The Best Opera Yet Written

There is an amusing scene in the film Amadeus (1984) where enlightened ruler and patron of the arts, the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II, having just witnessed a performance of Antonio Salieri’s opera Axur, King of Ormus, confidently declares it to be “the best opera yet written,” awarding the composer a medal on the spot to a standing ovation from the audience in attendance. This occurs in full view of our hero, Mozart, whose own recent opera, The Marriage of Figaro, has just closed down after only nine performances. One does not need to be very knowledgeable about classical music to know which of these two operas is still enjoyed today by audiences the world over and which has fallen into obscurity.

Though heavy-handed, the scene is a perfect reminder to me of the fickle and time-dependent nature of critical opinion in all aspects of art. And although the story of Amadeus takes many liberties with real history, the irony of the situation can’t be lost on anyone who has seen the behavior of audiences and critics for any reasonable length of time. Some titles struggle vainly for attention when published, only to be championed as works of unrecognized genius many years later. Other works (of which I am sure the reader can think of a few examples) are released with great fanfare, universally lauded and then promptly forgotten. Only a very few seem able to hold steady in their good repute.

Read into this what you will about current video games, but an important point that follows this is that nobody seems really able to accurately predict which those particular titles will withstand the test of time, and which will make big splashes, never to be seen again. Critics must write for their contemporaries, and so they must apply the standards of their cultural surroundings. And, funnily enough, those standards are very the ones future generations end up laughing at many years later (powdered wigs? tights? codpieces?). So I hope we can keep in mind that a thing’s real cultural value isn’t something one can immediately understand as soon as it is created. It takes years and years of distance, perspective, and context to get a clear picture of what was really significant– what truly mattered– and what was only Salieri’s Axur.