Opera for the masses

by Rob Horning

6 September 2007

 

I have had so little time to read lately that I’m blogging on consecutive days about material I heard on the radio in my morning wake-up stupor. Today, the BBC news hour on WNYC spent an eternity covering the death of Pavarotti, one of the famed three tenors. In the middle of the segment, I shut my eyes for what I thought was only a moment, because they were still yammering on about him when I drifted back into consciousness. Then I realized nearly 15 minutes had passed and I was going to be late for work.

The interminable segment was something I was trying very hard to block out, but one comment made by one of the newsreaders nonetheless stuck with me: She noted that though Pavarotti was often criticized for his limited repertoire and refusal to take risks and test the limits of his ability, he should be praised for having done as much as any other singer to bring opera to the masses. Not to be too elitist (or perhaps too philistine) but why is that particularly praiseworthy? What difference does it make whether or not the masses are exposed to opera, an aristocratic indulgence held over from previous periods of opulence and saturated with the mores of a rigid caste system? Is it some great favor to the masses that Pavarotti can make it appeal to them by apparently simplifying it? It seems somewhat condescending for one—“He was so great, even the masses could appreciate it”—and it implies that what the masses were already preoccupying themselves with was vulgar. Thank God they at least got to hear a little Pavarotti in their time. I’ve got nothing against Pavarotti’s singing, which I’m sure is impeccable. Reaching a mass audience is an achievement of a sort, but it’s not automatically an important or laudable one. It seems more a symptom of what media makes possible and the extent to which we as a society all feel obliged to pretend to care about high art.

The expanded coverage for Pavarotti’s death and the condescension in the reportage seem to be part of some cultural instinct to kowtow to certain recondite art forms that have little broad cultural significance other than serving as class boundary markers. We’re supposed to revere Pavarotti for having transcended those boundaries, but all he really did was remind us that they persist.

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