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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The First Twitter Opera

Being first at anything seems to provide a jolt of marketing umph. It applies to sports records, technological inventions, and yes Martha, new operas.

The Royal Opera House in London has earned the dubious distinction of producing the world's first Twitter Opera. It's good PR all around, and appears to ride the wave toward more grass-roots (or astro-turf) popularism in the arts (not that I'm a snob). A spokesperson for the opera company said that they wanted "everyone to become involved with the inventiveness of opera as the ultimate form of storytelling." I would think that the world-wide publicity that this new opera has generated does not hurt their bottom line either.

To this end, the creators of "The Twitter Opera" project selected their libretto from a pool of individual 140-character Tweets submitted by the public (hey, didn't Rossini say that he could set a laundry list?). More than 900 people contributed to the libretto - one 'tweet' at a time (hey, Rome wasn't built in a day!). While many of the individual tweets have some literary merit and musical potential, together they don't appear to form much of a plot (hey, Samuel Beckett tried that too).

The final "twext" was rapidly set to music by British composer Helen Porter (b. 1963). Porter included some well-known fragments from arias by Mozart and Wagner into the final mix. "It was a very fast process," said Potter. I'm sure that Potter is a very competent composer.

Here is a preview of the world's FIRST Twitter Opera (on YouTube, of course)....

Jonathan Lennie, the classical music critic for London's Time Out thinks it's a great idea: "Opera belongs to everyone. This is good because it is experimental. It demystifies the process of creating opera."

There are plans to supply laptops to the public for tweeting during the performance in an effort to "aid the creative process" (hey, don't audiences already do that?)

While I have nothing against a little fun, and believe that artists should think outside of the box to invent new work, there is something inherently cynical about exploiting a trendy social fad for the cheep thrill of rapid (and probably short-term) artistic recognition. Call it sour grapes, but there are lots of thoughtful contemporary operas out there that currently sit on the shelf unperformed.

Increasingly, composers are being put on the spot to invent musically-unrelated circus tricks to attract the largest possible audience. They are doing anything and everything they can think of to draw attention to their music, but in the process run a risk of diminishing the value of their own creative work.

It's the mass-public that bears the brunt of blame for inciting this bad artistic behavior and egging artists on. The public wants to play along, enjoy the latest fad, revel in media-created controversy, but in general they do not want to be seriously challenged or deeply engaged. The artist has a responsibly to bring them along, even if they don't want to go.

The ethical challenge for artists is "where do you draw the line?" When does using sex on an album cover to sell CDs cross the line and become bad taste? When does succumbing to the impulsive whims of an audience turn into crude pandering for financial profit? Do we really need a new recording of the Vivaldi Four Seasons to add value to what's already been said about that work?

If I really put my mind to it, I could come up with some stupid marketing trick to draw attention to my music. I passed on wearing Red Sneakers in the 1970s for this same reason. I prefer not to joke about my work, or even risk associating a serious piece of mine with trivial fun and games. I enjoy fun and frivolity like anyone else, but I just don't want the gimmick to take center stage. We engaged in those shenanigans during the 1970s with some of the Dada-inspired antics of avant garde experimentalism, and then we moved on.

It's a delicate and narrow tightrope. There is truth to the fact that marketing yourself and your art does take on some of the characteristics of consumerism. But art should transcend the commercialism of it. Any musician with long-term staying power should consider the dangers of selling out for the quick fix of an addictive attention-grabbing promotional boost of a media-driven sugar high. It lowers the bar of excellence for all of us if the status quo degenerates into mere parlor ticks and "look-at-me" inspired gimmicks.

Let's get serious.