Ain’t misbehavin’

A couple of years back a couple of my colleagues in the humanities were watching a series on Amazon called “Mozart in the Jungle.” They were highly amused by the behavior of the characters, especially the antics of the young oboist whose book of the same title had spawned the show. The subtitle of the book is “Sex, Drugs and Classical Music.” The book came out in 2005, and I don’t propose to review a book as old as the car I’m still driving. It’s not a book I would have bought, but another colleague, this one a senior scientist at Argonne no less, gave me a copy for Christmas with the expectation that we will discuss it sometime soon.

My scientist friend is a discerning listener. He attends a lot of concerts in Chicago, sings in the Lewis University Choir, and buys recordings of classical music. We have had many conversations about famous conductors and opera singers, and he is always amused (and sometimes bemused) by stories of the sort Blair Tindall tells in her book. “Does that stuff really go on in classical music?” he asks.

What kind of stuff are we talking about? Nothing that would shock fans of the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead or heavy metal bands famous for their substance abuse, heavy drinking and outrageous conduct. Rock bands are notorious for that, but classical musicians are more refined and straight-laced, right?

Blair Tindall, who wrote Mozart in the Jungle, spent twenty years of her life trying to make it in New York as a professional oboist. She came close. She was a regular substitute and toured with the New York Philharmonic, and she was a regular call for many other orchestras that had fluid membership. She played in the pit for Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, gigs that provided a steady income to pay her rent in a run-down building that was home to the majority of the free-lance classical musicians in the city. But when a permanent spot in the Philharmonic came open she bombed the audition. After the death of a close friend and sometime lover, she began to look for another occupation. She chose journalism, went to grad school, and went on to write for the New York Times.

Tindall’s years as an oboist in New York coincided with a philanthropic boom that nourished the classical music business and a time of licentiousness in American culture. Being an amorous young woman eager to earn the approval of contractors and conductors, she spread her favors generously. You can read all about that in her book, which is mildly salacious; she even names names! The TV spinoff is sometimes explicit in its depiction of drug abuse and debauchery among the young musicians in her circle. (I only watched the first episode, but I’ve read the entire book.)

As everyone knows, American culture, both high and popular, bloomed after the Second World War. The economy boomed and more people went to college. The 50s brought rock and roll and teen movie stars. The sexual revolution of the 60s brought changes that shocked parents and liberated their kids from the tyranny of sexual repression. Two important pharmaceutical breakthroughs contributed to our sense of invincibility: penicillin and birth control pills. For a magical thirty years, there was no infection that couldn’t be cured by a round of antibiotics. Then came AIDS. I was singing at Lyric Opera during the 70s and early 80s and I knew a few young men who got sick and died. End of an era.

My father used to say, “You can’t legislate righteousness.” No, but you can scare it into people. Then came the Reagan years. Almost no one in academia or the fine arts supported him, but his war on drugs and his brand of conservatism certainly moved the country away from the libertinism of the 60s and 70s. Society’s tolerance for behavior some consider immoral or outrageous is much lower now than when Blair Tindall was working in New York and I was working in Chicago as a free-lance musician. (I wasn’t strictly free-lance; I belonged to two musicians unions and had a contract at the opera.)

Getting back to the question posed by my scientist friend: unconventional, eccentric and even decadent deportment was indeed a part of the classical music scene at that time. As an academic, I don’t move in those circles now, but I have no doubt that it still goes on, though I suspect to a lesser degree. We live, after all, in a much less permissive time, and our lives are subject to scrutiny and shaming on social media that didn’t exist back then. Stories of misbehavior such as we’ve seen in the news lately were rarely reported then. Today there are public consequences beyond illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

For example, the venerable Metropolitan Opera recently suspended its music director of 40 years, arguably the best opera conductor alive, over accusations of sexual misconduct that allegedly took place in the 70s. I sang under that conductor at Ravinia in the early 70s, and rumors were rampant then, but they remained rumors until a few weeks ago. He’s under investigation.

To end on a lighter note, indulgence comes in other forms too. I sang in the chorus for La Boheme at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 70s when the world’s greatest tenor (both in reputation and girth) was singing the role of Rodolfo. In Act II, the tenor has less to sing than in Acts I and III, so he could enjoy the Christmas conviviality of the Café Momus. The cast of principals was seated at a table on stage and served a meal. The great tenor indulged himself in a large bowl of pasta and a whole chicken, right there on stage. No one in the audience would have noticed as they were themselves consumed with the singing of vivacious Musetta.

About Dr. Lawrence Sisk

Professor Emeritus of Music at Lewis University

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