Reports of the Death of Opera Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
“Yeah, but isn’t opera a dying art form?”
You can’t browse any classical music blog or arts news section without encountering a thinkpiece on the slow, painful death of opera. These (typically) well-written articles cite sagging ticket sales, shorter seasons, fewer opera companies. They ask readers if an art form with its roots in the late 16th century has any relevance to today’s audiences.
Pardon me–my eyes have just rolled out of my head.
Numbers don’t lie; this much is true. Empty seats in opera houses have an unmistakable impact–it becomes increasingly harder to mount large, expensive productions or take risks on new works. If you wondered why you’re seeing the 90th run of the same production of La bohème, that would be it. Artistic directors know what will fill seats–and they accordingly plan shorter seasons with the same four operas to ensure the financial security of the house.
All because of the fear of the relevance of opera to 21st century audiences. We fear we can’t make early music relevant–it’s too antiquated, the plots silly–but we refuse to update it. We fear that audiences won’t respond to new works–there isn’t the name recognition with Mark-Anthony Turnage, Kaija Saariaho, or Jonathan Dove as there is with Puccini, Verdi, or Mozart. The old guard of opera fans lament Regietheater as a threat to the sanctity of music; they fear the sullying of operatic masterpieces.
Enter the new guard of opera fans–social media savvy, interested in pre-Classical works, curiously imaginative about direction and concept theater, passionate about new music. They livetweet their opera experiences, they meet up with friends from Twitter at the Met, they blog about their ideas for new productions. If you wondered who’s listening, who’s attending operas, take a look at the #OperaTwitter crowd. Does this look like the death of opera to you?
I am not foolishly optimistic. I know that companies are closing at an alarming rate, unable to sustain one more season in the red. As a singer, this reduces an already bleak number of job opportunities in an overly-saturated job market. As an opera fan, this reduces the number of chances for opera exposure to a piddling amount.
We have, by our own fault, wounded opera. How can we stop the bleeding?
- We must champion new works. We must take the music of Daron Hagen, Nico Muhly, Jake Heggie, and countless other talented composers and promote it whenever possible. It was one of my major disappointments that Muhly’s Two Boys did not receive a Met Live in HD cinema showing. What better way to show the world how opera can be used to express 20th/21st century experiences than an opera about the Internet?
- We must not be afraid of the re-imagining of operas already in the canon. I do not mean to suggest that Orfeo should be set in an airport. I don’t think a Regietheater approach works for every piece. I do, however, think that life is breathed into works when we imagine them in a different time, a different place, a different situation.
- We must give our audiences more credit. We worry that audiences won’t relate to Baroque operas, but we’ve seen time and time again that they will flock to imaginative productions with good singing. We fear that no one has interest in an opera of Brokeback Mountain and yet thousands tune in online to stream it. If we trust our audiences, they will respond.
Opera addresses the most primal human emotions. It attempts to shed light on love, on hate, on lust, on despair, on greed, on fear. These feelings are universal; they are timeless. They don’t rely on the setting of an opera and they find themselves just as poignant and powerful today as in the 16th century.
So, to answer the question–no, opera is not dead. Let’s stop talking about it and start living that answer.