Friday, January 16, 2009

Gays, Jews, and Music

Keeping up with a musical thread on the blog as of late, I note that tonight the New York City Opera (NYCO) will put on a concert performance of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Thereby hangs several tales; an opera company, going through the worst year in its history, putting on a performance of what is the greatest disaster in the history of opera in NYC. The City Opera, founded by Mayor La Guardia as the people’s opera, has been floundering as of late, and for various reasons, is not putting on a regular season of performances this year. A much touted European impresario who was to be the company’s savior bowed out this past November. A new director was named only this week, but whether the NYCO stays on the boards seems a chancy proposition at best.

But their one performance this year will be of “Antony and Cleopatra.” This was the opera that was chosen to open the New Met at Lincoln Center in 1966. Barber was one of the most distinguished American composers of his generation, and his previous opera, Vanessa, was a considerable success. Expectations were high, no doubt too high, which the opera didn’t live up to, and it was roundly panned. The Met has never revived it, and its failure essentially marked the end of Barber’s career though he lived another fifteen years. It has appeared in new editions, eliminating some of the distractions from the original version, and it’s a nice opera, better than its reputation, but one that, I am afraid, is destined to be something of an operatic stepchild.

The NYCO production of “Antony and Cleopatra” coincides, fortuitously enough for me, with my reading of what is one of the most fascinating books ever written about classical music in New York (or anywhere else), Michael Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Music: An Imagined Conspiracy, which has as its last chapter, an extended study of the “Antony and Cleopatra” fiasco. Here’s the thing—at mid-century, it began to dawn on people that most of the great American classical composers of the era, such as Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Menotti, were gay, and they particularly dominated mainstream music, the sort of classical music that most people actually wanted to listen to, as opposed to hard modernism. And if gay love was still the sort of love that dare not speak its name, one major exception to this were psychiatrists, who had no problem spinning all sorts of ludicrous theories, arguing that gay men (and this debate largely focused on gay men), were by nature emotionally underdeveloped and incapable of mature love interests, and were somehow not quite whole, and had failed to assume the mantle of heterosexuality because they were not capable or emotionally strong enough, and were condemned to their pathetic lives, the fit object not of hate, but pity and sympathy. Stuff like that. And gay composers were incapable of writing truly “strong” music, but concerned themselves with mere prettiness, a sort of faggoty embroidery around the main themes of western classical music, and they could not, when they wrote operas, really understand the love of men for women, because it was just beyond their ken. And so American classical music was somehow feminized and ball-less, and dominated by gays because there was a gay conspiracy that kept poor heterosexual composers from positions of dominance. Most of this discourse in classical music was at the level of innuendo, rather than overt argument, but as Sherry shows, when “Antony and Cleopatra” flopped, all of these arguments were trotted out to make the claim that somehow the opera’s failure was foreordained by the composer’s sexual orientation. (Let me just say I am simplifying here what is a much subtler and more complex argument on Sherry’s part.)

Anyway, to turn to the other main subject of the blog recently, I was surprised that Sherry’s erudite study did not make the comparison between the mid-20th century discourse on gays and the mid-19th century discourse on Jews, especially to the most notorious essay in the history of classical music, Richard Wagner’s evil screed, Judaism in Music, wherein he argues that Jews conspire to keep deserving gentiles from getting their just deserts, and because they are outsiders to western culture, the best they can achieve is imitation or copying, and therefore will always be a little weak or flaccid, without the titanic creative passions of a great gentile composer, like me, and nertz to you, Felix Mendelssohn.

It is interesting how many of the people Sherry writes about, whether gay composers or crackpotty psychiatrists, were Jewish, and one wonders how these two discourses of outsiderness, the gay one and the Jewish one, overlapped and reinforced one another in mid-20th century New York City. Sherry speculates interestingly about “West Side Story,” all the creators of which were both gay and Jewish. If mid-century New York liberalism, of which “West Side Story” is such a prime example of, is primarily a saga of inclusion, it is perhaps because it was primarily a culture of outsiders, who were at once proud of who they were and yearned to shed the stigma of difference.

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