Shock and Awe

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The question that seems to be pervading the world of art and creative thought, as we approach the centenary of The Rite of Spring, is one that could be responded to in over 10,000 words and still not fully answered: Does art still shock?

The New York Times has devoted an entire interactive series to the topic, spanning moments like the Rite, sure, but also Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Elvis’s hip swivels, and Lenny Bruce’s colorful lexicon. Anthony Tommasini lingers on the finale of Strauss’s Salome, which is aptly enough the opening event in Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, shaping a watershed moment for opera in the 20th Century.

Last Saturday, as other critics have echoed, I sat in a theater on a college campus in New Jersey (not entirely a shocking setting, but surely one that doesn’t breed comfort) and witnessed perhaps my own musical Bolshevik moment as Lauren Worsham performed her own rite to a crushing, deafening white noise in David T. Little’s new opera Dog Days. The final picture, worthless without the sound but extending far past any moment of pure musical madness, is a gripping one. As Steve Smith so eloquently put it in his Times review, “Think about it: When was the last time a new opera got under your skin the way an Edward Albee play does?”

I’d like to extend that question: When was the last time an opera—new or old—got under your skin the way an Edward Albee play does? Or the way a Kubrick-in-his-prime film does? Or the way a Nabokov novel does?

Opera, like all live theater, is perishable. While a turn of phrase out of Lolita maintains its full stylistic mantle over time, needing very little beyond ink on paper (or virtual paper) and the right perspective to create the same impact it did upon publication, the idea of capturing the full impact an opera had upon its initial showing is a nebulous one.

More often, the shock comes from the promotion of a work, as was recently demonstrated in London with a controversial ad for the English National Opera’s Don Giovanni. A work that has so much to offer in terms of salacious detail, Giovanni often arrives cold, standard, prim onstage. The ENO’s ad for their new production features no teaser of the production values or singers; rather it shows a photograph of an open condom wrapper with the boldfaced slogan “Don Giovanni. Coming Soon.” Unsurprisingly, the double entendre and sexual frankness caused a stir. A few years ago, the Royal Opera House also attempted to emphasize the bodice-ripping moments of the same opera in a contemporary context with the below ad.

But how does this translate into the art itself? A recent work I saw at Ars Nova, billed as “an electro-pop opera ripped from a scandalous slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” had much to offer in an intriguing reconstruction of a 19th-century Russian novel. However there wasn’t much scandal communicated, none more shocking than sweeps week of Gossip Girl.

That also begs the question: Does art still want to shock? Certainly we have indelible moments in contemporary culture (the penultimate episode of this last season of Mad Men features an image as indelible in my mind as the final 11 minutes of Dog Days). But even this week’s episode of South Park wondered if, in our quest for dirty linens, we’ve lowered the bar. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is, after all, a long way from The Rite of Spring on the infamy scale. But maybe that’s how we shock now.

Or maybe, as Dog Days proves, there’s still hope for opera to be knocked off of a marble pedestal. Coproducer Beth Morrison Projects, a key driving force behind the life given to Little’s work, has her dance card full this season with other probing works. This winter’s inaugural Prototype festival will feature another deft Little work in Soldier Songs, as well as the first fully-staged performance of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song. Heard this spring in concert at Carnegie Hall, the opera in three scenes (released this week in recording form on Bridge Records) had some gripping moments of drama courtesy of a composer never one to shy away from controversy.

Just as well: Across the river and a world away from New Jersey, things have seemed awfully quiet over here.