Monday, September 26, 2005

A seasonal thought

A long, but entertaining selection from Herman Wouk's This is My God:
The reader will perhaps remember...his first visit to the opera. The chances are that he went sometime in his late teens or early twenties, urged on by an enthusiastic companion, perhaps female. The chances are, too, that he was skeptical about grand opera and suspected it might all be an elaborate boring fraud, a dead transplanted art form which American snobs and phonies pretending to enjoy because going to the opera was a high-class European habit. For all I know, this is the present opinion of opera that many of my readers hold.

But those who have changed their minds will recall that they did not do so on their first visit. Then, on the contrary, they probably saw confirming evidence of their suspicions. Fat old men slumped asleep in the boxes, their stiff shirts buckling; their wives more interested in the clothes and faces in the other boxes than in the stage performance; souldful creatures needing haircuts standing in the back of the orchestra, or squatting on the floor, in self-conscious poses of rapture; on the stage a fat screechy woman pretending to be a demure little country bride, a little man with a potbelly and short jerking arms impersonating Don Juan, a chorus of aging painted ladies, and men with ridiculous matchstick legs in tight hose, making tired clumsy gestures at acting now and then; while the orchestra tootled and tinkled without cease one monotonous kind of sugary noise; that, in all likelihood, was his first impression of one of the miracles of human inspiration, Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Sir Thomas Beecham once said that Don Giovanni has never had an adequate performance - that is, a trope of singers capable of singing it, and an audience equipped to hear it. The run of singing artists does not produce in one generation enough voices to match Mozart's demands. The people who fill an opera house on any night are - people; some wonderful, some ordinary, some stupid, some insufferable, some dragged there by wives, some coming there to prove they are intelligent, some coming out of habit, some to tell the folks back home that they saw a New York opera, and some who love Mozart as they love the sunlight, and who are willing to endure all the coarseness and failure of another performance for the sake of the shafts of lovely light that despite all will break through now and then.

As performers and audience cannot usually rise to Mozart, the rabbi and his congregation cannot usually rise to Moses. That does not mean that the law of Moses is less sublime than world opinion acknowledges it to be, or that the forms of popular worship it has inspired are not capable of carrying its message down the years. The fact is that the synagogue, for all its human weaknesses, has done so. Every synagogue at every service has worshippers to whom the words and the ceremonies are transfusions of strength and intelligence; perhaps a few, perhaps many. The visitor's quick look cannot go inside their heads and hearts; in the good phrase of the jazz addicts, he does not dig what he is seeing.
I know there are many who find the special prayers we say this time of year to be long, boring and pointless. Even some very Orthodox Jews hold this view. I respectfully disagree. The secret of appreciating the prayers, I think, is to approach them as art. Yes, like some of the best art, some of the slichos and some of the piyutim (liturgical poems) are difficult, impenetrable even, but in the hands of a first-rate chazan, others are marverlous.

I know there are some who will say it's sacriligious to view these prayers as art, and missing the point to focus on the chazan and his presentation. About this, too, we must respectfully disagree.

I do think, however, that the paytan (the author of a piyut) would side with me. I think that when the piyutim were written, their authors intended for us to appreciate their liturgical poems as art, which is why they paid such careful attention to the language and the meter.