Quick! Close your eyes and name the least respected genre of music! If your answer was ambient noise, congratulations, Hipster McHipperson, you won the ability to listen to a Merzbow album. The correct answer, however, was opera. Opera, after all, does a lot of things to make a listener uncomfortable. It always feels a bit old-fashioned, because it is, in fact, frequently very old. It often utilizes languages which are unfamiliar to us, which can be off-putting in a genre which is ostensibly vocal. The vocalists are over-dramatic, and the melodies, in trying to tell a story between arias, often can get repetitive and forgettable. Add a reputation for stuffiness and elitism, and you have the musical equivalent of a stodgy old man.
It should be considered as true, however, that there must be a reason for a style of music to last hundreds of years, and it’s probably not just because they didn’t know the magic of the electric guitar yet. For me, I got to learn to tolerate the style simply through repeated exposure. It took today’s song, however, for me to realize its true potential.
David Byrne, while certainly honing his pipes since his days fronting the Talking Heads, is not the world’s strongest vocalist. Nor is Rufus Wainwright, his partner on this duet. They are, however, definitely two of the world’s most distinctive voices. Tackling “Au Fond du Temple Saint,” from Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles, it is easy to tell that neither is operatically trained. I would argue, however, that this is what opens the appeal of the track. It is opera sung by humans, not flawless vocal powerhouses. That each of the two vocalists would be easy to pick out of an aural line-up simply allows those voices, and therefore both vocal lines, to stand out, and the blending of lines becomes a more multi-textured whole, as opposed to two vocal bucks swinging their antlers, as operatic leads can sometimes seem like.
If it is a more human take on the song, thought, it is not quite a modern one. The instrumentation does not go out of its way to fit into modern genres, which makes sense given Byrne’s experimental genre-defiance, and Wainwright’s natural theatricality. Byrne does not attempt to make opera “cool” or “updated,” but simply pays tribute to a song he clearly loves. Giving the song respect is what makes this rendition successful, even if a humanizing performance is what makes it relateable.
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