Puccini didn’t even want that.
May 22, 2014 1:04 PM   Subscribe

Opera Is Dead! Long Live Opera.

Upon finding out I’m an opera singer, people abashedly (or sometimes with near-angry bravado) tell me they’re not fans. As though I’ll be upset. I am the first to vehemently tell them that it’s the fault of the opera world that they feel this way.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe (18 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Opera's not dead, but it's Webkit under the hood now.
posted by JHarris at 1:08 PM on May 22, 2014 [15 favorites]

posted by jonmc at 1:09 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

My 9 year old "kinda godson" has this year performed in the L.A. Opera's Tosca, Carmen, The Magic Flute and Billy Budd. He's an awesome kid with an extraordinary voice and is a voracious reader, especially if it has anything to do with opera. I'm going to print out this article for him. Thanks Pruitt-Igoe.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:18 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had to click on the link before I realized that they weren't talking about the web browser
posted by surazal at 1:23 PM on May 22, 2014

Good piece (it might have been nice to credit the author, Marisa Lenhardt). She's absolutely right that opera needs to make itself part of people's lives (rather than "market itself," feh), and she's got some good ideas in that direction. I started out as an opera snob who thought translation was treason, until I attended a performance of The Marriage of Figaro done in a good translation and saw how people responded. They weren't trying to follow along with the libretto or remember the story, they were listening! and laughing! They got it! I understood on a visceral level that opera is either alive or it's dead, and if it's alive people will respond. Bring on the rowdy spectators!
posted by languagehat at 1:23 PM on May 22, 2014 [8 favorites]

Hmm. I think there's a lot that's right about what she's written here. Yes, opera is having a tough time staying "relevant" (whatever that means), it's got a lot of misguided snobbery and gatekeeping built up around it, and sitting in a dark theatre for 3+ hours listening to singing in a language you don't understand isn't something that's going to be appealing to a lot of people. Make no mistake, most popular operas are museum pieces, and opera's a niche interest without an especially welcoming culture.

But I'm a bit tired of the "opera used to be popular entertainment for the common folk, and we've only recently become all stuffy about it" trope. Certainly, expectations for audience behaviour and opera's role in popular culture have changed, but opera history is a lot more complicated than that. There's a scene in Frances Burney's Evelina (set in London and written in the 18th century) where Evelina attends the opera with a few companions who are attending for the first time. Her companions complain about the expensive tickets, the high standards of dress required, the foreign language, the silly plots, the excessive length, the difficulty of seeing anything from the cheap seats, i.e. everything that is supposedly killing opera today hundreds of years later.

Also, I'm not sold on the whole "the youths today want everything to be fast-paced and participatory, because of social media" thing. People of all ages put up with a lot of boring unpleasantness in service of a subculture they love all the time. Going to see a band involves interminable waiting, standing uncomfortably for hours, etc (plus if you're short you can't see a damn thing half the time. but I digress).

One of the tricky things for opera companies to navigate is that often people are drawn to it because of its outmoded traditions and high-culture snob value. This is often particularly true for young people. When I go to the opera, it's usually the youngest segment of the audience that turns up dressed to the nines, and they're also often the most vocally critical of productions that attempt to modernize the setting or subvert traditional performance practice. A big chunk of the audience is looking for the Opera Experience, and that includes sparkly dresses, big emotions, and a grand setting. I do think this is a problem for opera as an art form, although opera as cultural tourism/fancy date option is a more reliable ticket seller.

I have to say that this post just doesn't ring true for me as someone who has seen the 5-hour Tristan and Isolde sell out in my city while contemporary work that attempts to address all these issues flounders. And, I regularly hear booing at the opera (which I can't say for Broadway, movies, summer music festivals, etc etc etc).
posted by beatrice rex at 2:47 PM on May 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

I find myself curious about how opera has fared through recent centuries in Germany and Italy, where you can perform at least some of the revered classics in the local language without stigma.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:52 PM on May 22, 2014

I spent a summer in Italy 15 years ago, and it was really common to have opera performances in the local squares (usually a fairly basic stage, and people sat on the plaza or on the duomo steps). Very low-tech, relatively speaking, usually solidly excellent singing, and people following along. (I think there was a very simple published guide, but it was in Italian, so if you didn't already speak Italian, not very helpful.)

Very similar to sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood, or listening to the Pops Esplanade concerts in Boston - kids running around all over the place, people talking quietly here and there, lots of picnic type foods, with the performance being important, but not at all formal.

Anyway, at that time (and I'm pretty sure still) there were performances like this a bunch of places. (The program I was in was just outside Siena, and there were three or four performances we could theoretically have driven to in the 6 weeks of the program, depending on your tolerance for Italian hill town driving, all in smallish towns.)
posted by modernhypatia at 3:22 PM on May 22, 2014

It's not dead, just fat.
posted by ArtifexNada at 3:28 PM on May 22, 2014

If you’re complaining about people not being willing to do the work to enjoy opera,
You’re a stagecoach driver.
I can kinda see that I suppose.
You’re a librarian. wait, what?

Seriously, I like when they do subtitles for the foreign language stuff. Wouldn't change anything else about Opera though. Contemporizing is okay in theory, but the problem is you never know if the actuality is going to ruin something or not. Good composers seem rare.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:33 PM on May 22, 2014

As a professional opera singer myself, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with about 90% of what she is saying, and vehemently disagreeing with the rest. Like beatrix rex pointed out so well, opera is not truly floundering. It has a small and passionate fan base that is often more knowledgeable about the shows than the performers!

I also disagree on a personal level with her idea that sitting in a dark hall separate from the performers is a negative thing. It sounds like she is not at all interested in the idea of attending a traditional opera in a house, and for me, it is a highly pleasurable experience. OK, so she herself doesn't like it, but that is not the same as saying that it has no merit.

All in all, though, I thought this was a pretty thought-provoking article that mercifully stayed away from the usual talking points.
posted by schmopera at 3:50 PM on May 22, 2014

I would have to tell her I'm not a fan either, if "fan" means having a special love of opera the way Manchester United fans have a special love for Manchester United. It's just another kind of music, and it's hard to think of a kind of music I don't like. (Yes, I'll listen to country. Yes, I'll listen to rap.) Monody, though, is low on my list (polyphony FTW!) and I'm entirely meh on bel canto. If somebody offered me free tickets to the Met and it was just one of the old warhorses by somebody whose name ends in -ini or -etti that have been done to death, and the performance night conflicted with a hot young string quartet doing one of Bartok's quartets, I would pass the Met tickets on to somebody else in a heartbeat. Especially if the string ensemble was doing all four of the Bartok quartets on successive nights, that's where I would head--score in hand, tiny red flashlight in pocket, tongue hanging out. Or if the conflict was with, say, Jonathan Richman, who I've never heard live, somebody else gets the Met tix. I would go hear Nelly in preference to Bellini (sure Norma's super but I've heard it and heard it.) OTOH if it were a good company doing something uncommon (Wozzek) or I've-never-heard-it-ever-except-recordings rare (Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo) then suddenly the opera becomes my first choice of things to do that evening.

As for opera becoming part of people's lives, it's already part of about as many people's lives as can be expected now, when it has to compete with virtually infinite numbers of other forms of entertainment. For a few (music students, critics) it's a kind of very pleasurable erudition. For a somewhat larger crowd of people who go for stuff with snob appeal, opera has some. All sorts of people are happy to wander over and sit on the grass for a free evening of Opera in the Park. But in its day opera was the Beatles at Shea Stadium for thousands and thousands of people all over Europe. It will never be that again and it's useless to hope that it will.
posted by jfuller at 4:23 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Edit window closed. four six. Thinking of schoenberg.
posted by jfuller at 4:31 PM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Coming as a performer of other archaic western musical forms and instruments, mostly, she's right on. I LIKE my formal and archaic trappings, but not everyone shares my kink.

My best audiences are when I'm right up among them and they don't know I'm playing Early Classical Musick. In bars (I sometimes play along at celtic and american old-timey music gatherings - a lot of that repertoire is based on my repertoire). At RenFaires. At puppet shows and street theater. Much as it pains me, at xmas caroling on the street, mall, or transit station and airports when the flight is delayed. At Shakespeare in the parks. At weddings and funerals.

If I could get away with sound-patterned arduino LED displays inside my instruments or those damned period neck ruffs, I'd do it. NO underground or wet places, though, as my wooden instruments, gut strings and horsehair would either explode or go limp, not to mention go out of tune and never come back.

Either serious music adapts or it's just another Veblenite financial status symbol for the fewer and fewer - the 1% - who can actually afford it, rather than the 99% who could sing or play or dance along.
posted by Dreidl at 4:31 PM on May 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's how anybody and everybody can enjoy opera - performed in a public square, all around lined with cafes, warm summer evening, people drink their coffees and wines and nibble on cheeses and casually listen to music. Italy, you say? No, anywhere! See: Hollywood Bowl. I challenge anyone to not enjoy themselves listening to opera while having a picnic.
posted by VikingSword at 4:35 PM on May 22, 2014

Dreidl, you are not the only early/medieval musician I know in that boat. A large part of my love for early chamber music comes from seeing musicians at renaissance festivals.

Interestingly, a new opera company in San Antonio has just sent me an invitation to become an initial subscriber (we did Das Rheingold at HGO this year and ended up subscribing to a partial season in Dallas where my in-laws live). It's quite affordable and I'm strongly considering season tickets.
posted by immlass at 5:10 PM on May 22, 2014

I wish people could experience opera the way I have, in that I spent a solid twenty years as a supernumerary performer with the Washington Opera, starting out as a thirteen year-old. I'm a bad opera fan in that I love the ones I've been in, and am less keen on the ones I haven't, but there is really nothing in all the world like being there, on stage, with a whole opera whirling around you in a roaring, searing, overheated wonderland of life and music and tech and cues, always the cues.

Gian Carlo Menotti was at the head of my first performance, of Bohéme in '81, and we were pen pals for a number of years, and that's one of the reasons I always say "I'm working on an opera" when I'm really just working out the script, sound, and music for another of my little solo story shows. Hell, I'm working on a one man show about my opera years, and if I can do anything, it'll be to capture, if only for a second, the way it felt when I was the only one on stage for Tosca, a lone soldier, lit in blue, on the roof of the castle, sipping at my cup of imaginary coffee as the music rose and I could look out, out into the burgundy darkness beyond the fourth wall, and see the ranks of eyes catching reflections off a hundred thousand watts of par cans in colors moving in gentle waves following hands moving across the lighting board like zen monks raking sand.

If you could be there, a philistine holding tight to one of the best tenors in history as he sang with such full and faultless investment in the libretto that you could feel the vibrations in your own chest and through that physical junction where your make-up darkened hand was hard on the bones and sinews in his shoulder—

If you could smell the heated lights and the fresh paint on newly repaired stage flats, if you could see the people you'd just been gossiping with in the elevator from the dressing rooms to backstage right metamorphosing into characters, if you'd learned the cues so well, and incorporated the little taped spikes on the floor into the map of here in your head, if you could wait in the wings, next to the crew lady with the clipboard and headset, counting the beats until—

—and so you sweep out, onto the stage, a perfect nobody with no voice in a scene where you are sometimes barely more than just a fully-animated prop, and still, feeling like the axis at the center of a slowly turning, impossibly complex, singing, churning, magical world, at least until the curtain falls, you'd know, but who gets the chance?

Opera for me is personal, and a thread that connects straight through where I started out and where I am today, even though it's been a decade since I stepped on stage, but I wonder, really, how much I can say to share the grandeur and breadth of it all, except to remember how my father dragged me down to DC for the first day of the first rehearsal of the first opera of so many, and how the electric absurdity of it just became a whole way of seeing the world.

"Dad," I said, a nervous, callow thirteen year-old, "I think that man is wearing clogs."

"He does appear to be wearing clogs. You're allowed to wear clogs when you're in the opera."


In opera, my father is still in the world, the whole horror of the eighties is still not yet underway, and I get lovely letters from a composer who, despite having far more pressing matters to attend, takes the time to urge me on in my endeavors. It is glamorous and yet secretly all held together with safety pins and your wig is glued on with rubber cement that a fantastically gay wig man will remove at the end of the evening while chain smoking menthols as he wipes acetone on your face and the sets are gorgeously real until you see them on edge, when they almost disappear into the realm of actuality, just like life, but so much louder.
posted by sonascope at 7:52 PM on May 22, 2014 [11 favorites]

It was a nice surprise to see this here. Marisa is a friend of mine; she and my wife have sung together at various venues in the Bay Area - most frequently for Verismo Opera, the company she links at the end of her post. I was even in a Verismo show once, when they needed some more men in the chorus.

And based on her post, I think I like Verismo for many of the same reasons she does, but I'm not sure if I quite subscribe to her recipe for fixing opera.

By coincidence, when I read this, I was watching another friend in a live-streamed opera. It was a world premiere of a new opera by a composer I'd never heard of. It was off-kilter, dark, absurd, and very, very entertaining. It was the future of opera.

But if it weren't for the fact that there's this other thing we call opera -- this extremely expensive thing that almost exclusively stages works by dead composers -- then we wouldn't have to call new works the future of opera. We could just call them opera, and we wouldn't be sitting around asking why no one goes to it anymore.

I'm a poet. "Why don't people read poetry anymore?" is a silly cliche, one that's asked almost exclusively by people who don't like or care very much about poetry.

Whenever "why don't people read poetry?" discussions come up, I always want to ask, "Compared to what?" Sure, fewer people are reading Denise Newman than Dean Koontz, but how is that even a useful comparison? Compare the readership for serious poetry to that of experimental fiction, performance art, contemporary classical music, and you start to get a different idea of poetry's place in the world.

And it's the same with opera. I go to lots of interesting operas. And many of those companies are doing fine. Again, yeah, they're not selling as many tickets as the latest Broadway show, but the comparison is meaningless. The audience that good opera deserves isn't the audience that goes to friggin' Avenue Q. The audience that good opera deserves is the audience that good poetry deserves. The audience that lives in weird little venues and stays around long after the show drinking and talking and arguing about it.

Morton Feldman was, for a time, a student of Stepan Wolpe. Wolpe was a Marxist. He was very serious about art being for The People, that art should be accessible and art should serve the working class.

One day, Feldman and Wolpe were in Wolpe's studio, looking out the window and talking about music. Wolpe was trying to tell Feldman that his music was too esoteric, too inaccessible. Wolpe pointed out the window at the street below and said, "What about the man on the street?" Jackson Pollock was crossing the street. Wolpe was pointing at Jackson Pollock.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:35 PM on May 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

« Older I could do that.   |   The Mother of All Self Links? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments