John Rockwell: Operatic

John Rockwell

[Ed Note: we agree with a lot of this interview]
John Rockwell: Operatic
An interview with the founding director of the Lincoln Center Festival on opera and L.A.’s ‘Ring’ festival.

Patt Morrison

May 15, 2010

Much as it pains me to admit this, the first classical music I ever heard was the soundtrack to a cartoon. Probably Bugs Bunny. I remedied this at first thanks to a high school teacher who played us Shostakovich and Mozart and John Cage. Now, I listen to the classics with joy, and without thinking of Bugs or “The Lone Ranger.” But opera? That’s pretty much a hemi-demi-semi-quaver too far.

Which is why I was grateful to talk to John Rockwell. With Wagner’s “Ring” cycle spending the summer at the Los Angeles Opera, Rockwell — former Los Angeles Times and New York Times critic and editor, author and founding director of the Lincoln Center Festival — is the ideal guide to the art form (that’s a copy of the CD booklet for the seminal 1953 Bayreuth “Siegfried” tucked in his pocket).

Is Wagner your specialty?

I’m not a Wagnerian in the sense that it’s my only area of fascination, nor do I pretend to know more about Wagner than [does] anybody else. I simply like Wagner, and I’ve seen a fair number of “Rings.” I haven’t gone around the world like these “Ring” nuts.

They’re like Deadheads?

Sort of, except better music. I’m not a Grateful Dead fan. They struck me as kind of low-level, stoned, blues-ish noodling.

What made classical music a career rather than just a pleasure for you?

I had taken piano lessons as a kid, showing no great talent, and my father played violin and my mother played piano, but the turning point came when I was 15 and went [from California to Massachusetts] to boarding school. I turned to classical music — in particular, Toscanini. I collected most of his LPs, which meant collecting the bulk of the Western orchestral repertory. My first passion for Wagner was Toscanini’s recording of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, which is still the most impassioned performance of that bleeding hunk of Wagner that you’ll ever hope to hear.

Why did you move from fan to critic?

I didn’t think I showed the talent or had started early enough to be a musician. I was a good writer, so I figured being a critic was a good solution. I went to see Alfred Frankenstein, the classical music and art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. He was brilliant, and extremely kind to this 15-year-old geek. He was encouraging in the sense that he wished me well, discouraging in the sense that even before newspapers started collapsing and the Internet started giving criticism for free, making a profession as a critic [was] hard. I did programs on KPFA [radio], wrote program notes for the San Francisco Opera, did a lot of freelance things, but I couldn’t get a music critic’s job until I got an interim job at the Oakland Tribune, and then Martin Bernheimer hired me as his assistant at the L.A. Times [in] 1970.

What do you think of all this free — in the reading and writing of it — music criticism online?

Obviously the Internet is the future. The question is, how can owners and writers make money? Right now, if you’re a young critic, I can’t think of anybody who will give you a job on the Internet that would allow you to pay a mortgage. And that’s turned criticism over to dilettantes, enthusiasts, gossipers and people who blog in the evenings after whatever else they do. You can be the narrowest of specialists. You can be interested only in historical re-creations of supposedly dead ballet choreography. Whereas on a newspaper, you’re forced to be broad — and then you can be attacked by these specialists who know everything there is to know about the fingering of a bassoon solo.

Sounds like it’s happened to you.

It’s happened to everybody. You can’t imagine the snarkiness and the passionate enthusiasm — which I think is cool on the whole. What worries me is that people get blinkered. If you’re a general reader interested in culture, in L.A., you read the L.A. Times. You may bitch about the movie critics or the music critic, but that’s the central voice around which your discussion coalesces. With the Internet, the average person is led down strange paths into odd blogs, which can be interesting, [but] people seek out things which simply reinforce their own opinion.

In this country, classical music has been mocked for ages as “longhair” and elitist.

Seventy years ago, in the days of the great radio symphonies and all that, there was a lingering effort to have classical music perceived as the apex of musical art. Now the popular culture is so dominant, classical music can be ignored or derided or considered class-bound or race-bound. On the other hand, complaints about dumbing down and crossover are a little less strident because many younger composers naturally blend impulses from popular music or reach out to classical idioms from their pop backgrounds. I do think there’s a kind of organic and healthy fusion going on.

Does that mean that operas and symphony concerts are withering and geriatric institutions?

I don’t think so. When somebody like [Gustavo] Dudamel comes along, everybody gets excited because of the star power and charisma. And opera itself is still a lively and extravagant art form; you can’t see, except possibly in Vegas with a Cirque du Soleil show, staged productions any more grand than you can get in opera.

Many people may know Wagner’s music only secondhand, from cartoons or “Apocalypse Now.”

The cliches of fat ladies and the helmet with horns. You can come to it from a lot of different ways.

Or through Wagner’s politics.

Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite, and Hitler loved him, loved his music. He was a bad man when it came to Jewish issues.

People entwine art and politics.

And they should, up to a point. Richard Taruskin [musicologist at UC Berkeley] is a firm believer in the linkage. He feels that anybody who kowtows to evil is evil or is worthy of less artistic respect, and I can understand that. That said, I am willing to appreciate the art, and Wagner’s music is so great and his librettos so deeply human and often compassionate — there’s never been a more warm, loving, humanistic opera than “Die Meistersinger.” Unlike some people who still can’t see past the anti-Semitism, I am willing to suspend those doubts during a great performance of a Wagner opera.

You’ve said Wagner requires a hard bottom and a glacial attention span. Is that why you’re not coming for this “Ring”?

I may be missing one of the great experiences of all time; I’m not prejudging. I applaud the L.A. Opera for carrying on in the midst of the recession, but a lot of people do “Rings.” On paper this cast is good without being great, and I have complex feelings about [director-designer] Achim Freyer, who I thought was just the greatest guy out there from the mid-’70s to the late ’80s, and whose work since then has struck me as sort of didactic and weird, weird in a less than wonderful way.

I think the different arts in a great opera production can enrich each other; that was certainly Wagner’s theory. I do think that a great opera production — maybe Achim Freyer’s and James Conlon’s at L.A. Opera — can achieve that unity in a way that is pretty extraordinary. That’s why I wish the L.A. Opera “Ring” the very best.

If aliens came to Earth, would they’d find opera the most revealing of the arts?

Or “American Idol”? Opera is not the happening contemporary art form of our time. If they were serious space aliens, [they’d find] the essential art form is film, which is operatic in its way; “Avatar” is operatic in its scope. [L.A. Opera was] very smart to attract film directors to direct opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

You once got heat for defending Linda Ronstadt and ABBA.

There’s different kinds of heat. There were people in the classical world who never understood why I would lower myself to be interested in rock and roll. And the criticism that I might have gotten from praising ABBA or Linda came from hard-core, macho rock guys, many of whom are my best friends, who thought ABBA and Ronstadt were somehow cheesy, commercial, sentimental reductions of the pure spirit of rock and roll. You put yourself out there as any kind of critic, you’re going to anger somebody. Some people will be your fans; some will hate you, just like when you’re an artist.

Why is public arts funding in this country an eternal battleground?

Public funding for the arts in America is minuscule compared to Europe, [which has] to do with aristocratic patronage and centralized government. A tradition of government support in Europe allows for more experimentation and preservation of older-fashioned arts. But it also involves interference. There’s a huge cultural bureaucracy in Paris that determines the tiniest details of French cultural life. This stifles innovation and freezes out the outsiders, so there’s something to be said for the more anarchic system in America.

[And] you can’t forget our system of philanthropy. A lot of money flows into American arts that is not governmental but is subsidized [as] tax deductions, a system that does not exist in a comparable way in Europe. This puts disproportionate power in America in the hands of rich people, who tend to be conservative and arrogant and who sit on the boards, go to the galas and get the ladies’ room named after them when they build a new hall.

But [that] decentralized, anarchic system in America does allow for eccentricity and innovation, you could argue. Ultimately I think more public support for the arts would be to the good, but the right has such an attack-dog mentality to politicize any controversial grant, it’s almost impossible.

Is there any music that you loathe?

I’m not fond of soupy, latter-day Las Vegas-style crooning, or vulgar, braying Broadway belting, but I’m not sure I’d use the word loathe. Most anything can be good if done really well.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive:

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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