Is Talk Cheap?

Pondering Classical Music's Place at TED Talks

Thursday, March 01, 2012 - 04:31 PM

Last year, soprano Danielle de Niese joined the ranks of Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Hawking, Thandie Newton, Morgan Spurlock and Elizabeth Gilbert by appearing at TED, the multidisciplinary Technology, Entertainment and Design conference.

Okay, de Niese’s TED talk was less of a talk and more of a sing as she performed Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß, from Franz Lehár’s Giuditta. And leading her TED bio with “It’s not every day that an opera singer is deemed ‘cool’” doesn’t really do the genre any favors. But de Niese’s TED talk is one of many in the classical-opera genre and reasserts the musical form’s relevance to the TED brand.

Whether you consider TED and its branded talks to be inspired or insipid, its videos on YouTube garner tens of thousands of viewers and introduce topics normally found to be insider baseball into a wider consciousness. Benjamin Wallace, in an article for this week’s New York magazine, aptly calls the conference’s presentations “a populist intellectual movement.”

“I felt for the first time in my life that I was part of something bigger than myself,” composer Eric Whitacre said in his TED talk the same year, speaking of his virtual choir project. It was a collective of videos of singers across the world amalgamated into one full choral realization, a crossroads of technology, entertainment and design. Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 2.0 generated 2,051 submissions from 58 different countries. It goes hand-in-hand with Maya Beiser’s own TED talk, in which the cellist performed Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint with seven copies of herself thanks to video technology.

Quilting together videos, as Whitacre and his team did, left me thinking about the similar patchwork of TED talks over the years. In his same New York article, Wallace wonders if the commoditization of “smart talk,” its subsequent exclusive conferences like TED and its inevitable competitors may be diluting the same product it supports. De Niese may have a feline magnetism and sexy charm, but are the talents of a world-class opera singer best spent on a flirtatious aria in the name of exposing opera as sexy? It tells, but how much (apart from some gilded décolletage) does it show? Or, to play the opposite side of the critical coin, does it show plenty but tell nothing?

De Niese’s patch of the operatic TEDitorry is striking, but not overpowering. Fellow soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick sailed through “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at TEDMed 2010, after telling the story of her double-lung transplant as means of overcoming her idiopathic pulmonary hypertension. (“Those high notes are going to kill you,” she recounts being told by a doctor. “I was singing my own obituary.”)

A few years earlier, Tod Machover gave perhaps the brainiest opera-related TEDTalk, going into detail on his opera Death and the Powers, a robot-fueled work that would make Robert Lepage jealous. In a sense, Machover’s opera—and its surrounding talk—encapsulates what we try to find with TED and other confabs of the so-called “smart talk.” It’s a Faustian cautionary tale about a man who wants to live forever, and as such downloads himself into his environment, becoming the set which in turn becomes the main character. Machover forms this as a meditation on, in his own words, “what we can share, what we can pass on to others, and what we can’t.”

The problem with fusing opera, or music in general (and there are certainly a number of illuminating TED talks on that) with smart talk is pretty simple: As smart as music can be, it’s not just about the brain. It’s also about the emotions. It’s what leads to a divide between critics and audience members, between the ideas of what audiences want and what they “should” want. It’s easy to “should” all over ourselves. In that sense, it seems like TED has a balance—magnified in the dual talk-performances found in Tillemann-Dick’s and Whitacre’s talks. But, as we launched last week into another TED bonanza over in California, I wonder how such technology, entertainment and design will carry on for our future progeny. What do we want to share and pass on to others? And what should we share and pass on to others? 

Are TEDTalks useful to artistic and operatic discourse? Who from the opera world would you like to see give a TEDTalk? And what would you want them to say? Leave your thoughts in the comments box below.

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