As far as I can see, commentary on Conrad L. Osborne's doomsday book Opera as Opera: The State of the Art, including my own, has focused on his arguments. As well it should. The tone of the reviews to date has been reverential, in my view justly so.
But in a private communication, a well-placed critic of my acquaintance suggests that Osborne's diagnosis is too bleak, that he makes too great a fuss over singers, and that it ought to have been possible to find some example of contemporary Regietheater of which he could approve.
The way I see it, these objections are without merit.
To the first point: Osborne takes as given that the opera we care about is the real-time journey of a performance, not the silent roadmap of a score. Can you fault this?
To the second: Singers matter to Osborne not just for their own sake but as avatars of the characters they play, characters who exist in real time only to the extent that nonnegotiable vocal demands of their music are met. Other considerations matter, too, but this one's a sine qua non.
The third point is based on the untenable journalistic ideal of balance. Equal time or a sidebar for deniers of the Holocaust, for deniers of global warming? They have had their say, many times over. No thanks.
In short, I can find no chink in Osborne's intellectual armor. No less critical, however, no pun intended, is his sensibility, of which he never makes great show. Impartial analysis is the goal, informed by intimate involvement with the finest shadings of the material at hand. It's not just what Osborne knows that matters but also the richness of personal associations, perspective, affect, and experience he brings to bear on his subject.
With this in mind, let me single out three exceptionally revealing passages. The first has to do with a great bête noire of Osborne's: productions that transpose the action of an opera to another time or place or both.
One of these was the NYCO La Bohème, directed by James Robinson. Having heard a few things about the production (that its time had been advanced by eighty-some years, to the eve of World War I, and that it sported home-front military artifacts), I smiled on my way to the theatre for reasons purely personal that are, however, relevant. In the late 1960s, the tenor John Stewart and I worked on the brief opening scene (Rodolfo and Marcello in the garret, working) in Frank Corsaro's operatic acting class. For some of the behavioral reasons [that] coincided with the objectives of the class, we decided that Rodolfo and Marcello were American ex-G.I.'s who'd participated in the liberation of Paris in 1944, then returned there at war's end for the arts scene, the cafés, and the women. Two or three years later (don't know if John and I planted a seed), Frank devised a La Bohème set in the ex-pat community of post-World War I Paris, with an English-language adaptation by Anne Bailey that allowed for the necessary textual adjustments. It raised some questions (all updates do), but answered them rather plausibly. And now, here was a Bohème with a First-World-War milieu, and I felt myself a particle of its atavistic past.
Reactionary as Osborne may seem to a reader steeped in contemporary practice, the qualities that jump off the page here are his open-mindedness and taste for experiment. Add to these, the gentle note of self-mockery in the passage below, concerning David Alden's Tannhäuser for the Bavarian State Opera. Born in scandal, retired in glory, the show bristled with free-associative, highly charged stage business Alden has described as "deeply felt rather than deeply thought." Little as he cares for the result, Osborne identifies easily with Alden's creative process.
The compulsive piling-on of "perverse" images is numbing. But [...] it does represent involvement with the music's febrile side, though not its sensuous one. Any mind's-eye devotee can spare a moment of empathetic recognition for the goings-on that give rise to such fantasies. You should have seen my Tristan Act III! In early adolescence, especially when home sick (a heavy chest cold and raging fever lay an excellent base for this scene), I'd put the Melchior/Janssen 78s on the old console turntable and act out the whole thing, leaping to my feet for Kurwenal, dropping to the floor as if shot for Tristan, mopping the brow while changing record sides. Committed work, let me tell you. Both my deaths were unbearably moving. Then there was the shooting scenario for my Otello movie, mainlined straight from the Toscanini recording. The Storm Scene haunts me yet, the faces. . .
But what I take to be Osborne's single most telling statement caps his exegesis of the aria "Rachel, quand du Seigneur," sung by Eléazar in Fromental Halévy's white elephant La Juive. By this point in the discussion, a reader has learned or been reminded what a Jekyll-&-Hyde we are dealing with here: a second Shylock, in the view of some commentators, a male Azucena in mine, part angel of mercy, part ghoul hell-bent on revenge. But let's not get lost in the weeds. At this juncture in La Juive, just one thing matters: "A father," as Osborne writes, "must sacrifice his beloved daughter, who cries out to him from within."
And then, the epiphany:
If Agamemnon himself had such a tune as he prepared to surrender Iphigenia, we would weep with him.
Would we now.
A test of compassion: Agamemnon with Iphigenia. Rufus Sewell and Kristina Paris in the miniseries "Helen of Troy" (2003).
Weeping for Hecuba, mind you, but weeping with Agamemnon. A world of difference lies between the prepositions. Either way, caring costs. Is it a gift or a curse? When tragedy strikes, many look away, hearts turned to stone. Positing powers of music as yet unwritten, Osborne puts up no resistance. Another's torment bleeds into his soul. To empathize or not to empathize? That is the question. The choice we make defines us.