Giacomo Meyerbeer Lives
Recently, when in London I went to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. While I had, of course, heard some of his music on the radio and was well aware of his astounding popularity and fame, I had never previously attended a performance of any of his works. His two-act musical is based on Billy Wilder’s celebrated movie of the same name. For some time after the performance ended I triedto figure out the secret of its (and its author’s) success. Finally, it came to me. Andrew Lloyd Webber is really Giacomo Meyerbeer.
But first Sunset Boulevard, we’ll get to Meyerbeer in a bit. It was brilliant in every aspect save content. The sets were dazzling. They went up and down, backwards and forwards; they were more responsive than an ardent lover. There was a silent movie star’s mansion that Mary Pickford would have loved. The Paramount studio set was big enough to really film De Mille’s Samson and Delilah which was what was supposed to be going on there. There was on old car that must have cost more than one day of Michael Jordan’s salary. The acting and singing were first rate, if you ignored what was being sung. The diction from the 100% British cast was more American than lox and bagels. The lighting was as subtle as a presidential press conference. The director even figured out how to depict on stage Wilder’s famous shot of Joe Gillis’s dead body floating face down in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool. The audience loved every bit of the thing and gave it a standing ovation after the final curtain. Apparently, a seated ovation is no longer allowed in any part of the civilized world. My position on this practice is that after all the money I paid for my seat, I won’t leave it any sooner than necessary.
Anyway, the crowd thought Sunset Boulevard was great, even though there was not a tune in it that would stay in your head for longer than a yawn or an emotion that hadn’t been crafted to appeal to a heart of saccharin. Musical and theatrical cliches fell like dandruff in a Head and Shoulders ad. So why do so many people like Webber’s cantilevered confections and their cousins like Les Miserables? I know I saw Les Miz (as the cognoscenti call it) on Broadway because I recently found a ticket stub with its name on it in the jacket pocket of my one and only grey flannel suit, but its memory has fled my mind like that of a dental appointment. Are these creaking musicals popular because you can fool some of the people all of the time? The second part of Lincoln’s famous syllogism seems to work in politics and advertising, but I don’t think it explains tastes in art. If you believe as I do, Verdi’s admonition to an aspiring composer that one should pay no attention to the critics, but rather should look to the box office because the theater was meant to be full, you’ll be tempted to skip this piece to a more thoughtful part of the magazine, like the wine column or the society page if I don’t promptly explain.
Here’s where Meyerbeer comes in. He was born Jacob Liebmann Beer in 1791 in Berlin. He was the son of a wealthy Jewish banker. He took the name Meyerbeer after receiving a legacy from a wealthy relative named Meyer. In this, he seems to be ahead of even our time. We name buildings and professorships after donors, people keep their names after they take the money. Fund raisers among you take heed of a fertile field begging for cultivation. Meyerbeer showed musical talent at an early age and received a rigorous musical education under the tutelage of a number of prominent pedagogues. His skill as a pianist was so formidable that he performed Mozart’s D minor piano concerto in public at the age of seven. But he wanted to be a composer, not a virtuoso, so he wrote operas.
After several of his operas had been produced without much success, Salieri (you remember him from the movie about Mozart) advised him to go to Italy where he could learn how to write for the voice. In 1815, he went to Venice whereupon he decided to become Rossini. Surprisingly, since the job was already taken, he achieved some success. This success did not make him happy, as is success’s wont. Back in Germany, he was viewed as a changeling by those whose opinions he valued (foremost among these was his boyhood friend, Carl Maria von Weber) because he wasn’t writing German opera. He decided to change musical direction, but he didn’t know which way to go.
The decisive event in his career was his move to Paris (he spent most of the rest of his life there) after the 1826 French premiere of his most popular Italian opera, Il crociatto in Egitto. Over the next five years, he wrote no operas as he metamorphosed from an Italian caterpillar into a Parisian butterfly. He must have been as adaptable as a floppy disk. His great discovery was that there was a bull market for bloated five-act operas that required incredible vocal virtuosity, made use of exotic historical plots, had elaborate ballets which didn’t have much relationship to the story, and which occasionally contained interesting and good music. He raised eclecticism to the level of an art form, or at least to that of a corporate colossus. Even his name is eclectic. He was like a musical Bill Gates, or better, a nineteenth-century Andrew Lloyd Webber. In short, he invented Grand Opera. He also developed a foolproof scheme for dealing with the press – he bribed them.
His operas were longer than anyone else’s. They had a bigger chorus, bigger sets, more principal singers who had to be brilliant technicians to negotiate his bravura vocal line, more dancers, and most importantly, more customers. Other composers paid him the most sincere form of flattery – they hated him. By all accounts, Meyerbeer was a very nice man. He went way out of his way to help Wagner who after accepting his aid attacked him viciously making him the target of anti-Semitic abuse. One expects that from Wagner, but even Verdi said bad things about him.
Meyerbeer influenced the work of all the great operatic composers who came after him. Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini all produced works modeled after Meyerbeer. Verdi eventually became much better at the style than its founder. Two of his greatest works, Don Carlo and Aida, are stock Meyerbeer transformed into giant works of art by a genius who was determined to out Meyerbeer Meyerbeer.
Meyerbeer was not without musical ability, but the machinery of his productions often got in the way of his talent or even made good music secondary. He could, on occasion, rise to considerable heights. The fourth act of Les Huguenots is masterful. The tenor aria O Paradis from his last opera L’Africaine is worthy of Verdi. But in general, he was too busy inventing himself to be a real musical force. First a German, then an Italian, then a Frenchman, again a German (he did some work in Berlin after moving to Paris), and once more a Frenchman this musical chameleon suffered a predictable fate. After his death, performances of his works gradually diminished until by the first third of the twentieth century, they had virtually ceased. What had once seemed so novel and exciting, became boring with repetition. More recently, there have been a few revivals of his operas, but they remain curiosities. There are only two commercial recordings of his operas available—one of Les Huguenots recorded in 1969 and one of Le Prophete recorded in 1976. Otherwise all is silence.
Verdi was right when he said the box office was the only critic that counted. But it’s a longitudinal box office. The votes take generations to be tallied. At any one moment in time, the box office may mislead. But its verdict is self-correcting. The public always undeceives itself given time. Meyerbeer is a spectacular example of a great flash-in-the-pan (perhaps a time exposure is a better metaphor). Meyerbeer’s fate, I suspect, awaits Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre. But better a has been than a never was.
Kurtzman NA: Giacomo Meyerbeer Lives.Lubbock Magazine (Nov):32-33, 1996.