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.

6 thoughts on “Reports of the Death of Opera Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. Georgeanne,

    Sure there might be a couple operas that one can appreciate and love at first but IN GENERAL opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form. Opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population. Why? Because listening to and assimilating the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving).

    Furthermore, opera is first and foremost a musical phenomenon. In other words, the ESSENTIAL argument is posed in musical language. Does anyone seriously believe that if the director were to take a backseat to the music, vocalists and conductor that this will encourage potential opera lovers to turn away from the art form? It’s incredibly silly and this is why I’ve never seen anyone answer the question. The drama and the music must always be evaluated separately. I don’t care if the libretto is of the highest quality, there is still something trivial about all of the stage business next to being delighted, stirred, overwhelmed or profoundly moved by a score. And I don’t care what style of music it is. Isn’t it the instinctive response of most sensitive people 99.9 percent of the time to turn inward and let it all transpire in their own head and imagination?

    It has always been obvious to me that contemplative listening of recordings in private (with amplification) represents the purest and deepest form of opera love. Those who recognize that one cannot truly know and love an opera unless one has devoted the many hours to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize all of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details of the score. Or the acknowledgment that one must at least make a wholehearted effort to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize most of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details.

    Let me be clear: I am saying that the ‘musical architecture’ of an opera should primarily be subsconsciously apprehended.

    Apparently there are some in the opera world today who need to be reminded of the fact that listening to music is a major cognitive task that requires very considerable processing resources. The simpler task of reading libretti or studying dramaturgy just cannot be compared to the process of meticulous listening. Let me also stress that this type of opera lover always experiences a thrill or sees aesthetic value in passages that many others dismiss as “inferior, dull or mediocre”.

    I am a fierce defender of the primacy of music in the operatic art form. No, it is NOT the only valid aspect but it is the PRINCIPAL part…. There are many trendy folks in the opera world today who say that unless we focus on ‘updating’ the visuals/drama we will lose a lot newcomers. This is utter nonsense.

    Here is a basic truth:

    ”Music succeeds or fails on purely musical terms, and this is true even in opera, where extramusical associations necessarily play a part. No opera has ever remained in the repertory because it has a great libretto. It remains because the music is great”


    If one isn’t drawn into opera first and foremost by the musical architecture of a piece (instrumental and vocal and all the intricacies), then almost certainly opera is not for that person… The best staging and direction is really in our mind and imagination… Modern stagings and directions are at best “interesting” and can be thought-provoking BUT nothing really beats our own brains when we actually listen to the music and let it does its job.

    My main point is this: it was only through patient, careful and repeated listening to recordings that I have come to profoundly love most of my favorite operas. This has nothing to do with elitism and boffins or whatever. It is simply the fact that it takes some time to fully absorb the great masterpieces.

    I also know many people who do not enjoy sitting through an opera, or any musical production without listening to at least a few of the pieces first. I can’t speak for others but, REALLY how many people can watch a piece being sung or played, hearing it for the first time, and fully take pleasure in all its beauty and other qualities? Sure, there are a few pieces that grab your ears and take them on a ride at first exposure, but that usually isn’t the case.

    Finally, I DO love attending live opera, but my preferred method of experiencing opera most of the time is privately and through audio recordings.

  2. And keep in mind, some operas are museum pieces. Nothing is wrong with that. I don’t see art museums trying to “update” a classic Monet or Van Gogh. Why not appreciate a production for its historical worth rather than trying to make it “relevant” to the modern age? History and culture is relevant.

  3. Joshua,


    Nostalgia is neither psychopathic nor criminal. It can make money too.

    For those who scorn the notion that an opera house may be
    regarded as a kind of museum, I offer the magazine that
    Sotheby’s publishes wherein they list exhibits taking place
    in their “preferred museums” around the world. Under New
    York, right between The Metropoltan Museum Of Art and MoMa:

    The Metropolitan Opera!!

  4. I plunged into opera with little education on the subject and LOVE IT. What a bunch on blather about focus and preparation… maybe that was true before subtitles but not now… The most exciting thing is going to an opera I know nothing about and letting the experience unfold and absorb you without knowing who’s gonna be dying… Though obviously experiencing Violetta dying over and over again is greatly moving as well.

    Its learning as you go along that is so much fun. I became so passionate that I started an opera related biz in the height of the recession… So busy I cant keep up with demand. Opera and how we experience it may be changing, but from the majesty of the Zefferelli Turandot to the pared back Decker Traviata to brand new works, it sure as heck isn’t dying.

  5. Cindy,

    You totally missed the point.

    The above comment was NOT about understanding the plot. That’s the relatively easy part.

    The first comment was about the assimilation and internalization of the scores and all the intricacies.

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