You’ve likely heard of yesterday’s evacuation of the Metropolitan Opera House because some terminally goofy member of the audience decided to empty his “mentor’s” ashes into the orchestra pit during the second intermission of the matinee performance of Rossini’s William Tell. The rest of the show was cancelled as was the evening performance of L’Italiana in Algeri.
Our scary and frightened times explain why the Met acted as it did. But let’s think about the symbolic significance of this act which apparently was not meant to cause harm. The proper place for human remains is a cemetery. The opera house, all of them, has become a museum that endlessly performs old works. On occasion new works are played, but the public seems to reject them. The reasons for this denial are complex, but the antique content of the operatic repertory is undeniable.
The fine arts arts are in similarly parlous condition. New works are offered and purchased mainly as surrogates for money or gold. Their intrinsic artistic worth seem irrelevant. If you’re wealthy, you can take a painting in a tube and move it from a dangerous part of the world to one thought safer. “Art” as a commodity.
Poetry and other literature are similarly blighted. How many people can name even one living serious poet? And if you can, none has the celebrity that TS Eliot or WH Auden had a generation or two back. Consider the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s well more than half a century since Hemingway remarked that the list of those who hadn’t won the prize was far more distinguished than that of those who had. This year’s award is particularly rich in irony.
If you want to see great art you go to a museum. And what will you see there? Mostly people. If you can get a clear view of the art, it will be stacked like corpses at a post-battle graveyard. You’ll look at it for a moment like Chevy Chase at the Grand Canyon and move on to the next lifeless artifact. A museum is a graveyard for art and is even more depressing than the real thing.
Back to the opera house. It’s a museum for opera and thus, at least by my reckoning, a graveyard for opera. And at about 10 times the price for admission. Nothing will revive it save the appearance of new composers of genius.
Is art gone from the world? Of course not. Humans are compulsive creators of it. It and it’s sibling genius can pop up anyplace. I have purchased artifacts on the side of the road in remote spots in India and Thailand that have more artistic merit, at least in my paltry opinion, than you’ll find in the most extravagant New York Gallery. And at prices similar to those that prevailed before art became a commodity.
Verdi and Puccini will not disappear. But you don’t have to spend up to $360 a ticket to enjoy them. There’s nothing like a live performance, but only up to a certain price, beyond that blurry limit, a recording or live stream, will get the job done. Whoever dumped human remains at the Met may have inadvertently chosen the right spot. Happy Halloween.