“As time went on a dreadful thing happened to him: one thing had become to him as good as another.”
—Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Dinesen), “The Poet” from Seven Gothic Tales (1934), p. 330.
As was probably to be expected, opinions in the punditocracy were all over the map following last week’s announcement that New York City Opera would have to cancel the remainder of its 2013-2014 season unless seven million dollars in funding could be raised by the end of September, as well as the entirety of the 2014-2015 season unless an additional thirteen million were raised by the end of this year. As someone who is always eager to experience something new, I hope that the company will see its way out of this financial impasse and devote itself even more strongly to presenting new operas by American composers—something I wish they had been able to do more of in recent years. (There are no American operas scheduled for the 2013-2014 season.)
But rather than entering this particular extremely overcrowded fray, I’d like to address an issue that was raised by Ned Canty, a pro-opera commenter who chimed in on a well-stated essay by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera featuring a fabulous title (“Giving Money to the Arts Does Not Make You Evil”):
I hope that one day some of the folks who dismiss opera so easily go to one. And if they don’t like it, I hope they go to two or three more. (Nobody goes to see one movie, doesn’t like it, then gives up on all movies. Ace Ventura 2 is not The Godfather. Yet people do this with opera all the time.)
Canty, I think, hits the nail on the head here when it comes to how people’s misconceptions of experiences inform their judgment. In fact, I’ll go further and say that you could just as easily replace the word “opera” with the words “new music” and find similar, if not worse, misconceptions. Yet of course the irony is that even though no two operas are identical to one another, there definitely is common stylistic ground—especially for operas staged by a specific opera company—that an audience will immediately discern, whereas with “new music” all bets are off, by design. The whole point of “new music” is that it is a new experience. Ideally, it should never be the same twice. Admittedly many ensembles and venues program works that, like the aforementioned opera companies, also have discernible stylistic similarities. But they shouldn’t. What makes attending a premiere performance the most exciting concert event that you can experience is the fact that you don’t know what you are going to hear until the music is played. Which is why it ultimately makes no sense when people claim not to like new music. New music can theoretically be anything from this to this to this. The more it unsettles and challenges your assumptions about what it could be, the more it is “new music”, like this. And, believe it or not, it can even be this!
Indeed, contrary to the assessment made in the Isak Dinesen quote with which I began this essay, getting past one’s own judgments and being completely open and willing to listen to anything, offers the widest range of aesthetic experiences imaginable. And that is the lesson of new music.