from Monday, July11th of the year2011.
I am, at long last, back in New York. We had a not-overly-sentimental last night of Two Boys on Friday, followed by a completely tame after-party experience with the cast and creative team and some crew (does “crew” include stage management? Those guys were the best). Friday was a fun show — apparently there were millions of subs in the orchestra, which always makes for a slightly more anxious (in a good way) conducting style. I always think a little surprise energy helps things move along, like an espresso from a new place or an unexpected free sample of chocolate.
I’ve been loosely holding my tongue about the Overall Experience of this opera, just because I felt like really, the whole thing wouldn’t be done until I was back in this specific chair with this specific coffee and everything loosely in order. Let me give you a little overview of what a morning post-opera is like. I wandered over to my score cabinets to discover that the dog-sitter has left three copies of the New York Times review of the piece above my Albert Herring score. I am not reading any reviews or blogs or whatever at all, at least yet, although I’m told that this one is great. I’m having all of them posted in the press section of this space, so, if anybody’s curious, check it out. I opened up the internet-machine to discover a host of opera-related internetz. Nicky Spence is on twitter! (@nickythespence). Facebook is filled with the cast writing one another sweet notes about how much fun they had. The costume designer is in a tiny hotel room in Paris. One of the actors has a new job starting next week. All of these people are my new friends and co-authors. Then I turned on twitter. It’s like, usually a cesspool of haterade, and some nice stuff, but today there is an especially vile exchange that I’d like to just briefly wade into to make a more elaborate, and I hope mature, point than is being made in 140 characters or less. Essentially, there is a round-robin of haters all who either came or didn’t come to the opera who hated it and that’s their right. But then! One of them is an artist! Oh snap. He says, “Every single person I’ve spoken to about the opera said it’s over-hyped bilge. Yet no one dares to openly say it.” (I’d interject here that I think half of the internet went right ahead and said it, as well as several national papers). Okay. Now, in the interests of us all being adults here, let’s name names. This is written by the very excellent pianist Nick van Bloss, whose Goldbergs are really good. The canons are especially clear and I like them a lot, and he looks a little bit like Mark Padmore, whom I love. His comment came in the middle of a more elaborate (and very mean-spirited) conversation about press & PR and all that stuff, which is a very good conversation to have. So let’s have it!
I understand that an opera house’s goal is to do things: put on great work, and get people in to see said work. The composer’s job, as far as I can tell, lies exclusively in the first category. However, there is an expectation that the composer will help with the second. That includes doing an extraordinary amount of press, because having press surrounding a project gets people in to see it, or at least, makes people aware of it. The press has nothing whatsoever to do with the work; the work is finished almost seven months before one starts talking to anybody about it. I’m looking at this diary here and it says that I did, on average, five press “things” a week for the two months and change I was in London — this is interviews, photos, phone calls, emails, writing things, all manner of radio. Believe me when I say that none of this is my choice, but also believe me when I say that the lovely press team at the ENO did everything they could to make it painless. Missing 20 minutes of a piano and stage rehearsal to talk with an obstinate reporter about something she could have googled is not my idea of a good time. Being in a hot room with some ancient dude from the beeb making me answer questions about Rufus’s opera, which I liked, and he clearly didn’t, was obnoxious. However, I understand that doing this press cheerfully and without complaint is part of making the Whole Thing Work, and so I do it. (Also, these people are doing their jobs, just as I’m doing mine). I use “The Whole Thing” in the sense not only of the many moving parts that make up the opera, but also, the world of new work, commissions: I’m committed to making the process as transparent as possible, and, through that, making the whole thing seem less scary and unknowable. The goal is that not just what I’m doing but all new music gets more exposure.
The idea of things being part of something bigger is incredibly important to understand in an opera, too. Inasmuch as it stems from two pens only, it is a hugely collaborative – necessarily collaborative – endeavor. Leaving aside the creative team, there are close to a hundred people running around on stage making this enormous mechanism work. The work is as much for them as it is for the audience; their commitment to it is hugely, hugely important. So you think about them when you do that ninth interview of the day, or that totally inconveniently-timed radio interview. You also think about the singers, who, at the time of the radio interview, are working with vocal coaches figuring out how exactly to place the [ch] sound in the word much, and you think about the props department rigging up the little yellow lights that surround the laptop screens, and you think about the video team staying up all night to re-format some of the text in a projection near the end of Act II, and the administration of the opera, who have bravely put their weight behind a very complicated and multi-faceted new work. I’ve done press — not for this project but for other things — where you know they are reading off of a hastily-googled playlist of buzzwords: Gay, American, Young, Philip Glass, Björk, in any order. It makes me want to take holy orders. The last time I endured a press junket I made the mistake of reading all the reviews afterwards, and in some cases, I got punished for over-exposure by the same paper that had, in my opinion, rather over-exposed me not three weeks before! Is this my fault? Is it anybody’s?
I’ve been guilty of this bad attitude before, although never publicly, with one exception, in this space, about which I am still doing private penance. I used to be like, ugh, Lang Lang, overhyped. It wasn’t until I saw him play the Ravel bothhands concerto in St Petersburg last year that I was like, oh wow, he’s really good at the piano! And all my favorite tempi! And then, sitting in my hotel room at 4 AM in the blinding sunlight, it also dawned on me that it was really unfair and churlish to judge him on “his” outrageous press materials, because there is such a disconnect between how beautiful that second movement is and all those Audi ads, and I’m more interested in (a) than (b), so I just won’t think about (b) anymore. And it’s not like he is the only pianist in the world; every ten seconds another great disc by somebody else comes along, and I buy that, too. It’s the same thing for self-generated publicity, too. I like Milton Babbitt’s music, but I don’t like how he describes music. So I don’t read (b) and I listen to (a). I think Boulez’s music is fucking genius, ecstatic, decadent robotgasm Franco-gay pageantry, and I listen to it a lot. The minute you read anything he writes about anything, you want to vom, so I just don’t read it! It’s just self-contradictory I-was-4-stravinsky-b4-I-was-against-it ooga-booga nonsense anyway, and I think he’s a much better composer than he is polemicist, so I just listen to the music and haven’t read a thing he’s said since 1999. And I’m happy! And he’s happy because I keep on giving his CDs away as gifts and make it rain on DG every time a new album drops.
So, in that context, it is actually galling to get comments that conflate the “hype” around a project with the quality of the work. I understand if you don’t like it. There’s nothing anybody can say about my music that I don’t tell myself about six thousand times a day. But the constant insistence on putting the PR/press in the immediate proximity of the work is unfair, and is especially unfair coming from another artist; I’m picking needlessly on NvB, but the reason it struck me is because I was just listening to his Goldbergs last week, and was like, oop! Anonymous online opera fans, that’s fine: they don’t know how it works, and they don’t need to: they are the weird lymph that keeps the whole opera world afloat and they buy tickets and they come and hate everything and that’s great. File under: bile or catarrh. Not nice to smell but it has its purpose. Critics, too; they’re a strange bacterial species and you take the good with the bad — it helps with the cultural digestion and also sometimes can give you cultural thrush. But Nick van Bloss, girl, why you got to do me that way? Was the piece really that bad, or was it made more bad, in your eyes, by the press? Are all of our efforts — all hundred and change of us — in the service of something truly that awful? Or is there something else at work here? I think the moral of the story is that we owe it to each other as artists to ignore this secondary noise and focus on the work. I’m almost regretting voicing this so extensively; it took almost as long to write this as it would to sit down and listen to the opera! But then it occurred to me that this needed to be said: if there are people who honestly came to it and felt angry at not only the work, but the hype (or some strange emulsion of the two, which seems to be more likely the case), this is a conversation that we very much need to be having.
Back to my abused straw-man: that comment is vexing coming from an artist who has had her own PR spice rub; homegirl’s excellent musicianship can easily be overshadowed by extramusical concerns that are much more pressnip than the fact that her ornaments are tight. The first sentence of xi bio on Wikipedia says that xi suffer from Tourette syndrome, right there! I know that people don’t (or at least shouldn’t) edit they own Wikipedia but do you see how unfair it would be for another artist to forever and permanently conflate however it is that this diagnosis has played in the press with NvB’s own desires and volition? It makes me sad more than angry, to think that another artist, whose work I like and respect, who has also done a ton of press (even some personal, kind of intimate press) wouldn’t understand how this works. (I should add here that it is odd that it’s continuing after the show closed, as if somehow I’ve made something that is so vile, so offensive, that it needs to be talked about during the summer holiday). Normally, I take on the sort of self-helpy attitude to just ignore the haters, but coming from artists, it’s harder to ignore, and especially on something so connected to the body as twitter, which, unlike blogs, comes into my pocket.
I know that doing as much press as I have done for Two Boys struck me, at the time, as rather a lot but not excessive. Also, it is in my nature to be simultaneously nervous about over-exposure and also very eager to please all my collaborators and particularly the Press Lady whom I rather like; as in, we would totally hang out outside of work, mybe. She gets paid cash money to understand how the press works. I get paid cash money to write the opera. We have to help one another out, she and I, and at a certain point, she has to trust that I’ve written something worth publicizing, and I have to trust that she’s not going to over- or under-do it. And I also understand that the opera house has to fill some percentage of their 2,300 seats and that the way in which they can be emboldened to commission other new works is by having a new work get enough people through the door one way or another. This is very important, and I think this goes to the heart of the matter: having a new work that people go to, even if you don’t like it, is a very, very good thing, because chances are, the house will be emboldened to then put on something that perhaps you will like more. I cannot overemphasize this, and this is how I feel like I can be Christlike in the face of music that is not to my taste. Cosmetically, crazy online + print buzz about something new, whether it’s Tom Adès, or me, or Luke Bedford, or a new production of the Rang cycle, is Good in a larger way. Waking up and posting something snippy or mean or dismissive on the internet helps positively nobody, and works actively against something you like ever seeing a stage or a wax cylinder because the world will be filled with bitter people as opposed to people trying to do the best they can, which, at the beginning & end of the day, is all I was up to with Boys. All of us on team classical music are sailing through tricky passages, but there is room for everybody both florid and thorny.
Okay! Now that that’s out of the way, more on the opera process. Beloveds, it is crazy and fun. I would (and will!) do it again in a second. It is not, as some had warned me, a slow burn. It’s actually an excruciatingly slow smolder for about four weeks, and then the last two weeks are like holy shit everything’s happening at once. The first four weeks are tiny details working on a sound-stage, basically, figuring out little gestures and putting together the phonemes of the piece. Then all of a sudden, around week three, words begin to emerge, and at week four, a grammar, a style! I aged about ten years in the first orchestra rehearsal, and required a very serious evening of drink with Tom Adès and others who had Been Thru It to right me again. The first few days on stage were simultaneously breathtakingly great — costumes! — and breathtakingly frustrating: why can’t we just see the whole scene! Why is everybody talking about this little swatch of fabric that nobody can even see? Of course, by that point, the show has its own gravitational pull and all these different things are running around like crazy: the lighting designer is here, the video is there, there is somehow still more press (Latvian magazine!? Who is this Brazilian woman with a camera crew?!) and it’s just an intense, crazy cartoon-like and gorgeous process. And then suddenly: you’re open and everybody flies in from America and one’s parents turn up and one’s boyfriend’s parents turn up and it’s priests everywhere and friendly homosexicals and mean homosexicals and cabaret artists and polygamist floral arrangements and widows and strippers and the baritone’s cute mom and the soprano’s baby-daddy and who knows how many children! So good.
In other news, can somebody find me a way to exchange my iPhone 4 UK from Orange to O2? I can’t bear Orange anymore!!!