Regarding integrity (Part 1)

To Whom It May Concern:

This is an open letter to anyone who has ever dismissed sexism in opera as an inherent product of the times.  This is an open letter to anyone who’s ever stumbled upon criticism of racist practices in classical music, and done nothing but shrug, dismissing those criticisms as the ill-informed ramblings of a starry-eyed Social Justice Warrior.

This is an open letter to anyone who thinks that classical music shouldn’t be held to the same standards of critique, dialogue, and evolution as literally every other art form — who thinks that #OscarsSoWhite might apply in Hollywood, but certainly not in the concert hall.

This is an open letter to anyone who claims that calling Don Giovanni a rapist is a step too far.  This is an open letter to anyone who thinks it doesn’t even matter what we call him, because in the end, it’s only an opera, and can’t we leave politics out of it?

No — no we can’t.  Because opera is never only opera, and politics and art are inexorably linked.  And if you happen to feel otherwise — well, this letter is for you.  

I have recently found myself at the centre of a bona fide controversy.  For the past year or so, I have been writing as an opera critic for the McGill Daily, and two of my recent articles caught some backlash.

The Daily is a publication specifically dedicated — and loudly so — to showcasing points of view that are often marginalized in mainstream journalism.  It is a student-run publication, and it is indelibly, proudly, and purposefully left-leaning.  The Daily makes no pretense suggesting otherwise.

I first began covering local opera for The Daily as a favour to my roommate, then-editor of the Culture section, who was disappointed to find no one picking up her lovingly curated list of classical pitches.  My first few reviews were faltering: I hadn’t quite found my journalistic voice, and was struggling to view opera critically given the publication’s liberal proclivities.

In May, my roommate departed for a semester abroad in France, and a new editor took over.  I pitched them another review: Opéra de Montréal’s world premiere of Les Feluettes.  The opera, with music by Kevin March and libretto by Michel Marc Bouchard, recounted the tragic romance between two young men in early–20th-century Québec.  It was, and remains, one of the most stunning musical performances I have ever seen.

The first draft of my review was caught up in the beauty of the performance, with little mention of the problems — and there were many — that plagued the opera: the humourous light cast on mental illness, for instance; and the inevitability of tragedy in queer narratives.  My editor patiently and knowledgeably guided me toward a more critical, in-depth approach, and I am very proud of the result.  You can read that review here.

The experience of writing “Love letters and prison fetters” made something click for me: the causes that I deeply believe in and care about, and the music that I so love and have dedicated my life to studying and performing — yet, music that so often contradicts the causes I care about — do not operate on separate planes.  Being critical of a musical performance can — and should — go beyond an assessment of the music as it is presented on stage.

This is not new information: music and society are necessarily linked; all music — nay, all art — arises from the social conditions that surround it.  But classical music poses a unique challenge: its sounds — symphonic, operatic — and its spaces — ornate concert halls, celebrated historic stages — are steeped in social conditions that have drastically changed since the genre’s first cornerstones were laid.  Even music that is composed today often adheres to the standards set by the existing classical canon; and contemporary performances of music from the past might see Don Giovannis wearing fedoras instead of tricornes — but does a change of costume or scene really interrogate how that opera, that story, fits into the stories and struggles of those who listen?  We can denote the Don’s abusive behaviours as problems of a distant past, and acknowledge that his evil deeds are, in fact, punished by the opera’s grim finale — but then, are these behaviours really so distant?  One look at the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and it would seem the answer is a decided no.

It’s not about reading bleeding-heart political correctness into a work of art that is about as far removed from Bernie Sanders as from nineties ska.  It’s about seeing the work of art as just that — a work of art — and making the effort to truly question how that art, its meaning and its message, has evolved along with the artists who perform it and the audiences who consume it.

The first article that got me in trouble was an interview I conducted with Jordan de Souza, the 28-year-old rising star heading up programs at Komische Oper Berlin and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera.  A former Montrealer, he was in town to lead l’Orchestre Métropolitain in the pit for Opéra de Montréal’s November production of Don Giovanni.

Jordan was amazing to talk to.  Kindhearted and charismatic, he humoured me as I stumbled over my words, and answered every question thoroughly and thoughtfully.  I was not an effective interviewer: awkward in most human interactions, and starstruck in this one, I lacked the experience and wherewithal to dig in for clarification and further responses.  This backfired for one question in particular: I asked how he felt about Don Giovanni’s character — seen by some as a benign seducer and by others as a flat-out rapist — in light of the U.S. political climate.

His response, though thorough, was a dismissive one — inadvertently and with the best of intention, but dismissive nonetheless.  He stated that “Giovanni is not an opera about sexual assault,” and that “to think of Giovanni as an immoral piece is to get lost in the details and not to see really what the totality of the message is […] Giovanni’s weapon is also not seduction as much as it is desire, and seduction as a byproduct of this desire.”

To understand why these statements might be read as dismissive, you may need to put aside what you know about Don Giovanni and its built-in narrative of punishment for wrongdoing.  Instead, consider Don Giovanni in light of Brock Turner and Donald Trump.  Consider Don Giovanni in light of music critic William Mann’s astounding analysis in his The Operas of Mozart: “It would have been beneficial to her [Donna Anna’s] personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.”  Just because the Don gets what he deserves when all is said and done, does not absolve the opera from participating in a culture — in 1787, and in 2016 — that repeatedly excuses and normalizes violence against women as nothing more than “seduction” and “desire,” and even elects its perpetrators to higher office.

To be clear: Jordan was not at all dismissive of sexual assault as a societal problem.  Rather, he seemed to dismiss the opera’s place in a society that harbours this pervasive problem.  Not everyone believes that this opera, any opera, or any art should bear any particular relation to the society it inhabits; but that is what I, personally, believe.

There were two reasons I did not push Jordan further on this question: my complete ineptitude as an interviewer, for which I take full responsibility; and the role of the interview itself as coming “from the horse’s mouth.”  My intent was to publish Jordan’s responses uncut.  Outside of this one question, he spoke glowingly about the strength and artistry of a young Canadian identity on stage, observed the differences in systems of public funding and private philanthropy for the arts in Europe versus North America, and recommended some of his favourite Lebanese restaurants in Montreal.  His opinions on the morality or immorality of Don Giovanni could be interpreted by the readers as they saw fit.

However, the McGill Daily is what it is: a publication specially dedicated to showcasing marginalized points of view.  It became clear to my editors — and to me — that the interview could not be published without offering The Daily’s particular brand of analysis.

The problem was, I had been planning to submit only a transcription of the interview.  Writing an entire analysis by the same deadline simply wouldn’t fit into my schedule; I had an unfinished, thirty-page ethnomusicology paper overdue and begging for attention from the Microsoft Word tab that had become a frustratingly persistent mainstay of my Windows taskbar.  So, one of my editors graciously jumped on board to share the workload.  I wrote the first half of the article, covering Jordan’s early musical education and career, his interests in conducting both classical and contemporary repertoire, and his thoughts on the role of young people in opera.  My editor Taylor took over the rest, and I did not have the opportunity to read the final product until it was published.

Well versed in navigating anti-oppressive language, Taylor produced an analysis that was thoughtfully reasoned.  I agree with the content and the conclusions Taylor came to, but would have softened the tone had I written it myself, and would have distributed blame away from Jordan, placing it instead more broadly on opera as an industry.  That said, I stand by the analysis, and am glad to share the byline with Taylor.

In the print version and initial online release, however, Taylor’s name wasn’t on the byline: it was just me.  Which meant that when readers rushed to Jordan’s defense, I caught 100% of the flak.

I am not one to catch flak.  I am shy and awkward and pathologically apologetic, and prefer dogs to humans 100% of the time.  So as I watched the angry comments roll in, I felt frozen.  Terrified.  Even though I knew they were angry at words I myself hadn’t written, I found myself in tears as one Internet commenter questioned my “complete lack of intellectual integrity.”  Another argued, “The idea that art must reflect modern progressive views, which are held by a small minority of Canadians and Americans by the way, is simply a childish belief.”  My editors even received a letter from one of the opera’s cast members, requesting clarification as to why I had made Jordan out to be the villain in this narrative.

To Jordan de Souza: I am so, so sorry.  You were nothing but kind, and I got you wrapped up in an op-ed firestorm.

But this is not an open letter to Jordan.  His reputation will survive an unabashedly subjective article published in an openly opinionated, student-run newspaper.  Rather, this is an open letter to everyone who read an unabashedly subjective article published in an openly opinionated, student-run newspaper, determined that its point of view differed from their own, and instead of offering a well reasoned counterpoint, condemned its “intellectual integrity.”

I spent so much time self-indulgently trying to separate myself from the article — or, at least, from the half I hadn’t written — and then I realized: that misses the point.  It doesn’t matter whether I wrote it or not; regardless, I believe in it.  Publishing the analysis didn’t show a lack of integrity; not publishing it, would have.

Integrity is often conflated with morality.  If one has integrity, one does not automatically hold the key to humanity’s almighty moral compass.  Rather, integrity comes from the Latin integro: to make whole.  To complete.  Integrity: having a set of principles, guided by your own moral compass — yours, no one else’s — and standing by those principles, wholly and completely.

I don’t know whether the analysis was the best one; it certainly wasn’t the only one — any dialogue offers myriad interpretations.  But publishing it showed every ounce of integrity.  I believe that, wholly and completely.

To be continued.

 

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