What is it? Rossini's interpretation of the Cinderella story, written in the months after the smash success of his Barber of Seville. It features all the whimsical and artfully silly stuff you'd expect from Rossini — pumpkins, glass slippers, ugly stepsisters, and an evil stepmother who just won't quit. The program promises "an ever-so-slightly skewed treatment of this beloved tale," and given director Charles Roubaud's history of innovation with conductor Matteo Beltrami, that's bound to be something delightfully pompous and breathlessly effervescent.
Why see it? Once again, the Spoleto Festival has ushered into being yet another opera by one of the masters of the form. It's directed by Roubaud, who set Lakmé, a work reflecting the height of 19th century French obsession with all things exotic, amid the steam and humidity of the British Raj.
Who should go? Those who love the playful, joyful, bubbly vibe of Rossini. Oh, and those people who like to see fetching opera divas do their thing, like mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, whom The New York Times called "luscious of voice, looking good, and moving well."
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $20-$130 • 2 hours 45 min. • May 23 at 6:30 p.m.; May 26, 30, June 6 at 7:30 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • (843) 579-3100
Opera is becoming popular again, a widely enjoyed form of entertainment. Like it used to be.
Rossini believed opera's "primary purpose was to delight and move the hearer by music that is melodious, unsentimental, spontaneous, and, in every sense of the word, popular," writes Donald Jay Grout in A History of Western Music.
And indeed opera, like Rossini's La Cenerentola, one of Spoleto's original productions, seems to be returning to its former egalitarian glory.
The old cultural hierarchies — highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow — have long since collapsed under the weight of mass media, popular culture, and the commercial rise of the internet. Except for opera. It has somehow managed to cordon off a small quarter inhabited by the so-called cultural elite. So much so that it seems on the verge of being culturally irrelevant.
Until now. Groups like the Metropolitan Opera, in New York City, are broadcasting high-definition satellite streams of their live performances to movie theaters around the U.S. and the world. Opera houses in San Francisco, Italy, and the United Kingdom are following suit.
The Met plans to offer 11 matinee performances next season, up from eight this season, and expects revenues from its high-def broadcasts to reach $93 million by season's end. That's not because rich folks are paying $22 for a ticket, diet soda, and a tub of buttered popcorn.
La Cenerentola will be a highly visual production, says director Charles Roubaud, like "a movie set" that showcases lighting and scenery in a way that's "not just a simple production" but a modern story about "goodness and family." Emmanuel Villaume, Spoleto's music director, says La Cenerentola will feature high-tech video that augments its "ravishing costumes" and its "feeling of being a magical fairy tale."
Such efforts to engage our society's hugely sophisticated visual expectations signals a move away from the past and into the future, what Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, would have recognized as a "paradigm shift" — what used to be considered the consensus about opera is changing and being replaced by a new cultural understanding thanks to the innovative use of information technology.
This process is cyclical. The way we see things, that is. Opera itself hasn't changed much. Just our view of it.
Opera is now making clear what it has always been — a rich tradition of art song that delights and moves. Like the character of Cinderella, a princess hidden beneath ash and soot, opera is not what it seems to be — there's more to its pageantry and pomp than meets the eye. Opera has long been veiled by a decades-long ideological pretense. Thanks to the Met's achievement, we see better now.
This change exemplifies how we become locked in a paradigm.
That is, until we're shown a new one, which is, oddly, more like the old one.
A brief literary history of bawdy humor
Shakespeare, for instance, liked a good penis pun.
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio mocked the young lover for being a fool who "runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole." In Twelfth Night, the Bard jokes that "a good hanging prevents a bad marriage." You can guess what hangs and why it enhances conjugal bliss.
The Victorians, especially middle-class Evangelical Protestants in 19th-century America, lost their taste for bawdiness, as they did for pretty much everything else that was fun. Call it the candy-ass paradigm, if you will.
"Victorian Americans ... were eager to show off their carefully cultivated refinement and good taste, especially to European visitors who might be inclined (as many Europeans were) to think of Americans, especially Westerners, as crude, ignorant, loud-mouthed, and ill-mannered," writes Paul F. Boller in Not So!: Popular Myths about America from Columbus to Clinton.
No wonder opera, even comic opera, got so boring.
Even fart jokes were off limits to the prissy Victorians (though we can thank them for such colorful locutions as "tipping the velvet" for cunnilingus and "the charmer" for penis). Prior to Goethe's brand of German Romanticism, in which art became a search for the sublime and heroic, and Kant's brand of German Idealism, in which art becomes a search for universal and über-serious principles of taste, fart jokes were commonplace.
Aristophanes, in his comedy The Clouds, has Socrates observing the linguistic similarities between "thunder clap" and "fart and crap." Chaucer, in "The Miller's Tale," notes that Absolom, an effete parish clerk, is "a little squeamish toward a fart." And Ben Jonson, in his satirical play The Alchemist, has a character say flatly, with defiance, "I fart at thee."
If you think Jason Segel and Judd Apatow are obsessed with gross-out humor, take a look at Jonson's and Shakespeare's time.
London's population swelled beyond capacity, resulting in a pretty shitty lifestyle, literally. Jonson was so conscious of shit that he wrote a mock epic poem called On the Famous Voyage about an Odysseus-like hero who "triumphantly" returns home on a barge sailing down a sewer ditch, where "arses were heard to croak instead of frogs."
Mark Twain, embraced by Victorians as the voice of America, loved to prick his audience's delicate dogmas. A story called 1601 is centered on the scenario of blowing ass in front of Queen Elizabeth. Twain's other blue piece is Some Remarks on the Science of Onanism, a filigreed riff on masturbation with famous characters commenting on the empirical benefits of whacking off. Julius Caesar: "Sometimes I prefer it to sodomy." Robinson Crusoe: "I cannot describe what I owe to this gentle art." Elizabeth, again: "It is the bulwark of virginity."
Transformed into something better
Explicit language wasn't restricted to comedy. The Puritans, those paragons of seriousness, often used it to make a point. Take John Milton, the author of the Christian epic Paradise Lost. He was a refined intellectual, devout Puritan, and avid potty-mouth.
After Oliver Cromwell took control of the English government, Milton sent parliament an essay called Areopagitica to argue for freedom of the press (meaning book publishers). Even if a book is sinful, it's necessary, Milton argued. Virtue must face the trials of vice in order to purify the soul — which is already stained with original sin — and gain entry into the kingdom of heaven.
"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed ... that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers ... is but a blank virtue, not pure," Milton wrote to England's Lord Protector.
"Her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness."
Yep. If you don't face the evils of the world and exercise your God-given gift of free will, Milton asserted, then your virtue is untested. It remains impure. It may look fine on the outside, and everyone might think you're virtuous, but on the inside, where God can see, you're as unclean as a rabbit turd snowballing downhill, as one college professor memorably described it.
Call it the pre-candy-ass paradigm. Milton might be preachy, but dull? Nope.
Milton knew to trust his heart more than his eyes. Like Plato in the Cave of Shadows, he was suspicious of apparent reality. This world (the physical) was ephemeral while the next (the metaphysical) was eternal. If we can only pierce that veil of forms, we can understand the Truth — what Milton called God, what Jung called libido, what Yoda calls The Force, what Oprah calls "the real you."
That's what Cinderella does. By displaying deep piety before her mother's grave, she is awarded glamorous gowns. She sheds, in effect, her impure exterior to reveal the purity of what's inside — her excremental virtue, in other words, has been cleansed. Just as Milton's virtuous Christian engages the world's evil to be transformed into something better, Cinderella defies her evil step-family to achieve another kind of transformation.
Once she takes that leap of faith, once she embodies her real self, the paradigm, as Kuhn would say, has shifted.
And just as Milton resorts to explicit language to make his point, the original Grimm's fairy tale is equally crystal clear.
In a weird way. You could say that Cinderella is the most popular story about a foot fetish in history, as suggested by Richard Zacks in An Underground Education. Cinderella's stepsisters cut off their big toe and heel, respectively, in order to fit into the shoe. And the shoe, by the way, wasn't a glass slipper but a pianelle, or 18-inch-high cork-soled galosh that Renaissance women used to wear to keep their dresses free from mud.
The prince, therefore, would have pined for Cinderella clutching this Freudian disco monster, saying: "You [that is, the pianelle] used to hold a white foot, now you have caught a wounded heart; thanks to you, she who dominates my heart stood a handsbreath and a half [about 13 inches] taller, so shall my life grow in sweetness so long as I guard and possess you."
What would Rossini think of that?