Opera, Whales, and The Simpsons

Twenty years ago, we caught a glimpse of what a bold operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire might sound like, when The Simpsons did it, and André Previn panicked.

The 1992 episode A Streetcar Named Marge deftly imagined the musical Streetcar! and gave us a few bits and pieces of some songs that might belong to it. The result was brilliant, hilarious, and poignantly true to the original:

Ned Flanders/Stanley Kowalski: “You’re a girl, and I’m a fella”
Marge Simpson/Blanche DuBois: “Stanley, stop, or I’ll call Stella!"

Somewhere, André Previn and Phillip Littell watched this and they freaked out. The serious grown-up opera they were working on had just pre-emptively had its imperial wardrobe stripped off. So they decided they’d do something different: they wouldn’t have any of those snappy rhymes or incisive ambiguities, or, you know, actual songs. Those belong in musicals, not in our precious opera, oh, no. This is serious business, so it needs to be duller. To the recitative machine!

Stella Kowalski: “Can I get you a Coke?”
Blanche DuBois: “How about a shot? A shot never did a Coke any harm.”

Perfectly acceptable lines in a play, or a novel — but how awful that sounds when it’s canted operatically! Those two lines take about two minutes and there’s no point. There’s no nuance or interpretation possible, it’s just people intoning lines from a mauled screenplay while an orchestra plays somewhere in the background. The opera of A Streetcar Named Desire is an admission of defeat: a composer supposedly at the top of his game being outclassed by a cartoon parody.

All of this brings me to San Francisco Opera’s production of Moby-Dick.

There already exists a terrific version of Moby-Dick. It’s a novel by Herman Melville. All of the words are there; all of the things that Melville wished to say he said. If you want to do something with it you need to do something different. You can’t just have people put sentences to some sort of melody. You can’t use all the same words that Melville did. You need to write your own poetry, damn it, and you need to set that poetry to your own music. Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer don’t often attempt this.

What are we supposed to take from Moby-Dick? Has anyone ever left that opera humming one of its tunes? Reading the book, Ahab’s chilling “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee” is a challenge for librettist and composer: so make a song of that! Write a song that people might recognize, might have running in their heads as they leave, might look up on YouTube or deliberately cue up on iPod or CD. But I can’t imagine many people seeking out a recording of Moby-Dick in time to come to enjoy at home or in the car.

Of course, the composers of modern opera don’t want to write Broadway musicals. They may also live in terror of the thought of Bryn Terfel performing one of their songs to a few anorak-wearers at a drizzly Opera in the Park event, and who could blame them? But they must acknowledge that opera succeeds when it uses songs, exploits the necessary ambiguity of their lyrics and staging, and uses the contrast with an often absurd and contrived setting to create what is paradoxically simple and universal.

What do we have for songs, then? There is a duet between Queequeg and Ishmael — each on their respective mast, if the subtext wasn’t texty enough — which is poignant and quite lovely. Towards the end, Starbuck makes a last plea with Ahab to turn back by evoking home and family — reminding me a bit of Turandot’s “Ping, Pang, Pong” (and making me wish I was listening to that instead, really). The third instance involved Pip, the cabin boy, a breeches role played by a soprano and the cast’s only woman (19th century whale ships were not equal opportunity employers). Why play Pip in a breeches role? A good question.

Thar She Breeches

As the plodding Moby-Dick was getting all the attention, the SF Opera upstaged itself with its glorious, quicksilver I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Early on we are treated to a master class in getting the breeches role right: the incomparably lovely Joyce DiDonato is Romeo, the leader of the Montagues — but is in another layer of disguise, presenting as a mere emissary, offering a peace deal to a large group of hostile — and male — Capulets. The performer’s femininity underscores the character’s vulnerability and the futility of his mission with heartrending poignancy. Later, Romeo masquerades as a court lady at a ball, his hidden rapier’s hilt disguised as a brooch. It is a delightful mischief as the sword is drawn and the ballgown shrugged off. Throughout, Bellini and Romani use the tension between female performer and male character exquisitely, and the production responds.

Pip, on the other hand, is cozy and chirpy, unconcerned and unconcerning, no more mad before his near-drowning than after it. The duet Pip has with Stubb is a final indignity as the two characters breezily chortle about whale steaks being served “tough, rare, and bloody”. In Melville’s Moby-Dick, the passage from which this is drawn depicts the ugly racial humiliation and bullying of Fleece, the ship’s elderly black cook, by a white officer. To play this as a harmless duet not only undermines that — especially troublesome when Pip is sung by an African-American soprano — also raises the question of why the hell are you bothering with this stupid song? If you deny the scene its whole purpose then you actually are just blathering about how you like your whale steaks cooked. Can I get you a Coke?

A Critical Failure

But wait, you might ask, hasn’t this opera has garnered nothing but the most enthusiastic praise? Who are you, random opera neophyte, to fly in the face of critical unanimity? These are excellent questions and I’m glad I allowed you to raise them through this rhetorical device. Well, the San Francisco Chronicle called it  a “stirring triumph”, and most other reviews were positive, if not quite so emphatic. The Examiner — San Francisco’s answer to the New York Post — went with the headline “A Whale of an Opera” and no sub-editor accepted my suggestion of “A Cetacean Sensation”. Most of them no longer even answer my calls.

However, it’s easy to read between the lines of the reviews in the Los Angeles Times, the North County Times and elsewhere to see that there is a pervading sense of praising a dog for walking on its hind legs — the critical enthusiasm seems to be about the fact that Moby-Dick was attempted at all, not that it is the “triumph” or “revelation” that we really wanted it to be.

So, what now? Is there actually a future for contemporary English-language opera qua opera, distinct from the musical? There must be. There has to be. Clearly the demand is there; certainly the potential and the talent are. But until we have that challenge answered with more style we should brook no complaints about audiences preferring the classics and companies staging yet more Don Giovannis and Turandots. There are reasons they’re classics, after all.

Until Danny Elfman gives us that full-length production of Streetcar!, of course, because we would totally love that.