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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Opera Is Struggling PART ONE

There's been lots of talk on social media sites and opera blogs about how opera is dying. I don't believe that it is, not yet. But...

We do know that our audiences are getting older and that their numbers will diminish unless new audiences replenish the traditional, older operatic fan base. We have signs that these new audiences are appearing - here and there - but nothing definitive and certainly not enough to stop opera companies from closing in the U.S. and in Canada (Gotham and Ottawa being the most recent and biggest companies to shut their doors in 2015.)

I've thought about this, for a long while now, and I believe that opera is currently walking a path that might lead to its extinction, perhaps in some of our lifetimes. It's beyond a blog like this to reason it out, as this is a complicated issue and certainly not all the news is bad. (For instance, there's tons, TONS, of new opera being produced nowadays. Fantastic. Go Opera.)

However, we have some serious problems.  I've divided my ideas into this three part blog.

Three ideas I'd like to explore:
1) Industrial Age dogmatic notions of audience control, fashion, elitism, and programming continuing to be used and professed in North America by both opera companies and academic institutions.

2) Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer.

3) The Struggles of Marketing Opera in the 21st century; our operatic Product has changed.

Part One
Starting off with an issue from hundreds of years ago...
1) Industrial Age dogmatic notions of audience control, fashion, elitism, and programming continuing to be used and professed in North America by both opera companies and academic institutions:
It is very clear from historical documents that opera goers used to behave much differently before the Edwardian era. For hundreds of years the opera was a place to go and, yes of course watch the opera, but also talk, have dinner, have drinks, have sex, read letters from lovers, walk around, and encore any part that needed to be heard again. People would respond to what was going on with vocal noises, not just applause and "bravos". It was much like what Shakespeare's original audiences did - they booed the bad guy, they talked back to the stage, they REACTED to the live theatre which made for a vivid experience. Same for Liszt recitals - swooning women reacting just like young girls listening to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

Opera used to be like this. And then someone, I know not who, decided audiences needed to sit in reverent silence without moving for hours on end, in order to "enjoy" the theatre. Many did. Many did not.

The Industrial Age ushered in many things - technologies, child labor, public schooling to educate factory workers - and it ushered in the age of classical music audiences sitting in rapt silence. No whispers. No reactions, outside of polite applause once the time came. Now of course there were exceptions to this - the music "hall" with its Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan offerings, the Italian opera houses (still to this day the most exciting audiences to be a part of with their catcalling, whistles, booing, and vivid applause and screams of "bravo" that can go on and on) and the American Broadway and vaudeville stages where people went to be entertained.

But by and large, classical music started turning into something that was a traditional, elitist event. One had to wear black ties and top hats or gowns and gloves to the opera. Ticket prices were expensive (no longer -- it's the hockey, baseball, and basketball tickets that are way more expensive than your average opera ticket.) Important to note, not just anyone could go to the opera. In many cities you needed to be of a certain social status if you were going to be a regular attendee.

This didn't help with the popularizing of opera. Not in the least.

And today it is one of the biggest factors involved in the killing of classical music by classical musicians. Orchestras still dress as if it is 1885. We set ourselves apart via the costumes we choose to wear for recitals, costumes based on 19th century society types. How strange when we are needing regular folk to buy tickets. Tuxedos are literally so 19th century; alien to our modern day sense of casualness in everything from the workplace to going to church. This needs to change.

And us opera lovers need to STOP behaving in the theatre as if we are the Vestal Virgins of the Holy Opera God and shushing others for whispering, or making anyone feel that they need to SIT, SHUT UP, AND ENJOY THE OPERA DAMMIT! We need to let kids in and let them be noisy, we need audiences to become vocal in their responses - beyond applause. We need to make audiences comfortable about coming to see our shows. But we don't.

We continue to allow the theatre experience to be physically uncomfortable. The seats are built for smaller people from the first half of the 20th century and sometimes the aisles are miles away. Theatre seating should be reassessed, just like the stadium seating in modern day movie theatres. We need drinks and snacks available quickly and everywhere - not just at one kiosk. Restrooms need to be overhauled, as does the idea of how long an intermission is -- cut some of the music in order to find five more minutes for a longer interval. I've been at opera companies that push for a 9 minute intermission - this is just plain stupid. Give everyone a break, that's what happened back in 1832, fyi.

Those of us in the opera field also help to perpetuate the Victorian theatre-by-silence by not laughing at the jokes onstage, or reacting with anything but applause or a bravo. Someone needs to figure out how to change this. It could be life-changing for our art form. I remember an irate man getting so upset he left the opera house because audiences (me included) were laughing out loud during a Donizetti comedy. He screamed "this is opera for Christ's sake, give it some respect!".

We need to figure a way to get audiences to start being comfortable with the idea that they can react to what's going on onstage without the worry that one of the opera fascists will descend upon them and ask them to stop distracting the performers. We need to get audiences involved physically and emotionally with what they are hearing and seeing and if that means being disruptive to the "age-old" tradition of sitting with stiff necks enjoying the art in silence, so be it!

But most importantly, professors of music need to stop teaching the next generation to venerate the art form like it belongs in a church or a museum -- a "look but don't really touch" approach. What I mean by this is that all too often, opera is held up like it is some great thing that must be approached like a peasant approaches an aristocrat on Downton Abbey: Gaze slightly down, voices hushed in reverence. It's like one is trying to teach that opera is somehow bigger or greater than anyone in the room. It ain't.

I love opera, I take it seriously. It is fucking hard to learn, to sing, to conduct, to direct, to produce (I should know 'cause I've done all of those things professionally.) However, those that take themselves too seriously simply because they are in opera need to be drummed out of our field. I'm thinking everyone from general directors who are out of touch with the communities they are producing opera in, to the young directors thinking deep thoughts about bringing "real" acting methods to opera singers, as well as to the voice teachers who teach the mystery of opera through pretentiousness. Opera attracts pretentious people, and for some reason many in the business believe in the pretentiousness of too many of our colleagues.

Make no mistake -- Pretension is the hypertension of the operatic heart.

I'll write that again: Pretension is the hypertension of the operatic heart. It won't kill opera, but it damages that which is at the heart of opera: it's entertainment factor. We've lost the popularity contest not because Frank Sinatra or Mary Martin or Sting or Elvis came along (well, maybe Elvis). We lost being popular because we left our audiences. We rose above them with our heilige Kunst, the dabblings of atonality that few could understand or follow, the elitist attitudes that opera was somehow better than operetta or musical theatre (puh-leeze), but especially we lost the popularity contest because our opera singers stopped entertaining and have been stopped by academic institutions from even thinking they that are entertainers. Getting a degree in opera has to compete, at the academic level, with getting a degree in Engineering. The art form, classical music in general, was elevated by academics in order to make a case for itself. It was turned into some sort of literature and history, thus losing its viability because it stopped being current and populist.

Once the academics got their hands on opera (and, frankly, all of classical music), they removed it from the populist hands of composers, singers, musicians, audiences, and impresarios. The rise of the academically trained singer shifted how opera singers learned their craft, shifted how voice teachers taught (one one-hour lesson a week), and shifted the artistry to a place where students were studying to be opera singers but they weren't in the opera houses listening to opera singers sing opera, or in most cases, singing on the operatic stage. Instead of studying voice from a teacher who had been on the operatic stage for decades, they now study with voice teachers who earn doctorates in voice but who may never have had a professional contract outside of a summer young artist program. But perhaps even worse, singers are learning about opera from books called "critical editions"...

Click Here for the Link to PART TWO:
Part Two (Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer)