Opera Daily 🎶 — Have AirPods been music's downfall?
This week's Opera Daily features Ted Gioia, music historian and author and a live concert with Mirella Freni and Cesare Siepi
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Have Airpods been our downfall?
Ted Gioia is a music historian and author who writes a great Substack — The Honest Broker.
This summer, he shared 12 books that changed how he heard music. Some great ones are on the list, including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.
Music is a shared experience.
Ted thinks one effect of the AirPods revolution is that our ability to bond with others is weakened when we don’t share listening experiences. Earbuds and a personal playlist have replaced the collective listening of days-gone-by.
In theory, sure, wireless earbuds are a great idea. Sleek. Unobtrusive. Tangle free. But have we thought about the drawbacks? Is music fragmenting us instead of unifying us?
In his book Music: A Subversive History, Gioia explains how shared music releases the “love hormone”:
Back at the beginning of our history, we looked at that intriguing hormone oxytocin, which is released into the body’s bloodstream via a message from the hypothalamus in response to certain crucial stimuli, including music. When we sing, this hormone makes us feel emotional bonds with those in our group. That’s why countries all have national anthems, and sports fans sing their team songs.
Some people even call oxytocin the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone”. And not without reason: your parents probably went on their first date to some event that involved the performance of music, bonding at a concert, a dance or school prom or romantic movie with some sentimental song over the closing credits.
But all this is only half the story. Oxytocin also mobilizes people to fight against other groups. This hormone emerges in situations of stress, and can send people into riots or battles. That explains why military organizations also have their music — marches instead of sentimental songs. And it’s why those sports team melodies mentioned above are often called “fight songs”, or why protesters express their anger by singing or chanting."
Let’s take out the earbuds and pretend we are all in a room together with the speakers turned up.
Today we are listening to a live concert with Soprano Mirella Freni and Bass Cesare Siepi.
I have the below video cued up to Freni singing Elisabetta’s aria “Tu che le vanità” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, but the full concert is fantastic.
Here’s the program:
Nicolai The Merry Wives Of Windsor – Overture (Orchestra)
Gounod Philemon Et Baucis – “Que les songes heureux” (Siepi)
Boito Mefistofele – “L’altra notte in fondo al mar” (Freni)
Verdi Simon Boccanegra – “Il lacerato spirito” (Siepi)
Puccini Tosca – “Vissi d’arte” (Freni)
Puccini Gianni Schicchi – “O mio babbino caro” (Freni)
Verdi Don Carlo – “Ella giammai m’amò” (Siepi)
Verdi Don Carlo – Tu che le vanità (Freni)
Mozart Don Giovanni – Overture (Orchestra)
Mozart Don Giovanni – “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” (Siepi)
Mozart Don Giovanni – “Là ci darem la mano” (Siepi, Freni)
Ask any singer and they will tell you that ending at concert on Mozart is not easy (after singing Verdi and Puccini). I admire these two legends.
Mozart wrote music to be sung in a smaller theater (mostly under 1,000 seats) with a smaller orchestra and valued tone, clarity, and the ability to sing many notes quickly.
Verdi cared less about sheer beauty (although he wrote the most beautiful lines) than dramatic truth. The houses and orchestra’s were bigger and “thicker”, respectively, so when you are signing Verdi (and Puccini) it’s hard to go back to floating those delicate high notes.
🎧 Listening Example: (9 minute listen): Soprano Mirella Freni singing Elisabetta’s aria “Tu che le vanità” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, Live Concert with Cesare Siepi, 1985, Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Bruno Amaducci, conductor
The aria begins with a long (3 minute), orchestral prelude. Élisabeth de Valois, a young French Princess whom the elderly King Philip II of Spain has married for political reasons, prays at the tomb of the former Emperor King Carlos V. She asks that he weep for her suffering and offer his tears to the Almighty on her behalf. She anticipates the arrival of her stepson and former fiancé Don Carlo, whom she has piously rejected after marrying his father the King in order to strengthen the alliance of their two nations. She prays that Carlos will fulfill his destiny as a great, benevolent ruler of Spain. She recalls her homeland, and her happiness during her short engagement to Carlos. She longs for the peace which she will have in her grave.
Don Carlo is Verdi’s most ambitious and complex work. The story of Don Carlo is fictional, but the characters are historical. The plot centers around the conflicts in the life of the heir to the Spanish throne (Don Carlo, son of the King of Spain) after the woman he is suppose to marry (Elizabeth de Valois, Princess of France), is married to his father instead.
Thank you for reading (and listening), and feel free to reply with feedback or leave a comment.
PS. If you missed last week’s selection, we featured opening night at The Met and the master, Nicolai Gedda singing "Una furtiva lagrima" live from 1969.
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It’s an issue. I can’t stand ear buds but I will use headphones on the airplane. One thing I’ve noticed is so many people have them in all the time so whenever I say something I get what? There’s a non profit I support in the Bay Area, but, it’s in the process of expanding nationwide, called Luna Kids Dance. If there’s one thing kids love more than singing it’s dancing!
I like Ted Gioia, but I'm not quite buying what he's selling. I certainly believe in the power of a shared listening experience. And I wouldn't be surprised if you told me that concert attendance is down over the past 30 years (although I'd like to see the data!) But where's the evidence that widespread use of headphones is *replacing* shared listening?
It seems equally plausible that headphones are additive: they let you listen to music at times that you'd otherwise be listening to nothing.