Friday, January 13, 2012

Jackie Evancho--beloved by fans, ignored by Grammies, sneered at by pop critics, reviled by classical critics

I can't recall when someone so genuinely nice and talented has been the target of so much negativity by the cultural establishment.

Here's the kid (bottom right BTW) who Billboard Magazine ranks as the #1 classical artist in America, the 10th best-selling recording artist across all genres, who had the second-best-selling CD of the year among classical crossover/"vocalist" artists, and whose PBS special "Dream with me" is apparently the most pledge-producing concert of any that PBS stations have ever used for their pledge drives. 

You'd think all that would at least get her some attention from the mainstream press.

Well, the New York Times deigned to take note of her existence belatedly. Toward the end of last year it sent a stringer who specializes in reviewing hip hop and rap to a live concert she gave in New York. You can imagine what he had to say.

Then the Washington Post one-upped the NYTimes: last week it had a classical music critic "review" her. As far as I could tell he based his musical analysis on the first time she ever appeared on TV, 16 months ago, singing for 90 seconds. From that he concluded that she was an abused, sexualized child who's being forced to sing music she shouldn't be singing in a horrible technique that's guaranteed to destroy her voice--which he grudgingly conceded had some strengths--and wrapped it up by likening her to Jon-Benet Ramsey!

He got a ton of very angry comments. He responded by doubling down on everything he'd said in a podcast on New York public classical station WQXR-FM, with several classical doyennes nodding their heads in agreement.

Nobody else this side of the Taliban thinks her clothing would be inappropriate for performing for the President of the United States and his family or the Emperor of Japan and his family--both of which she's done.

Nobody who isn't seriously warped in the head would think her choice of clothing or music--opera arias, show tunes and slow to midtempo pop numbers--puts her in league with all those miniskirted Beyonce wannabes out there. 

And anyone who accuses her parents of abusing her--which the WaPo "critic" stated as a proven fact--had better hope that they're too small to draw the Evanchos' attention, because that falls well within the boundaries of our country's defamation laws.

Moreover, the doom predicted for her voice is not shared by any of the otolaryngologists who examine her regularly, nor by the voice coaches who work with her, nor by concert schedulers who'd love to have her perform more often and more often during her concerts, but are frustrated by Jackie's parents' insistence that the health and longevity of her voice come first.

My point here isn't to defend her and her family, however. Anyone who Google/Wikis/YouTube's Jackie Evancho for less than an hour will know that these critiques aren't just rubbish, but appallingly ignorant rubbish--appalling because I'd expect far higher standards of journalism from such eminent media sources and from the critical establishment.

My point is to show how, when confronted with someone who doesn't fall within the neat categories critics use to slice and dice reality, they reject the someone rather than revise their categories--or admit, even to themselves, that those categories don't accommodate the rare interpretive musical genius who comes along perhaps once or twice a century. Interestingly, many fans of the genres these critics champion love Jackie's music. It's the critics who don't.

Thus to a parochial rap/hip hop critic she's a lousy rapper. To the classical snob she's a lousy operatic soprano. To many classical music teachers she's a parvenu from petit bourgeoise parents who has been the curse of them, now that they're being besieged by children and parents dying to have their kid trained to become the next Jackie.

And those teachers can't tell those kids and their parents the truth: "I don't know how to teach anyone how to sing like Jackie Evancho, because nobody knows how she does it, and even she can't explain how she does it; and even if anyone could explain it you'd have to be a musical genius yourself to follow in her path. I can teach you how to sing well, and safely, but you'll never even get in the same ballpark as Ms. Evancho."

So instead of saying that they say "Jackie Evancho is a bad opera singer who's destroying her voice rapidly, so I shouldn't and won't teach you how to sing like her." 

Never mind that just because someone sings the occasional aria doesn't make her or him an opera singer; opera singing is a technique that can be used with any kind of music, just as any kind of opera music can be sung non-operatically. Never mind that Jackie, her parents, and her label have never claimed she was an opera singer, do not now, and say she has no plans to sing in operas or to sing operatically in the future, making the opera snobs' criticism about as relevant as saying she's a lousy Tuvan throat singer. And never mind that one of the most prestigious voice doctors in America just declared her vocal cords "pristine." These bozos know what they know...or they feel compelled to believe they do.

I'm not claiming that everyone should love listening to Jackie Evancho. Some never will. What I am claiming is that the music critic establishment is failing--grossly failing--to live up to what should be its mandate: to match listeners with music. 

Instead they're trying to game the system by trashing the work and family of an artist who works in a hybrid area, neither purely classical nor purely pop. They don't understand singers who don't fit in their neat little cubbyholes. They don't understand children when the children are geniuses. They don't understand their job, which should be serving their readers. And they don't understand how you don't get to defame people's characters with no other reason than their prejudices and Lindsay Lohan.

So here's an extremely nice, polite. well-behaved, studiously diplomatic 11 year old girl who is unintentionally bringing out the worst in a significant chunk of the arts world's establishment. 

Speaking as a sociologist, I find it fascinating. She's a regular Rorschach blot, given all the putrefying nonsense a lot of self-appointed experts are saying about her (when they bother to notice the she exists at all), 90% of which is false, and obviously so.

The only critique I've heard that sticks even a little is that her backup arrangements tend to be overblown--gilding the lily--sometimes burying her exquisite voice in a wall of sound filled with clashing cymbals, swooning strings, harp arpeggios, horns horning in etc. Hopefully that will diminish as she grows older and gets more artistic control over her products. But even with the WOS productions a majority of music lovers will find her CDs and especially her DVDs well worth having.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Descendants--no spoiler review

This is a great family film that's R-rated. In it, even little kids say words that would have had my grandmother beating them with a stick for uttering. And yet, honest to Pete, in every other respect it's a wonderful family film that endorses family, integrity, good parenting. In every other respect besides language it's a PG-13 film.

And it's a really good movie by cinematic standards, wholly apart from the values it promotes. I once heard that casting was 80% of a movie. If so, "The Descendants" wins big time because the casting is flawless. George Clooney sinks into his character--which is tough to do when you're such a big star (and you look like Jay Leno's handsome first cousin). You really see him as his character, and his voiceover narration actually works, unlike many voiceovers.

But the first class casting extends down to the smallest parts--the sign of a fine movie. And the second role, the hero's rebellious daughter, is played with real distinction by Shailene Woodley, previously only known as the lead in the CW network's teen soaper/weekly abstinence infomercial "Secret Life of the American Teenager."

The film is set entirely in Hawaii--mostly in the Oahu of those who live there and have lived there for generations, in a suburban lifestyle that looks very much like mainland suburbia except that even the wealthiest families in the fanciest get-togethers are all barefoot. It's pretty cool, really.

Hawaii is one of the best pieces of casting--casting because it comes one of the main characters, providing a backdrop for the human players who are all--hence the title--the descendants of haoles from the mainland and local Hawaiians who intermarried.

One character who has precious screen time is Matthew Lillard, who I only knew of from his role in the Scooby Doo movies--that is, as a rubber-faced buffoon. But here in a small role he does a great job portraying a quasi-slimeball who isn't quite as bad as we're led to think. And Judy Greer, playing the character's wife, does an equally great job with a small role.

The cinematography is competent if not cutting edge. It's aided by being set in Hawaii. Hard to lose with that one. I've been there several times, and the film really took me back. I could smell the warm, humid air and how it makes the main character (Clooney's) sweat when he runs for a while.

This film has gotten rave reviews from the critcs and from audiences. You will do yourself a favor if you see it based on those and this, without trying to find out all the details of the movie. You can get the whole plot easily enough, since most reviews tell the whole story most of the time. I'm trying to help preserve some element of surprise for you here, while still telling you whether you should see it, and whether in a theater or not.

As for that, my rule of thumb is to only see 3D films in theaters rather than on my 46" flat screen home theater. This film isn't 3D, but I happened to see it in a theater. Some people I saw it with thought the Hawaiian setting was enough to justify seeing it in a theater. I dunno, but that is an argument for it. But I don't think you'll feel bereft if you wait for the DVD.

The same evening we saw "How to tame your dragon" on a home theatre, and it made us greatly miss how great it had looked in a theater in 3D, BTW.

The measure of a film, for me, is whether it sticks with me. This has. The characters are so richly drawn, and the actors convey their characters with so much good acting and not all the talkiness that screenwriters like to put in everyone's mouths. I'm talkative myself, but most people really aren't, and I felt the screenwriting here was true to the characters' characters.

Need anything more to decide whether to see it? Well I should add that it's a dramady that moves deftly between comic and very serous moments. At the end, you won't feel devastated. Actually, you'll have trouble not smiling--the kind of warm smile I often give my wife of 30 years after a moment of shared understanding. The film is sophisticated in its characterizations without being at all arch or pretentious. It's an honest movie with a lot of heart, yet without hiding any of the characters' flaws--or, in the case of the more or less bad guys--strengths. Ultimately it has no saints or devils. Just a bunch of people, connected in various way, doing the best they Paradise.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Should little girls sing opera arias written for men?

re: Jackie Evancho singing “Nessun Dorma”
I see many opera lovers conflating performing an aria in concert with performing it in an opera. These are distinct modalities, and in fact people who sing in operas can encounter aesthetic difficulties when they do arias in concert–when they fail to grasp the difference, unlike Jackie Evancho, who understands it perfectly.
Thus when Ms. Evancho sings “Nessun Dorma” as a concert piece, she isn’t trying to portray Prince Calaf, madly in love with with the eponymous psychopathic princess of the opera. In the context of the opera, whoever’s playing the Prince must, of course, sing in character, and the aria, which is a soliloquy, sets the stage for the dramatic scenes that follow.
If the aria is only aesthetically valid when it’s doing that, then it shouldn’t be sung in concert by anyone–even a Corelli or a Domingo.
But this shortchanges Puccini’s genius as a composer. Of course the music stands on its own. Honestly, the opera needs it more than it needs the opera, whose libretto is the most problematic of Puccini’s operas, uncomfortably mixing a fantastical fable of a story with Puccini’s profoundly verisimo musical style. Maybe that’s why he died trying to finish it after two years of struggle.
Outside the opera the lyrics are poetic but about as meaningful as one of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. When Jackie sings this aria, she recontextualizes it for the concert hall, without the story–which isn’t there, since it’s the aria, not the opera, that’s being performed after all.
When Jackie sings it, it’s a song of great yearning and great will to achieve one’s dreams and aspirations.
And actually I find that to be a better fit with the music than Prince Calaf’s declaration of love for someone who is plainly a dangerous nut case any sane man would run from as fast as he could. Really, you’d be safer with the Queen of the Night. Every night you’d have to frisk her for knives and ice picks before you went to bed.
I should add that many people have sung this aria, man and woman, opera singers and otherwise. Aretha Franklin has done it, probably marking the nadir of her career–but not because she’s a woman. Because she sang it really, really badly.
Whereas, given the concert setting and not the operatic one, little 11 year old Jackie Evancho sings it as well as I’ve heard it sung–in concert.
For all the harrumphing about the lyrics, you’d think she was reading from the Kama Sutra. “Nessun Dorma”‘s lyrics are fine, given that this child is assuming the persona of the storyteller, not the person the story is being told about.
And when it comes to authentically expression powerful longing and equally powerful will–who can legitimately say they have more of either than her? What were the rest of us doing at age 11? She is, like most geniuses–which she is, obviously–highly driven. Which means that what she feels and what she wants to do with her time is not like what you cute little niece feels and wants to do with her time.
I find a lot of the naysaying I read here and elsewhere stems from a profound lack of understanding of human genius. Well, that’s to be expected. Geniuses are exceedingly rare, and many of us go through our whole lives without ever meeting one in person.
And they exemplify the unfairness of nature. You may have labored twenty years, diligently, to master something, and have a genius waltz in and say of your work “And then it just repeats…right? What if we tried this?” and proceeds to invalidate your entire career.
Lots of people tackle “Nessun Dorma” because it isn’t just a great aria in “Turandot”–it’s also a great song. And a lot easier to pop out of the opera that something from Wagner’s multi-hour songspiels, I might add.