The Stradivarius Complex

by Michael Liss


Are opera singers dumb?

As a child, dragged to the Metropolitan by opera-obsessive parents in order to practice sitting absolutely still for three hours, I sometimes wondered about this. Certainly, on stage, there was a lot of dumb going on. What intelligent person could possibly trust evil Baron Scarpia to keep his word, or would sing full-out when dying of tuberculosis, with only a delicate, tuneful cough to show the gravity of the situation?

Opera singers were like Rat Pack Era movie-stars—they dressed well, they smoked and drank, they seemed always to be alighting from planes surrounded by Rolleiflex-bearing photographers. I heard a great story about Franco Corelli, the “Prince of Tenors,” who, when irritated by a soprano lead, would have a pre-performance meal laced with garlic. Did wonders for the love scenes. To an eight-year old that sounded pretty darn smart.

Yet, if you ask many musicians, they will tell you that the average opera singer just isn't that bright. I had a conversation a few months ago with a classically trained instrumentalist who is now a cantor. In his conservatory, the pure vocalists were looked down upon as lesser beings. He used the example of a Stradivarius. If he were suddenly to hand me this most cherished of instruments, I would scrape the bow across the strings and produce a sound similar to an alley cat. Without learning how to play, how to sight-read, without hours and hours of daily practice, I would never have the ability to make music. That was a musician's burden–endless efforts towards perfection, and the instrumentalists paid it. But the singer, through some completely random mixing of DNA, almost as God's afterthought on a busy day, got the Strad implanted, and all she needed to do was open her mouth and beauty would pour out.

This “Strad Complex” is not confined to instrumentalists and vocalists. There is the brilliant scene in Amadeus when the desperate Constanze brings Mozart's music to Salieri. Look at F. Murray Abraham's face as he leafs through page after page—it's just eating at him. In the space of a few moments you see incredulity, envy, opportunism, but, above all, an anguish that can only come from being talented enough to grasp that, on his best, most creative day, he can't even approach what this silly little man-child writes as a first (and only) draft.

Fair? Of course, not. Mozart's emotional immaturity didn't mean he didn't work at his craft—his output is extraordinary. And, as for opera singers, the idea that anyone could scale the heights of this impossibly difficult vocation without immense amounts of effort is absurd. The mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato talks about the knowledge and fear that every opera singer has that, when they go on stage, there will be many moments of imperfection. The only way to overcome that is through intense preparation, so that, even with all the technical mistakes they know they are going to make, everything else is right. She urges students to make themselves not just singers, but literate artists. Go abroad, learn the primary languages of opera, Italian, French and German, read, go to museums to see beautiful paintings. A great opera singer, especially now, needs to bring more than a fantastic voice; he or she needs an intimate understanding of the role itself and the culture from which it sprang.

What about the rest of us—the ones who don't work in the arts? What's the relevance? Why should we care about the tempestuous natures of a bunch of egocentric divas in a dying industry whose audience gets older every year? Why don't those people get a real job and work for a living?

The obvious answer is that music, art, and literature all matter. You don't bury genius, no more than you would take Michelangelo's David, get a couple of oversized packing boxes and some bubble wrap from Staples, and stash it in some storage facility in the middle of a cornfield. The work itself is deserving of support.

Yet that statement, “the work itself is deserving of support,” displays an egotism sometimes at odds with the public perceptions of worth. Ours is a culture which has almost defiant pride in being hard-headed and practical. In the U.S., we admire those who create the tangible—the cotton gin, the electric light, or the iPhone. But creativity in the humanities is a different animal entirely. We aren't like Europe, which honors and even occasionally fetishizes its cultural past and present. In our schools, music and art are the first things to be cut, and accordingly we often lack a deeper appreciation that can come from early exposure.

Thomas Edison once said that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Edison's construct reflects what many Americans think and respect—a variation on the Protestant Work Ethic—pick a sober field, show great industry, and succeed. And it speaks to a deeper urge that is not always well articulated in an increasingly bloodless and routinized labor environment: Work, for many people, is identity. Effort and pride in what you do gives dignity. The arts, to many, seem not much like work. Even amongst the “cultured elite,” there is skepticism. Send a child to college, and Philosophy or Art History is fine—as a minor when you are otherwise STEM, or going into finance or law, and so long as it doesn't mess up your GPA.

Clearly, that endangers the future, by bleeding resources and talent. Americans love success. If majoring in the humanities led directly to a good job, if galleries were packed and audiences were growing for the performing arts, if orchestras and opera troupes were in constant demand, our society, which often measures worth by earning capacity, would be more supportive.

The easy thing is to blame the Philistines—the politicians who want conservative or populist street cred, and the unwashed and uncultured. That's a crutch, and an ugly one at that. And it shirks responsibility. It is just not enough to be educated and talented—not enough even to have the Stradivarius. Every humanities major, every musician, every artist needs to do more—they need to be an apostle for their work. That demands a particular type of discipline—not just a commitment to excellence, but one that shows both respect for the traditionalist and a desire to innovate sufficiently to create a product that newer audiences want to experience. Without both, you can wither and die. That's a hard truth to hear, but it's an essential one.

There is hint of this in a passage from Arthur Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's late in the book, HAL has been lobotomized, leaving Bowman completely alone to face a one-way trip. He fights his utter solitude: “Bowman was aware of some changes in his behavior patterns; it would have been absurd to expect anything else in the circumstances. He could no longer tolerate silence…. At first, needing the companionship of the human voice, he had listened to classical plays, especially the works of Shaw, Ibsen, and Shakespeare…. The problems they dealt with, however, seemed so remote, or so easily resolved with a little common sense, that after a while he lost patience with them. So he switched to opera, usually in Italian or German, so that he was not distracted even by the minimal intellectual content that most operas contained. This phase lasted for two weeks before he realized that the sound of all these superbly trained voices was only exacerbating his loneliness. … Thereafter, he played only instrumental music. He started with the romantic composers, but shed them one by one as their emotional outpourings became too oppressive. Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, lasted a few weeks, Beethoven rather longer. He finally found peace, as so many others had done, in the abstract architecture of Bach, occasionally ornamented with Mozart. And so Discovery drove on toward Saturn, as often as not pulsating with the cool music of the harpsichord, the frozen thoughts of a brain that had been dust for twice a hundred years.”

When I first read this, I loved it. It sounded so cerebral. To whom else would you listen to keep your brain functioning clearly and efficiently on a trip to eternity? Yet there is something wrong here, something I didn't take note of, but has a real relevance. Why was Clarke, a futurist writing in 1968 about something taking place thirty-plus years later, referring only to creativity of the distant past? The book is pure fiction—he could have referenced Bach and Mozart, and a modern, fictional composer—or at least one born in the 20th Century. His playwrights are 16th and 19th Century. Italian and German opera? 18th and 19th Century. Each and every Bowman selection came from “frozen thoughts.”

That has to be wrong. It is not possible that the Strad gene pool just dried up after 1865. But if an arts discipline such as classical music is focused only on older works, no matter how great, without finding ways to make them relevant to contemporary audiences, is it not participating in its own eventual demise? Conversely, for those artists who reject all of the past as being stodgy and uninventive, if their creativity leads them to produce work that is so emotionally remote that few are attracted to it, are they really advancing the cause?

These are decisions for musicians to make, and I am not one. No quixotic turn of fate gave me a Stradivarius—but it did leave me with a daughter who is studying to be both an opera singer and a musicologist. Definitely not dumb (takes after her mother) and very hardworking. I want her to have success, and take joy from what she does, and so my interest is personal, as well as by preference.

On her recommendation, I want to share a link to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Opus 131. This is one of the last pieces he ever wrote, at a time of great introspection but remarkable creativity. It was performed privately for Shubert as he lay on his deathbed, but apparently not in public for another decade. It deserves to be listened to, more than once, and with an open mind. I promise it will surprise and engage, reminding you once more just what an extraordinary and agile talent he had, and how he was always mindful that there was more to do.

And, as is appropriate, I will leave him with the final word:

“Art demands of us that we should not stand still.”