Thursday, October 25, 2007

Of Golijov and global schmaltz

Dawn Upshaw lifts off in Ainadamar.

The Grammy-winning Osvaldo Golijov seems not only to embrace the world, but actually embody a good chunk of it - he's Argentinean, and Jewish, and half-Romanian; he studied music in Israel, but then emigrated to the U.S. - to Newton, MA, in fact. He teaches at Boston Conservatory, but also moves in the boho jet set of Peter Sellars and Dawn Upshaw. And after the popular success of such works as Ayre, and now Ainadamar, he's become the darling of a certain kind of music fan - the kind that adores the idea of fusing the traditions of world music into some overwhelming, amplified mandala - while fusing the worlds of classical music and pop at the same time.

In other words, the kind that isn't me. As I get older, I'm more and more bemused (or is it confused?) by those devoted to the idea of diversity, yet obsessed with a global cultural mash-up which would render real diversity obsolete. I know, I know, they don't see it that way, and they have all the best intentions in the world. But I do see it that way - and as for best intentions, you know what road is paved with them . . .

Such doubts always drive true believers crazy, of course. So I try to explain that I like klezmer. And I like flamenco. But I don't really want to merge them into klezmenco. Aha! the globoculturists say - but isn't the greatest art born of the integration of opposing cultures? Well - . . . but also no. Classical music has drawn on folk music for inspiration (Rite of Spring, New World Symphony, etc., etc.), and "Western" painting has often integrated motifs from "the East" (the impact of Hokusai on van Gogh is one great example).

But said cases always entailed a paradigm shift - the final works were not simply quilts of many colors, but a new synthesis. Yet Golijov, at least to these ears, rarely moves beyond highly refined pastiche - and when he does, I'm afraid it's usually toward a new kind of global kitsch; because the real rub is that Golijov is also trying to merge the traditions of "popular" and "serious" music, too. He wants to elevate pop music, yes, but also hang onto its audience. Not for him are the cool insights of, say, Thomas Adès's Asyla (a shockingly successful transference of disco into the concert hall). No, what Golijov wants to do is wail, and then wail some more - he wants to cry us a river, in fact a Danube, a Nile, and a whole lot more.

So I went into Opera Boston's recent production of his first opera, Ainadamar, knowing it was his party, and he was going to cry if he wanted to. And cry he did, basically nonstop through the whole thing. After all, Ainadamar is loosely translated as "Fountain of Tears," and its supposed subject is the death of Frederico García Lorca, the great gay poet/dramatist of Republican Spain who was gunned down by Falangists in 1936 (the olive tree venerated as the site of his death, at right).

Not that the opera has much to do with the actual Lorca (at left). It literally castrates him (this gay man is played by a woman), then transmutes him into a kind of geisha-Christ in a zoot suit. There's no sex with men here, much less anything of his famous affair with Salvador Dalí - and you can forget about any references to surrealism, either, or communism, or his obsession with death, or really anything that made Lorca what he truly was. Instead, we're offered a sweet victim, who, needless to say, cries a river at his/her execution and you know, suffers for us all.

Golijov can get away with all this by conceptualizing his opera as a memory play, as it were, within the mind of one Margarita Xirgu (left), a compatriot of Lorca whom nobody really cares about anymore. Still, the issue of deracination, not the ghost of Lorca, is what haunts the piece. Golijov, of course, is not Spanish (instead, he's "Latin," kind of), and his star, Dawn Upshaw, may be the whitest soprano in the world - she comes off as some kind of multicultural memsahib. The librettist, David Henry Hwang, is Asian-American, and the director, Peter Sellars, likes to wear kimonos. Note there's not a Spaniard in this crowd - and there's only one in the cast.

Should this matter? Well, no, it shouldn't, not if the Asians and Americans (both North and South) and the half-Romanians and quasi-Israelis, etc., have that Andalusian thang goin' on. But most of them don't. Dawn Upshaw keeps reaching down into her gypsy soul and coming up with not much (and we keep wishing she'd stop overacting and go back to Mozart, where she belongs), while Sellars groups his singers in Greek-tragedy choruses, in which they perform Martha-Graham-like moves. And while Hwang's libretto has by most accounts "gotten better," it still has pretty far to go.

Of course one could argue the whole point isn't really to channel the tragic gypsy fires of Spain; it is, instead, to solemnly enact the political pain of earnest Western multiculturalists. And at this, Ainadamar succeeds brilliantly. Indeed, particularly in its second act, the opera operates very effectively as a kind of rarefied global schmaltz. A lump will rise in your throat, and you will blink back tears - because Golijov (at left) comes through, even if no one else does.

Not that I'm suddenly going out to buy his CDs, mind you. I wouldn't say the music from Ainadamar is actually interesting, not yet - but you can't deny its occasional power. The muezzin-like call that summons Lorca to his execution is chilling, and the ensuing descending vocal line of the word ainadamar is truly haunting. Indeed, Golijov seems to have been somehow invigorated by the entire scene, as he conjures for it a series of eerily mournful textures that in their originality made me forget all about Ayre. Suddenly I began to wonder if Golijov might indeed prove a major composer, instead of just a Grammy-winning one. Even Sellars and Hwang score a dramatic coup, when they have Lorca rise again and again from his grave (like the eternal hope for freedom), only to be mown down by his assassin.

So count me half-converted, although my advice to Golijov would be to drop the whole multicultural crowd and just concentrate on the culture, the drama, instead. Get yourself more Latin singers, not white Mozart specialists trying to tango (Upshaw was upstaged by her co-stars, Kelley O'Connor and Jessica Rivera, anyway). Stop trying to get us to all join hands; don't worry, the world can go buy a Coke all by itself. Meanwhile there are real songs and real operas to write.


  1. Okay, since I seem to be the only one in the firmament besides Tom who saw Ainadamar I guess it falls on me to comment. (It WAS sold out all the rest of the nights, wasn’t it?) I found the production moving and a thoroughly enjoyable experience. From my perspective at least, what it lacked in concrete grounding and specificity, it more then made up for in spirit. I'm usually not much of one for modernism in the opera so I'll confess to having had my misgivings before I went, but I liked the score and thought the recorded elements meshed well with the live music. I wouldn't call it groundbreaking or great, but it was certainly a very interesting synthesis and by and large one which I thought was quite successful. Given the topic and libretto (see below for more on this) I also thought Sellars staging was admirably restrained- though I was annoyed by the constant movement of the soldiers upstage while singing was going on and found it rather distracting.

    That said, I fully agree with you about several of your points. First, I agree with you about the idea of cultural mash-up being carried too far and that the show desperately wanted to hit ALL the marks for diversity. Secondly, honestly, if you hadn't read the program notes, you probably would have little or no idea what was going on up there onstage. That was probably my biggest guff with the production. The where-are-we and what-the-hell-is-happening angle. We're where? In who's mind? That's a man? That's a woman? Seriously. I sat there and read the program over and over while waiting for the show to start knowing that if I didn't I'd be utterly lost. And the cross gender casting of the Lorca role (more specifically I guess is the question why it was written that way) is something I still don't quite get, but in the context of the opera I thought it worked. Yes, the production played fast and loose with history (your point about sanitizing Lorca is dead on) but a piece like this, I'd argue is more about mood and emotion then a strict recreation of historical fact- which it never claimed to be in the first place. So despite some misgivings, count me on the pro side for this one.

  2. Well, I do think Ainadamar is going to last - the score, at least in the second act, is affecting and memorable - far more memorable than a lot of postmodern opera (it's "postmodern," by the way, not "modern" - although maybe we're even post-postmodern by now). I meant for the tone of my review to be, "I'm not much for the 'We-Are-The-World' vibe of Golijov and 'world music,' but some of Ainadamar got to me." And perhaps my general irritation with the Sellars/Upshaw crowd is occluding for me some of the opera's better qualities (although by the way, I can't agree with you about the sound mix - it was highly variable in the back of the orchestra).

    Still, the high-minded fatuousness of the piece rankles - I'd hate it if Ainadamar became the only, or standard, operatic treatment of Lorca. I'm not sure, for instance, why straight people can't see that casting a woman as a gay man is a strange kind of affront - it's rather like casting a white man as Sidney Poitier. (Before everyone screams, I'm not espousing that idea, I'm just pointing out the parallel.) I'm also not quite sure why no one can see that the piece is also clearly a vehicle, and not for someone Spanish, or even Latin, but for a white opera star whose voice, superb in many classical roles, is ill-suited to (quasi-)Spanish styles.

    This gets to the nub of my argument - which I'd have to boil down to, "Yes, Ainadamar is emotionally effective, but is it 'tragedy' or just world melodrama?" I'd argue for melodrama right now (even if it's Sellars-style abstract melodrama), which maybe is a relief after the self-conscious modernist baggage so much new opera has dragged about. But it would be a shame, I think, if a newfound accessibility in musical language led opera down the primrose path to sentimentality (and before you say it, even Puccini is usually more complex than Ainadamar). In other words, can the music be accessible while the drama and ideas remain complex and challenging? That would be the best of both worlds.