The Lich Pagliacci
Updated: Jul 31
Once upon a time - all good stories begin with once upon a time - there was a great performer by the name of Pagliacci. Pagliacci had the best effects, the greatest tunes, and the finest costumes. Pagliacci was also very expensive. Kings desperately bid to ensure that Pagliacci would perform at their court; a performance by Pagliacci was a sign of the greatest social status and wealth.
Of course, Pagliacci had his imitators. They were also pretty good. Indeed, said those kings who had not managed to secure Pagliacci, the local talent was actually even better.
Then Pagliacci grew old. The world had moved on, and Pagliacci’s tricks had not. And yet it was Pagliacci - the greatest kings sponsored Pagliacci. And so they paid, not just for Pagliacci’s performances, but for Pagliacci’s ever-growing band of attendant doctors and healers.
For a time, it worked. The aristocrats, seeing the king struggle to afford to pay for Pagliacci, contributed, for they too yearned for the status of a Sponsor of Pagliacci.
Then Pagliacci died. Normally, this would be a problem. But not for a king with a necromancer. At great expense, and the consumption of numerous diamonds, Pagliacci was raised as a lich. In order to get the diamonds, the aristocrats had to make arrangements with the industrial barons who owned the diamond mines. They were more than happy to oblige; it meant they too were Sponsors of Pagliacci.
That, by this point, Pagliacci was still performing shows written for long-dead kings was not an issue.
Over time, some of Pagliacci’s imitator-performers were also given eternal undeath. New performers were chastised for deviating from the path of Pagliacci’s generation. Where they were sponsored, they were limited by the craving of the kings, aristocrats, and industrial barons for the status associated with being a Sponsor of Pagliacci. All performance was defined in relation to Pagliacci; risks might lead to the Sponsors going away.
That, by this point, Pagliacci’s work required vast teams of promoters to persuade people that it was worth something beyond a status symbol was not an issue.
One day, one of the living performers asked a question: why are we spending so much time preserving the corpse of the lich Pagliacci? Why are we still trusting the assumptions he made?
There were three choices:
Leave things be. Let the Lich Pagliacci absorb more resources than any other performer, and try to emulate his work to get a slice of the cake; to find a small place in it.
Walk away. Make performance cheaply elsewhere, and hope to carve out a niche in the face of Pagliacci’s horde of servants, promoters, and status-seeking Sponsors.
Move beyond apathy to action. The Sponsors’ obsession with keeping the past alive was habit, rarely genuine love. While there were things to love in Pagliacci’s work, of course, in truth constantly venerating the past was stopping beautiful things from the present, in the present, for the present flowering. It is time to destroy Pagliacci.
This is, of course, about opera. It’s largely written in a feverish dream between this (https://critical-hits.com/blog/2015/05/18/the-king-is-dead-long-live-the-king/), this (https://critical-hits.com/blog/2015/11/24/financial-one-shots-and-short-campaign-seeds/), Shut Down The Club, SINGLR and a haze of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2021.
While once I was pretty conservative in my views (inherent quality!), I think I’m increasingly starting to see where Le Grand Macabre fits. Perhaps it’s not time to try and emulate what went before with a new coat of paint, much though I love it - it is still the lich Pagliacci. Perhaps, it is time to destroy the lich and move on with our lives.
Which may be why I’m no longer thinking so much about what I do in terms of canon opera. Pagliacci is dead. Immersive, interactive, video game, 60-second... if you were inventing through-sung drama now, would your create the same basic style as he used? Really?
Maybe any attempt to use the form as he used, outside the time he made it for, will fail.
Maybe we need to shatter the phylactery so he can’t come back.