I distinctly remember once saying to Laura Claycomb, “Oh well, it’s just opera – it’s not like it’s really important,” as we walked to the parking garage after a stressful rehearsal sometime during my first year in the HGO Studio. She stopped walking, and turned to me and said, “But it IS important – it has to be. Why do it otherwise?”
It’s a moment that stuck with me, because it was a question I had never really asked myself before so pointedly. Why bother?
I’ve heard a lot of debate surrounding the subject of artistic integrity lately. Many of my colleagues (at all levels) are very concerned about the quality of our art sinking as people strive to make classical music “accessible” and “save” us from the impending “death of classical music”. They complain about a lack of artistic standards. They note that some of the most visible artists in our field don’t feel obligated to sing the notes on the page or to be in rhythm.
Then some people ask: are these things important?
As I see it, the answer is many-fold. Yes, we must maintain a perspective on what it is that we do. One could argue that music is not necessary for survival. But that point is moot – this is not the situation we face as a society today. Our art is part of what defines our humanity – some would argue that it is our culture is that makes us civilized. What we do as musicians, performers, opera singers, etc. is therefore important – and it is important that it be high quality. I’ve always been taught that technical precision serves artistic expression. People (whether they be “lay-people” or “purists”) will not enjoy a performance if it is out of tune, not sung with the utmost beauty and technical ease, or if it is inaccurate, because those things serve as distractions that keep an audience on the edge of their seat in a bad way. The artists who really sadden me are the ones who consciously choose not to sing the notes on the page, stretch rhythms egregiously and with poor taste, and chase publicity events in lieu of rehearsals in an effort to be more “accessible” or to make what we do more “popular”. What saddens me about those choices is the inherent lack of faith in our art form to touch people, to move the soul, to be relevant. It is vital that we maintain our standards and take our artistic integrity seriously, because if we don’t, we cheapen the message behind the music, which is generally an important message to convey.