Emergent Forms of Other Belief

The Crisis Theme that seems to be the default, unchangeable background of everything these days can be exhausting. None of us seems to know how to handle social media – is it for self-promotion? sharing opinions? business? the fck is a status update? connecting instead of conversing – beyond obsessive attention to it or turning it off completely. That the tools have been created to make other people rich appears to be a mere byproduct, but is it? Do I need to read an article on it that my friends agree with to believe that? Every news item from the Dunce-in-chief to climate change to what’s wrong with the Democratic party to health care to guns hermetically seals us in a state of doubtful knowing. And like quicksand, if you try to get out of it too desperately, you’re only pulled back all the more. For those who insist on creating, it can be be double-trouble: your battle is not to react against but still ‘do something.’ What does that mean?

Friend of the blog Jed Perl lays out in an inadvertent cautionary tale in this Rauschenberg review, The Confidence Man of American Art:

It was as a genre-buster—an artist who crossed boundaries and cross-pollinated disciplines—that Rauschenberg was embraced in the 1960s. More than fifty years later, there are more and more artists who seem to believe, as he apparently did, that art is unbounded. The only difference is that our contemporaries—figures such as Jeff Koons, Isa Genzken, and Matthew Day Jackson—have traded his whatever-you-want for an even more open-ended and blunt whatever. A creative spirit, according to the argument that Rauschenberg did so much to advance, need not be merely a painter, a photographer, a stage designer, a printmaker, a moviemaker, a collagist, an assemblagist, a writer, an actor, a musician, or a dancer. An artist can be any or all of these things, and even many of them simultaneously. The old artisanal model of the artist—the artist whose genius is grounded in the demands of a particular craft—is replaced by the artist who is often not only figuratively but also literally without portfolio, a creative personality-at-large in the arts.

One can argue that there are historical precedents for this view. Picasso enriched both his painting and his sculpture by working back and forth between the two disciplines. And the work that Picasso did in the theater certainly precipitated significant shifts in his painting.

Just so, and there is much more. And I do not come to praise Rauschenberg or to bury him. One point can be that, for better or worse, he imagined himself and what he was doing. Sure he was affected by his culture and the times in which he lived. But Jed is correct – the question is where the question (whatever it is) takes the artist. If it runs you back into into the insufferable quandary of boredom or futility, it wasn’t the right question. We can work our way through this time, as others have other times, but not by taking it on directly. Okay maybe, if you’re Zola. But you’re not. So don’t do that at all. Ignore it? Abdication is consent. Also – nothing will change. That’s one reason to like the ‘confidence man’ citizen’s arrest of Rauschenberg. It’s a hefty charge. But that’s okay – you don’t need to [first] accept any of the givens about anyone or thing in order to get somewhere. And this is not about progress, anyway. It’s about getting to all some of that other space, all around you, that seems inaccessible. That’s what can be frustrating – and it’s not even true. It’s just a thing someone has created and you’ve allowed to be in your way, that you need to [yes] use your discipline to think beyond. And [yes] to make something.

Image: Portrait of Apollinaire as a Premonition, by Giorgio de Chiricio, 1914

“Good People of Leadville”

From a localized opera theme this morning, this following is from American Opera: The Sublimation of Ordinariness by Derek Mills, concerned primarily with Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe.”

“What, then, is the American, this new man?”, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur

asked over two centuries ago. It is with the response to this familiar defining

question that American national opera–just as American national painting or

American national fiction–must necessarily be concerned.

Certainly the quip that “American national opera is an oxymoron” is not

without justification. The repertoire has a long enough history, but its enduring

successes have been comparatively few. Nevertheless, an interesting body of

such work has emerged that treats American themes and American

experience, that wrestles with the essential question of the meaning of being

American. And on any short list of those operas would be Douglas Moore’s

The Ballad of Baby Doe.

The leitmotif of Moore’s operatic output, from the singspiel Devil and Daniel

Webster that he wrote with playwright Stephen Vincent Benet in 1939 to his

final opera about the prohibitionist Carry Nation in 1966, was Americana. In a

sense, Moore is the Vaughan Williams of America music, or, to change the

figure, a musical stylist much as Graham Greene or Anne Tyler are literary

ones. His work is comparatively simple and accessible, with familiar melodic

ideas and a ready theatrical sense. Indeed, Moore’s music, while neither

complex nor cerebral, has an “authenticity” that, as the composer Yehudi

Wyner comments, causes a listener “mysteriously, to grow increasingly fond

of it.”

One of Baby Doe’s greatest strengths is John Latouche’s inspired libretto.

Latouche, who had a remarkable ear for the American idiom, assembled here

our vernacular in a manner at once poetic and natural. Whole scenes are

written using collections of cleverly captured clichés and oral rhythms woven

together musically; they have an ease which makes them seem more a part of

a play than of an opera. It is recitative that ripples with reality.

The story is quintessentially American as well. It chronicles an actual incident

in nineteenth century history that involved common folk-ordinary Americans

trying to survive, succeed, find love and fortune and meaning in a world of

rapidly shifting values and mores. It’s a love triangle involving Colorado’s

silver king, Horace Tabor, his puritanical wife Augusta, and Elizabeth “Baby”

Doe, the “miners’ sweetheart” who would become the classic “other woman.”

It’s a story with political, social, and fiscal implications redolent of daily life

even now–indeed, with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair prominent in the press,

one of the lines, “another administration scandal,” broke up the Boston

audience during a recent matinee!

Baby Doe has acquired an orthodox performance canon over the years,

shaped to a large degree by the recording with Beverly Sills in the title role and

Emerson Buckley conducting. But recent productions–in Hartford,

Washington, D.C. and Kansas City–have shown some experimentation in

both staging and directing, and January’s Boston mounting offered powerful

new insights that may contribute to a revised performance tradition.

Boston brought together the rare combination of a woman as director and a

woman as conductor, rendered even rarer by the fact that both are former

sopranos (and one, director Sharon Daniels, have been a well-regarded Baby

Doe). Daniels seems to sense the essence of this opera to be relationship, and

thus emphasized not only the usual political and social aspects of its use of

Americana, but also its preoccupation with “moving west” as a personal

journey, and with the reinvention urge that seems to overcome so many of us

at mid-life.

This is an epic tale, to be sure, but it’s an epic of dailiness. The Tabor were

real people, and their quest was homely rather than heroic–or heroic because

it was homely. It’s an epic for the America of Studs Terkel, not for the Greece

of Homer. And it is precisely this dailiness, this ordinariness, this “folks like

us” quality that suffuses American opera as a genre. This is what we see, for

instance, in Porgy’s enduring optimism, in the unintended tragedy of the

Maurrants in Weill’s Street Scene, in John Proctor’s all-too-human nobility in

Ward’s Crucible, in Susan B. Anthony’s pensive reflection on the meaning of

her own “long life” which concludes Thomson’s Mother of Us All.

And perhaps that finally is what makes American national opera significant–its

ability to capture the essence of how we live, of the relationships we choose

and the frontiers we conquer and the messes we make, of how our lives have

become an enduring historical answer to de Crevecoeur’s question. This “new

man, this American”–flawed, fumbling and free–is at the center of America’s

national operas, and is quintessentially depicted in The Ballad of Baby Doe.