is Puccini’s masterpiece.

I can’t explain why in a single blog post. For now I’ll describe part of the experience.

The two leads, Lise Lindstrom as Turandot and Rudy Park as Calaf, carry superpowerful voices. When you get into opera the first thing you realize is that this is real singing. The major leagues of voice. In comparison, widely hyped pop stars give us amplified screeching and caterwauling. I appreciate their promotional abilities (Lady Gaga performed in town the same night I was at the opera) but I also know it’s a con game.

The performance at the opera that most stayed with me afterward was not that of the two heroic-sized bigs, or the superpowerful chorus—or even the martial arts sequence!—but Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi as the tragic slave girl Liu. Never have I seen live on a stage a more emotional performance. Lombardi’s wasn’t just a physical performance, but a spiritual one. Her character seemed to rise out of herself as she sang—partly due to her perfect voice control and total identification with the character; as much due to the magic of Puccini for writing the music and developing the role. It’s the kind of performance to be remembered through a lifetime. At the same time I could watch her do the part not once or twice, but a hundred times, and not be disappointed.


I’ve long advocated for populist art. Is there a contradiction in my becoming an unofficial advocate for an obscure and expensive art like opera?

I don’t think so. Opera is no more of an elitist art than literature. Both require an initial level of difficult adjustment. Reading must be taught. With opera, you merely sit through a few of them. If you have a mind, a heart, and a soul, the cultural barriers vanish. You realize suddenly what the art is about.

(Maybe you need scars on your psyche to appreciate opera. Pop/rock music has superficial appeal. Opera goes into your soul.)

Puccini is a populist among opera composers. A local Detroit reviewer bemoaned that Puccini wasn’t cutting edge, like Alban Berg! Or, I assume, other atonalists. The public doesn’t want atonality. They want drama and color, and passion, which is what Puccini is about.

Likewise, “literature” today suffers from a kind of a-tonality removing itself from the public. It lacks broad themes, color, drama, larger-than-life emotion. It no longer carries broad themes expressing the movements of societies and humanity, the depths of the soul or the vast reach of the universe. Until it again finds those attributes it will become increasingly distant from the public; an art that will have to be reached by accident; an unknown grail to be searched for, maybe discovered, maybe not, like opera.

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