OPERA TAKES NEW FORM IN CHINATOWN
Lincoln Center is hailed by many as the pinnacle of performance arts in New York, and therefore, the world. Somewhat recently (in 1987) they managed to effectively present jazz as a phenomenon for the privileged, letting the genre join the ranks of classical ballet, theater and opera. It’s almost as if they have rewritten the genre to be a cordial display of refined instrumentalist precision a la Wynton Marsalis, with flawless big bands and sizzling showmanship at the expense of the raw emotive connection of a smoke-filled bar. They also have featured DJ Spooky, a high-art, academic hip-hop DJ whose name rings a bell but seems to lack connection to any part of the contemporary hip-hop world.
Lincoln Center does a great job of curating a sampling of safe cultural fare for a wealthy crowd, but what seems to be missing is the context in which the forms were created, and the audience for whom the genres were created. Even though I liked seeing jazz at Lincoln Center, it felt like I was in some society of patronage, rather than experiencing a real musical event. It was a perfected act or improved recreation, similar to a Hollywood retelling of a true story. Everything was more exciting, and all the characters better looking, more refined and better dressed. The sound had been canonized, deconstructed and rebuilt as a form worthy of the world’s elite.
A similar thing happened with public opera a few hundred years ago. I always imagined Batman’s family going to the opera to see a show, schmooze with the mayor and perhaps a visiting prince. Although many operas were created for the royal courts, when public performances were emerging in the 1600s, the audiences treated the opera much more similarly to the way people treat going to a nightclub today. Sure there are some people there to hear the music, but there are a lot more simply out to enjoy themselves, to mingle and pick up chicks. The lights stayed up the whole show, and people would talk, eat, flirt, do business, and pretty much do their own thing unless a really great song came on. It wasn’t until much later that opera took off as a high-society affair.
The ARTS at Marks Garage and HOT’s Opera at the Lofts at Chinatown Artist Lofts was the first opera event that brought opera into a context similar to its initial public debut. There was food, drinks, and people were mingling in a beautiful outdoor courtyard. The singers were appreciated, and their voices rung through the rafters and down the halls into the open studios, but they were not the main focus. We had conversations about art and life and alcohol — all to highly developed vocal performance styles that are generally lost in our digital age.
It was the first opera event that I really, really liked and I look forward to the next.