John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #9


FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the new type of opera you’re working on is certainly very far removed from bel canto and very far removed from the whole tradition of opera as we know it. But even more you came up with the idea of "the Eaton opera," you worked on an opera for television, Myshkin. The enture notion of opera on television is another approach to the whole idea of alternative venues. You know, for the most part when we see Great Performances on PBS we get standard repertory. Every now and then you get lucky, and you get Nixon in China or Streetcar. But even these works were conceived for the operatic stage. Myshkin was actually conceived specifically for television…

JOHN EATON: Uh huh.

FRANK J. OTERI: …and it allowed you to do certain things that don’t normally happen in opera. Strangely enough, television is more intimate, even though it’s this disemboweled, disembodied screen. The fact of the matter is, that the person watching it is Myshkin. When I watched it, I was Myshkin and the characters were singing to me. You can’t really get an audience involved quite the same way on a stage.

JOHN EATON: I think our culture lost a great, great opportunity when it didn’t do more with opera for television in the early years. I mean, commission composers to write operas specifically for television. After all, one of them, well, the most popular opera by far, was originally commissioned for television, which was Amahl and the Night Visitors. I mean, Amahl and the Night Visitors has had ten times as many performances as almost any other opera Schirmer has in their catalog, or anybody else, for that matter. Amahl is done by church groups, by educational groups, so on and so forth. But one of the earliest operas that tried to use television was a little-known piece also by Menotti, what is it, Help, Help, The Globolinks?

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, yeah, yeah, that was recorded… Newport Classic did a recording of that.

JOHN EATON: It really used the media in interesting ways. A lot could have been done at one point, it seems to me, with opera for television. But after the enormous success of Myshkin, which won the Peabody Award, the Ohio State Award, it was shown for several years on national TV and all over the world, really, after that, believe it or not, I was unable to get another commission to do an opera specifically for television. People were just afraid. And I think it’s a pity; it’s a great pity. Sort of like architects talking about the greatest challenge of the 20th century, almost completely ignored by builders, was building an airport. You know, it took years before we had any kind of sensible plan for any airport, which I can tell you, having arrived at 4:30 last night in Kennedy, and walking…

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] The single most unwelcome, unpleasant place to land in the entire world, is JFK.

JOHN EATON: Having so little to do with the spirit of JFK himself.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. [laughs] It amazed me no end. I have equally abhorrent feelings about the now-renamed Reagan Airport in D.C., which is well named… well, let’s not go there. [laughs]

JOHN EATON: But in any case, the opera on TV. There are so many things one could do if one just spends a minute, as we tried to do with Myshkin, thinking about the medium and how it could be used. It’s the ultimate expressionistic medium.

FRANK J. OTERI: Hmm. It’s so interesting. I’ve been reading Marshall McLuhan recently. And, you know, he died before the Internet existed as a phenomenon in our popular culture. And he’s talking about television having so much more power than books. And having so much more power than film. And he was one of the few people who wasn’t horrified by television. Everybody thought, oh my God, television, you know, nobody’s going to be able to read anymore, it’s destroying the young, you still hear this. And it’s not television that’s doing this, you know, it’s the crap that’s on television.

JOHN EATON: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: But the medium’s great.

JOHN EATON: Yeah. Well, exactly. That’s true of all technology.

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