Ten to midnight on a recent Saturday: a bar on the Upper West Side. Two guys—one in black (B), one in white (W)—both the author of this journal.
W I still feel ambivalent about my Klinghoffer piece: about the whole journal, actually.
B God. This again. They’re essays, not lethal injections.
W But are they uncollegial? The Klinghoffer or the Doctor Atomic, for that matter…it’s like panning your brother.
B. Separated at birth? Is he the last to know?
W. glares Collegiality is near-sacred to me. It’s one thing if somebody sends you a draft before it’s produced: then, obviously, critique can be helpful…
B: Critique after the fact can be helpful, too: to the audience, and to the artists, for their next piece.
W But is that my rôle?
B It’s a blog!—
W That word. Like a bullfrog, belching.
B It’s not a restraining order: it’s a blog…
B …embedded in your website, which is clearly that of a working composer. The context itself is the grain of salt.
W Part of me says, “Why don’t you just write your pieces and keep your mouth shut? Why risk alienating people in our very small world?”
B See, that strikes me as ethically questionable—craven, even. So you’ll only write what you think is important if it’s safe to do so? Is that brave?
W But surely the work itself is the best contribution to the conversation?
B Best, but not only. And often the conversation about art trumps the art itself. Apparently, according to the Barber biography, many of the audience at the Antony and Cleopatra premiere were under the impression they’d heard a good—not great, perhaps, but good—opera in a high-glitz production with technical problems. It was only when Barber got off the boat in Italy that he learned he’d written the flop of the century. Had there been blogs then…
W Good point. And yet—
B And yet what? It would be different if your observations were common coin. But when was the last time you read anyone giving Stephen Schwartz any credit at all for Mass? And every time someone talks about Klinghoffer as a Bach Passion you roll your eyes—
W …because to do so is to misread the Bach Passions! Those pieces comprise the very definition of preaching to the choir: a Lutheran musician presenting a Lutheran take on a Christian narrative with which no one disagreed. They’re liturgical, not dramatic experiences: and they’re impossible without consensus. To locate Klinghoffer—as how can you not?—in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and then to claim you’re just meditating on capital-W-War is like hitting a hornet’s nest with a tennis racket and then wondering why the hornets didn’t get that you were just practicing your backhand.
B An observation worth mulling. Who’s written that?
W Nobody I know of, but—
B Did you expect to read it here?
W That’s not fair. Most music critics aren’t very good about opera libretti—it’s not their training—
B Right. And it’s not as if that’s their job, or anything—
W Actually, they used to send theatre critics as well as music critics to premières—
B …and if someone says a piece is x, then it’s always x, yes?
W Obviously not always. Which matters to the audience, who can lose interest in the form: and then everybody loses.
B Which is, and has been, always, why you’re blogging.
W All very good in the abstract: but how that’s played out is that I’ve written about four operas by living composers—five, if you count Xenakis…is he still alive?
B He died in ’01.
W Four—and I don’t think I’ve helped any of them.
B You may have enriched the conversation about them. And you buried Later the Same Evening in valentines.
W If that essay helps that piece get one more production I’ll count myself among the blessed.
B You just want everybody to love you, is what this is.
B Basic middle-child Catholic stuff. So banal.
W No: I just feel like I’m writing as a critic when my basic loyalty is to artists—
B Your basic loyalty is to art. Obviously you, like every other artist, feel very strongly about what you do: there’s no other reason to go into this mad business. But because you feel strongly about it, you’ve also thought intensely about it: which can make good reading. You’ve been tough, but fair: and nobody ever died of a bad review. Were that so, you’d be three years dead and Heidi Waleson would be in jail for assault with a deadly gerund.
W prissily Keats died of bad reviews.
B snorting Tell it to Byron!
W I think it’s the word review that’s driving me a little mad: the stance it implies. I don’t like how it feels.
B See above: “child, middle….”
W every consonant crisp I do not think it merely precious to mull the competing values of serious criticism—which, agreed, can be a contribution to the conversation: is the conversation, in fact—and collegial behavior, which is a moral imperative.
B I have a suggestion.
B This is going well, right? This dialogue thing.
W Well, apart from your attitude—
B Why don’t we write the blog?
B Blog, blog, blog! No, seriously; I think your problem is that you’ve been writing the way you used to as a critic: these very carefully argued, quasi-objective essays that in tone, are exactly the sort of thing you would have written for The Washington Post.
B And you feel that the writing would be more honest, somehow, if you strove less for the illusion of objectivity. No less serious, or tightly argued, but more accurate about your stance.
W I’m listening.
B So we write the pieces as dialogues. We come here after every performance, talk it out, write it down.
W Oh, no. They’ll be too long: too adolescent. You read these blogs that look like transcribed text messages and you just despair for the English language—
B We don’t have to do that. Your problem is that this a personal site, but you’ve been writing as if for a national newspaper—with very indulgent editors.
W How do you mean, indulgent?
B Oh, please. “In this uroboros of a play…”
W I stand by that word!
W Your point?
B Look at Sullivan’s blog. It’s very personal, but very clear. We could do this as point/counterpoint: tight alternating paragraphs, if you’re concerned about length. I think it would let some air into the project: it would cut the summary-judgment-tone—because that’s what’s bothering you.
W It’ll sound diffuse, or forced—
B OK: maybe not dialogues. Maybe open letters, like to Mortier. You said you don’t have any ambivalence about criticizing a draft. Rolling back the clock, what if you had written, say, your Ainadamar piece as “Dear Osvaldo and David Henry: Thank you for sharing this score with me: here are my thoughts…”?
W So pompous! What am I, play-doctor to the world?
B It’s a device, a game, an address. It’s a way into the subject. And I think it could keep the tone more generous, which is ultimately what you’re worried about.
W. pauses, clutches temples. B. drains his Martini.
B Or you can continue doing what you’re doing and every now and then pull this temple-clutching neo-Bernstein number—which, speaking of pompous…
W. glares. Pause.
W I think you get this check.
B Do they still say, “ooh, snap?”
W We’ll try it. I don’t know. We’ll try it.