Lately, for every story about classical music being used to discourage loitering by hooligans, there has been an operatic or choral flash mob offering a charming adversary to the proven-yet-no-less-demoralizing theory that piping this genre outside of museums and in markets is the surest way to empty a public space.
Rock stars of the genre—such as tenor Rolando Villazón and violinist Joshua Bell—have gone (in varying degrees of incognito) underground to serenade subway commuters in Paris and Washington, D.C. On a much grander scale, entire opera companies and choruses have gotten involved with spontaneously launching into some of the canon's greatest hits—notably a tangle of Traviatas, a cavalcade of Carmens and manifold Messiahs—in department stores, train stations, restaurants and open-air markets.
"By using forgotten yet architecturally and socially significant places, rather than typical opera houses, opera can widen its audience and become more relevant to a democratic and heterogeneous society while also responding to current and future economic constraints," writes composer Paul Crabtree in a passionate plea to increase public performances of opera. "Typically modeled on Classical and Victorian ideals of civic munificence and public show, opera houses have inadvertently entombed the art they celebrate by freezing it as a museum specimen rather than encouraging it to expand and contract as a living entity."
It's thinking like this that has helped to give Make Music New York the full resonance it deserves. Modeled after Paris's Fête de la Musique, MMNY celebrates the longest day of the year with nonstop public performances of music (in all genres) around and beyond the five boroughs. On every scale, from solo artists to nearly 100 performers and in what's expected to be over 1,000 acts, musicians both professional and amateur take to the great outdoors tomorrow to explore the city's sonic landscape. More than a few classical artists are on that list: The Miller Theatre produces a performance of John Luther Adams's work Inuksuit that features a cast of 99 percussionists in Morningside Park. Passersby are also encouraged to participate, as WQXR host Kent Tritle hopes will happen with a 6:30 concert in Ganesvoort Plaza that pairs Mozart's Coronation Mass with Handel's Messiah.
And, yes, there will also be opera. It seems like we're operating at a cross-purposes in society. On the one hand, we rely on this music to drive undesirables away from our sacred 7-11 awnings. Yet we also invade similar public spaces with entire opera company choruses to spread a love of the genre. Like the film Highlander, there can only be one clear winner in this fight. Classical music in public spaces: friend or foe?
As I assume most people reading this blog would agree, I'm all for random acts of culture and classical music in public spaces. Pipe Puccini on your speakers and I'll just loiter longer. (I wonder, in fact, as younger generations become more attuned to tuning out external noises and distractions, if such measures won't become obsolete in a few years.) And for those of you who are on the same page, there are several ways to get your opera jollies among tomorrow's official festivities.
Start at 3:30pm in Fort Greene Park with American Opera Projects and the Walt Whitman Project, who serve up almost five hours of new works, including at 6:00pm a program called "I Hear America Singing," that offers some first-ever listens, classic arias and music from Ricky Ian Gordon. Make your way over to Tompkins Square Park at around 5:00 to catch the Amato spin-off Amore Opera delivering what they're calling an Aria vs. Art Song Smackdown with several of the company's bright young singers accompanied by piano. Go even further uptown to 52nd Street's Oasis Community Garden by 8:00 to see the artful opera–indie-rock hybrids to come from Marigold Opera.
Opera in public places: Friend or foe? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.