How the Wealthy Grieve

“Horses for courses” is the pithy phrase the Brits use to underline the need to choose certain animals for certain races and not for others, and by extension, certain people for certain jobs etc. There are things that fit particular situations and circumstances and things that don’t. It is accompanied by a sage nod and an acknowledgment that choosing the wrong contender can doom your chances of success.

The upcoming 10th anniversary of the 2001 September 11th attacks opens up a field of commemorative options, from a dry religious observation to a novelty clog dance invitational. From the Spartan to the flagrantly bizarre, here in multi-cultural anything-goes America who is to say what the course is and which horse is the most appropriate?

The San Francisco Opera has chosen as its stallion in the race to cash in on the event’s audience-generating potential an opera based on James B. Stewart’s book Heart of a Soldier. This raises at least three fundamental questions:

  • is opera an appropriate medium for the tenth anniversary of this national day of mourning?
  • is San Francisco Opera the best company for that opera?
  • is this particular novel appropriate subject matter?

In the 18th century Dr. Johnson called the opera of his day, largely spectacular affairs sung in Italian to a wealthy crowd who paid scant attention to what was going on onstage, an ‘irrational and exotic entertainment’, and conditions have hardly changed. Coverage of the San Francisco Opera 2010 Season opening gala left little doubt that it was the participants and their largesse that were being celebrated –

” I wanted to feel like a princess,” Dede Wilsey said in the box lounge, showing off her silvery Oscar de la Renta ball gown, and a scarab-size diamond pendant around her neck. The evenings offered meaningful escapes, from the lingering downturn, and patrons were ready to celebrate their contribution to the arts. (The San Francisco Chronicle.)

The opera itself is mentioned only as a footnote in the article’s final sentence; by the way, all these bejeweled revelers sat through Aida. By Verdi.  This criticism, however, is to answer the second question first, that San Francisco’s is not likely to be the audience to take the project the most seriously. We can only hope that the gravity of the occasion’s subject matter will trump the patrons’ thirst for recognition, otherwise a Twin Towers bustier may be the talk of the town in the traditional annual San Francisco Chronicle reader poll of the best opening night gown.

How does turning a national day of mourning into a secular fee-paying event ($35 to >$150 per seat) avoid becoming a public relations nightmare? The medium of opera apparently has the credentials to carry it off because it has an unassailable social cachet among the wealthy for expressing the profoundest of human emotions while spending a lot of money doing it.

Perhaps it is opera’s expense that excuses or obscures its absurdity, as if the spectacle of a singing/dying firefighter is legitimized by the amount of cash it took to get him on to the stage. Imagine the outraged response to a substituted Twin Towers oboe recital, or a newly commissioned string quartet; these are insubstantial, unspectacular, and do not spend enough money expressing our grief. A smaller-scale musical item, such as Barber’s Adagio for Strings, may have the emotional depth and hit the nail squarely on the head, but there is nothing like the tacky and wasteful opulence of grand opera to help the wealthy feel like they are participating in something truly artistically worthwhile.

Heart of a Soldier is a typical profile-in-courage beloved by the US Messiah industry. It stands in the mainstream of American mythology that venerates the testosterone Jesus, the cowboy, the pioneer, the soldier, the pilot, the president, who willingly and lovingly lays down his life for those in his care. This particular story’s hero sacrifices himself to save 2,700 people at the World Trade Center on the morning of the attacks, and would make a great movie role for John Wayne, or any latter-day All-American swaggerista. Good luck with the stage role, Thomas Hampson, and mind you don’t trip over any cliches on your way to the moral high ground.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the book ‘…has all the ingredients of an Indiana Jones movie.’ Well, what it lacks in solemnity perhaps the opera will make up for in good ole rock ’em, sock ’em entertainment, with the good guys and the bad guys clearly and comfortingly identified. Who says life isn’t like the movies? At least it will give me a chance to wear that new frock.

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