Why I’ve Stopped Looking for “The Best”

In opera, as in many things, there’s sometimes an obsession with the idea of “the best”. Is the best live opera to be found in North America or Europe? Was Maria Callas the best Tosca, and was Corelli the best Radames? Is Verdi’s early work his best, or his later? Is there any point in recording another Rosenkavalier, or will the Schwartzkopf one always be best?

I think the opera lover can benefit enormously from setting aside attempts to define “the best”.

Here’s an example: I have a friend who is a devoted opera lover, full of intelligence and enthusiasm. His opera DVD collection is massive. And he works in New York City, where first-class opera and world-famous singers can be seen almost any night of the week. And yet, he rarely goes. The last time I asked him (which was admittedly a while ago), he told me he hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Opera at all since moving to the area.

I was stunned. I couldn’t understand why he never went to the Met when it was right on his doorstep. The explanation he gave me was that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it unless he had really good seats, and the really good seats at the Met cost hundreds of dollars. Family circle? I asked. Standing room? But he wasn’t having any of it. It was the best, or nothing.

It’s true that as you get more familiar with an art form and come to recognize what separates the acceptable from the exquisite, standards are bound to rise as the flaws become more obvious. Also, the nature of internet discussion encourages writers to try to stake a claim, and defining things according to a strict standard – either by proclaiming something to be “the best” or insisting that it falls short of it – is an easy way to set oneself apart.

Here, I’ll do it now: The Metropolitan Opera in New York is widely considered to be the best opera company in the world. But I don’t remember any Met performance as fondly as Les Contes D’Hoffmann at the Edmonton Opera. Ruggero Raimondi probably wasn’t “the best” Scarpia, but even if Gobbi could be resurrected, be-wigged, and restored to glory, I’d still listen to my Raimondi recording. Debates about “who sang it better” are almost always, as Holly Golightly might put it, a thumping bore.

I hope I am never the kind of opera-goer who is unable to enjoy a student production, or a cheap seat at the theatre, or an interesting singer whose high notes are wobbly. Opera itself is beautifully flawed, and sometimes an interesting flaw is better food for thought than the clearest high note.

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