(or, Please Get Your Knickers Untwisted About The Exterminating Angel)
It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but y’all have made me come out of hiding. There has been a huge to-do on the Internet of Singers about the recent premiere of Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, mostly focused on the “highest note ever performed at the Met” press. Some people are irritated at the focus on extreme registers, other people are defending the exciting nature of such registers, and still others are saying the registers don’t matter, and any widely-read press is good press when it comes to the longevity of the art form.
I got tired of falling down the rabbit hole of comment threads and sub-tweets VERY quickly, and here’s why: it bears an uncanny resemblance to the mythical $16 muffin.
A brief reminder for those of you don’t follow politics as closely as I do, or don’t remember this particular gem: back in 2011, congressional Republicans, determined to highlight wasteful government spending, looked through some Department of Justice audit figures and (by some very fuzzy, later discredited math) created an uproar over the government allegedly paying $16 per muffin at a particular event. There was press for DAYS AND DAYS about these problematic pastries, using them as a metaphor for the perceived bloating in Washington budgeting.
Here’s why this silly event wasn’t silly at all: it was a straw man argument, plain and simple, and prevented real discussion from taking place about actual budgetary problems and government priorities. The more people talked about muffins, the more trivial the budget seemed, and the less work actually got done.
I smell a similar rat in the uproar about the high A that came out of Audrey Luna’s mouth during the recent Met performance. While we waste time fighting about high notes, there are plenty of other discussions we AREN’T having, both about the larger Met season, and the state of the industry at large.
For instance: would could talk about how, while in principle it’s great that another living composer has had a work performed at the Met, the Met has hosted the World Premieres of FEWER THAN TEN operas since 1950, and the American premieres of only eleven, in that same time frame, making the vast, vast majority of their repertoire still old works by dead white men. We could talk about how only TWO female composers, in the entire history of the venue, have ever had operas performed there.
We could talk about how there is a glut of people with degrees in singing flooding the marketplace, but no jobs for them. We could talk about the University/Pay-To-Sing/YAP complex that profits off of the labor of young singers, only to leave them a mountain of debt, and no work once they turn 30.
We could talk about the fundamental devaluing of the arts in American culture. We could talk about the unhealthy perpetuation of the myth that you must “suffer for your art,” which separates artists from mental health resources that could help them succeed. We could talk about how access to healthcare is critical for making sure artists continue to be productive members of society.
We could talk about ways that we could invigorate the local opera culture in cities around the country, and improve access to the art form to people who think it’s too expensive or too cerebral. We could talk about how to build the next generation of opera audiences. We could talk about how supporting your colleagues is the foundation of a community of artists.
Or, we could yell about high notes. Your call.