… when I imagine myself in an old-style opera house, I’m not in a box hobnobbing with the Countess and offering her my servants.
I’m in the pit, laughing and drinking with friends and looking up at the rich people in the boxes. Or I’m one of the proffered servants running from place to place too busy to even enjoy the music while the rich people complain about not having enough ice in their drinks.
It just struck me while I read this, and reminded me of all those upper-class girls in college who loved Jane Austen because they inevitably saw themselves as the good girls in ball gowns trading witticisms with Mr. Darcy. I just kept wondering who was doing the dishes when they all got up from the table.
When you are more likely to identify with the scullery maid than with Elizabeth and her sisters, it changes how you see Great Literature, and how you imagine Great Performances. It changes how you hear them in the present. It changes everything.
And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I don’t think there is a wealthy person on Earth — not one born to money — who understands what it felt like for One Of Us to hold up a lighter during a power ballad, to be descended from family who could sing the quartet from “Rigoletto” around the dinner table, to cry while watching Steve Perry singing along to his own music on the Jumbotron, to have a mother who cries when she hears “O Sole Mio” and means it, to have grown up surrounded by minimum-wage kids who really got Styx’s “Blue Collar Man” and who didn’t think that “She Works Hard For The Money” was schlock but an anthem of badly needed empowerment. That sort of background and the lack of understanding of it in classical music is a big part of the problem of its bemoaned lack of relevance.
And yes, it bothers me to watch Western culture swallow the lie that my music, the music of my working-class people, has historically been the music of the Countess and her cronies, that tiny slice of humanity that seems to go through life with its ears stopped up and is continually behind the curve when it comes to anything innovative or revolutionary. What do they know about being a starving artist (La Bohème), or a crafty servant (The Barber of Seville), or working in a cigarette factory (Carmen)? Stories like that, just as much as the music video for the Donna Summer song I mentioned above, might as well be a minstrel show to them.
I don’t expect born-wealthy people to suddenly grasp all this, and I don’t think they’re evil because they can’t. But I do think that the overwhelming dominance of the culture of classical music by that one way of looking at everything is a big problem. Sure, there were and are expensive seats at rock concerts, some of which are preposterously overpriced compared to the matinee seats at any classical concert. But I think of John Lennon’s old 1964 crack — “the people in the cheaper seats can clap your hands … the rest of you just rattle your jewelry” — and I know that a big part of the appeal of popular music is that it truly is music for the people. A pop musician can get away with a crack like that; a classical musician would end his career if he said anything like it.
Classical music and opera has been seized upon and claimed by those born to wealth as Their Music. To a large extent, this was inevitable, since this music lives on big-ticket donations anymore, and only the children of wealth will have the Rich-Man’s Rolodex necessary to hit relatives and business partners up for big checks. They and their endowments keep it going month-to-month, but decade-to-decade they are killing it. Its short-term survival depends on the people in the boxes and their endowments … but if it’s going to be beloved generations from now, it’s the people in the pit that had better walk away smiling. The Countess was never really there for the music. The servant girl is the one who will be singing those arias to her grandchildren.