Opera? Popera?

The world of opera is trying very hard not to fall apart. This has been so for quite some time but it seems that things have escalated and with the demise of NYCO, it can be seen by everyone that there is no great rush to restore this company or any other that might take its place. The Met survives in its own insular universe due to the constant influx of money from the one percenters who donate because it is the thing to do to be socially correct and, what else are they going to do with their corporate made dollars anyway? There aren’t too many places left in the USA where the very wealthy can be obviously generous and congratulated for it outside of the two Mets and a few other major arts organizations.

Opera houses in Italy are closing all over the place, even in houses that have been around for a very long time. Take a look: http://www.newsweek.com/end-italian-opera-will-they-wait-fat-lady-sing-225175

Surely, someone is going to wake up one day and realize that the way to keep opera going is to bring in electronic music and rock composers and let them have a chance to develop rock operas that will pull in all sorts of young audiences. No, you won’t hear opera sung the way it has been, but the form would continue and the world would adapt accordingly. Forcing things to stay the same when they are clamoring to change only makes things worse.

Opera has been dominated for decades now by nonsensical Euro-trash productions of older works that pay no attention to the music or the story as written by composer/librettist and by new music which is often complex or difficult for the average opera goer to appreciate. In fact, much of what is written sounds the same from one composer to the next. Most of the “big” composers are men and most of them refuse to write using older traditional harmonies or compose melodies that are easily sung by singers and therefore remembered by audiences. Combine that with absurd takes by directors on the plots and by the designers who create outrageous sets and costumes and you have a recipe for continuing disaster. Do the people running things take notice? Not in any way. Do the audiences stay away? In droves.

It is not so that making something different for different’s sake is a sign of creativity. It is not so that changing something because you can is always an improvement. It is not so putting “your spin” on a great work or art shows that you are brilliant. It is not so that re-constructing something to make it “more relevant” actually makes it more relevant. It is not so that audiences have to be pandered to in order to “understand” things. It is not so that writing music based on “old” ideas of harmony and melody relegates it to being sentimental (in a bad way) or of lesser  quality. It is not so that people can’t tell the difference between what they like and what they don’t, even if they can’t explain why.

Once, quite some number of years ago, I had occasion to speak briefly to Dame Joan Sutherland, and she said that she and “Richard” hoped that they were entertaining to the people in the high balcony seats, as those people had paid a great deal of money to see the performances and both she and Richard wanted the audience members to “have a good time”. If one of the world’s greatest vocal artists and her husband, a fine conductor, could have that attitude, why don’t the people who commission, write, produce and direct operas think this way too?

The mindset of those who continue to defend these policies is rigid. Most average people do not relate to the music of today’s most well-known and respected composers. Opera companies, however, continue to fund music that people do not like to hear and productions they don’t want to see, even though that behavior is self-destructive. It is absolutely the case that this continues unchallenged  as policy throughout the world but that questioning this status quo is also completely and vehemently opposed. The idea is that any kind of modern art, no matter how senseless, outlandish, grotesque or bizarre cannot be criticized lest one seem unsophisticated, pedestrian or banal. The thought that there are artistic expressions which are tasteless or even offensive seems to be as outmoded as a pair of spats.

Yes, some of the latest material of all sorts is wonderful, creative and innovative but much of it is not and no one who makes decisions seems much able to discern the difference. I do wonder, if Beverly Sills, a singer, could come back and have her say about what people get to see and hear if things might improve overall. There are very few women and even fewer vocalists making important choices at a high administrative levels in opera and that’s not good for anyone. And, with the new productions of living composers — if one of their operas fails to garner either critical or public acclaim, no problem, just ask that same composer to try again with another new work. Now, there’s a sensible response!

No one can say what “art” is. No one can define what creativity is. True. But common sense says that if people like something they will gravitate towards it and not the other way around. If composers wrote music that people really wanted to hear and allowed singers to sing in a way that brought out the beauty of singing, and if directors and designers created sets and costumes that people could relate to, people might actually attend these kinds of performances. Is this hard to understand? It wouldn’t hurt companies like the Met to put up a survey on its website with questions like: What kind of music would you prefer to hear? What kind of productions would you prefer to attend? What things turn you off? Why would you avoid coming to see one of our productions? They might be surprised to discover that the audiences who loved the great works of the past are not so enamored of what they are seeing and hearing, both in mainstream (old) operas and in new works not previously done or done infrequently. They might be surprised to learn that even sophisticated, wealthy and musically educated audiences would like to hear melodies and harmonies that were, yes, entertaining.

And, just to look at things another way — there have to be hundreds of operas written and performed over the last 100 years in various opera houses worldwide that have been done less than fifty times in total. Some of them were successful, but they have still become invisible. If you want an audience to like something, that something has to stay around long enough for people to have a chance to become very familiar with it. Some of the works mounted by living composers might have gained a following had audiences been given a chance to see them multiples times, for years running. That, sadly, seems never to be the case. What audiences get instead is the next new work that will also get a dozen performances and then, joining its fellows, simply disappear. This is what happens with movies. They either set box office records on the first two weekends or they disappear. That wasn’t always true. In times past, the sleepers often took a while to develop a following.  With new operas that possibility doesn’t even exist.

People will pay to hear music they like, they will stay in line for 48 hours in the rain and cold to buy tickets for their favorite artists. They will pay scalpers for tickets, and they will see the same show multiple times. What they want to hear, however, is not what they get in an opera house. If the people in the opera houses could tap into the market that pop/rock music has, they could build new opera houses and hire new artists every year. The gap between these two worlds is growing wider day by day, just as the economic gap is growing between the 1% and the 99. It doesn’t have to be, however, that this is the only way. A really dynamic individual in the right place could turn things on their head. I don’t see that happening in the current scenario.

So, the quick, short path to keeping the form alive is to go to electronic music written by rock composers, or jazz composers and let the vocal values go, too. Let opera as we now know it become a smaller, elite form for very small audiences who will pay a premium and go out of their way to see their favorites performed by an equally small pool of artists. If that doesn’t happen, something else equally drastic has to instead. If you doubt me, go back up and click on the link and read that article about opera in Italy again.

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2 thoughts on “Opera? Popera?”

  1. I think the problem is two-fold. There is the top-down problem that you describe: opera companies don’t know how to produce anything that anyone would want to see or hear. (And having studied composition briefly, there is a kind of snobbery about atonal, experimental music. Like if you actually like anything with a melody, you’re a Philistine.)

    But there is also the bottom-up problem: taste in music, as in everything else, must be cultivated. If I’ve only ever eaten at McDonalds, I’m not suddenly going to start liking kale and quinoa. I’m Catholic, and I once walked out of Mass because the setting of the Psalm they were singing was so horrible that it was like watching the desecration of the word of God. But no one else at Mass had a problem with it, because they’ve been listening to this kind of music for 40+ years! (I promise I’m not one of those people who thinks music ended in 1950–I do like all kinds of pop music in addition to classical!)

    The problem is not limited to this country: In 2010, I visited a Italian friend of mine who lives in Rome with her two kids. She said that the kids have no music education in the public schools. No choirs, school orchestras, or bands. Unless your parents pay for music lessons, there is no chance that a child with great potential will ever even discover music.

    My point with all this is that the bottom-up problem is that fewer and fewer people are trained to appreciate classical music. The recent rise of this children gaining fame through singing Puccini arias suggests to me that people still know what they like, but if you can’t tell the difference between an untrained child (even a musical child with an unusually mature voice) and an artist of musical sensitivity, top-notch technique, and enormous expressive capabilities, something is very wrong indeed.

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