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The one percent

You know, I pretty much suck at singing anything other than opera. I can get away with some of the  Broadway tunes that were written for big, legit voices and I can get away with torchy jazz songs that sound good in a low voice. I can even get away with folk music (which is where I got my singing start, anyway). But some songs and composers I absolutely love ---  anything by Jason Robert Brown, anything the slightest bit poppy, for instance --- I just sound ridiculous.

A wonderful mezzo colleague of mine, back in the day, used to do a very pompous operatic version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" as one of her party pieces. It was hysterical. This is what I sound like when I try to sing rock or pop or pretty much anything other than what's listed above. It doesn't stop me from belting out "I Wanna Do Bad Things to You" in my living room, but even if I got up in front of an audience and sang it, it would not make me a country singer. I also happen to be a pretty good cook, and love to whip up all kinds of delicious concoctions for friends and family. But that does not make me a chef, any more than singing an aria makes someone an opera singer.

I don't mean to rag on Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, really I don't (and I promise I am getting off this subject very soon). It's not her fault that some of the news outlets are referring to her as an opera singer when she is in fact simply someone who happened to sing an aria. Also, since her cousin Colleen responded very nicely to the last post, I am humbly reminded that this young lady is a real human being with feelings, and a person who worked very hard to reach her goals. I'm not backing off on my opinion of the folly of choosing a vocally, dramatically, and musically inappropriate opera aria on short notice, but I do want to clarify that my annoyance is not so much with Miss Vail's performance as with what it represents as an example of how the general public views an art form which is very dear to me, and how the general public regards art and criticism in general.

As I wrote in my last post, many people seem to believe that insisting on any sort of standards  or discernment is somehow snobbery. We have an entire generation of kids now who have been brought up to believe that everybody is supposed to be equally talented and equally special (see The Incredibles) and any suggestion to the contrary is horribly insulting. The fact is, while everyone should be equal as human beings, with equal rights and basic respect and freedom to pursue their interests, we are not all equal in talents and abilities, and there is nothing wrong with that, either. It's the way we're made. It's natural. Sure, it hurts a lot if you want really badly to be good at something and you can't attain the level you desire, even with loads of hard work, and that's not nice. But it is, sad to say, life. And as I also wrote previously, not being good at something (or not being as good as you'd like) should be NO deterrent if you love doing it! You should do it all you can! Do it for yourself and don't worry about what other people think. But if you bring it into a public arena, be prepared to be judged and to deal with any fallout. 

This is not snobbery. The mere fact that someone voices a negative opinion does not mean they are attacking or ridiculing or bashing or whatever buzzword is currently popular.  Criticism can indeed be hateful, but it is not by definition so, and criticism can be extremely valuable if we can get past our own defenses, listen, judge the source, evaluate its worth, apply what makes sense to us and discard senza rancor what does not. This, too, is discernment.

It's not a secret that Miss Vail's singing performance was widely criticized, and as they will do, her fans defended her. In the comments section of one article, an opera fan wrote critically about her singing and how it wasn't really opera; a Vail fan responded something to the effect  of " so what?  You're in the 1% of people who care about opera."

And that got me to thinking. This whole thing is really part of a much bigger conversation about the value of the arts, and the classical arts in particular. We're a  hard sell in this age, and those of us who really do know about and love things like the opera and the ballet and the symphony and Shakespeare are, percentagewise, in the minority.

It's hard, sometimes, to make the general population understand or even care about classical art. They want to listen to their Top 40 radio stations and watch their sitcoms and blockbuster movies. They want to read their favorite comic strips or play video games. They want to watch the Olympic ice skating or go to a club to dance, or stand in line for hours to hear their favorite band. The majority of people in this country are not going to the opera, the ballet, the symphony, the theater. There are quite a lot of people who do, but they are not the majority.

 And there are quite a lot --- a disheartening lot --- of people who don't see the value of the classical arts. Sure, they want their kid to take piano or violin lessons but  they think it's just for kids. (I am reminded of a dear, dear adult student of mine, whose family became very alarmed when he announced he'd be doing a solo recital, with my encouragement. They thought this meant he was planning to quit his very lucrative job to pursue singing as a career)!

So much has been written about why arts education is valuable, what it does for kids' minds and for adults' hearts and souls, but it clearly hasn't convinced the Philistines, and frankly, I don't think anything is going to. But here's my two cents about that:

If you don't think arts are important or worthwhile, you should immediately stop consuming art. Seriously, go on an arts fast for a few days. But remember:

If you read, whether it's a blog, a newspaper, nonfiction, or ads, you are consuming art.

If you watch TV, films, or play video games, you are consuming art.

If you listen to any type of music, even commercial jingles, you are consuming art.

If you pause on your commute to watch  a dance troupe on the street, or to to your kid's ballet recital, you are consuming art.

If you pin your kid's drawing up on the fridge, you are consuming art.

If you put printed sheets or Grandma's quilt on your bed, you are consuming art.

So just stop it, if you disapprove of arts education and funding. See how that works out for you.

Someone had to design, write, draw, compose, perform. Someone had to train. Chances are, somewhere along the lines, the person who wrote that Top 40 tune, designed the artwork for that website, wrote that newspaper article, had some classical training. And there is a reason why we study the classics. They are classic for a reason. They are fundamental. They are enduring. They are the building blocks, the jumping off point. And not only are they fundamental, but they are also endlessly more complex and challenging than most of what pop culture has to offer.  People like pop because it isn't usually terrifically challenging on any level. Anybody can enjoy it without having any special knowledge, although like most things, the more you understand about it, the deeper your enjoyment becomes.

The same is true of the classical arts.  They can also be enjoyed on a surface level, but if you plumb the depths,  it is vastly more rewarding. It is, perhaps, a little more challenging to start your dive. that's all. Unfortunately, percentagewise, fewer people are willing to do this. Does this mean it's not worthwhile? 

That brings us to the second thing I'd like to say about being in the "one percent" of people who care about opera. Do you really, really think that the only things worth doing or caring about are what the MAJORITY is interested in? Tell that to Albert Einstein (an accomplished amateur pianist and violinist), who said "The greatest scientists are artists as well."(The Expanded Quotable Einstein, A. Calaprice, Princeton University Press, 1996). Tell it to Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, both of whom played piano. Tell it to Frank Lloyd Wright, who valued the arts highly and insisted that the architects he taught regularly consume and create art. (This last example I have personal knowledge of, having visited Taliesin West and been treated to a private tour led by the head architect, who happened to sit on the board of Bayreuth). Even today at the architecture school housed there, "performance projects - including dramatic, dance, choral, and instrumental performances – are frequently given by students and community members... providing a rich supplement to the core discipline of architecture." (See the school website).

Each of the people listed above are people who thought outside the box, who engaged in activities that others had no interest in or thought not worthwhile, or in some cases, even thought were crazy.  This is an earmark of extraordinary people --- a lively curiosity in the world around them, an ability and an ego which permits them to follow their own interests even if it goes against the herd. If some of the world's greatest minds think the classics worth studying and playing with, why are they unworthy of the attention of those of us with more average intellects?

I don't believe that loving opera, the ballet, the symphony, or the Great Masters makes me  a better person than someone who loves Les Mis, Dancing with the Stars, Nascar, and sitcoms. I do believe that while every genre has its nuances, the classical arts are more sophisticated and substantive than most popular ones. That's one of the things that interests me about them, and disinterests me in a lot --- not all, but a lot ---  of pop culture.  This is one of the things that influences those who aren't interested (or haven't learned) about the classical arts think that those of us who love them are snobs. It's that myth that all things and all people have to be equally sophisticated on every level. Nor is the lack of sophistication a bad thing --- much of what is best in life is simple.

But standards are worth protecting. Education and the training of the intellect are worthwhile pursuits.  Discernment is worth developing. Ignorance should never be a badge of pride.  If my belief in these things and in defending the integrity of an art form I love make me part of a minority, then I can only say, I am proud to be the one percent.