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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Opera Is Struggling PART TWO

The second part of my three part blog on why I think opera is struggling in the 21st century.

INTRO Recap...
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 latest 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 walking a path that will 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 a three part blog.

The three ideas I'm exploring…

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.

Click Here for the Link to Part One: 

Part One

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 Two
A particularly difficult issue, and I understand that this opinion of mine won't go over well with some...

2) Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer:
Aside from the ancillary argument that our young singers are confusing the 17th century for the 19th century, or that they are revering all opera scores as come scritto (not understanding that Puccini and other 20th century scores were marked for printing in a much different way than Mozart's scores were, let alone Handel, Lully, Gluck, Rossini, or much of the operatic canon), something happened in the last 30 to 40 years that altered how opera is taught, learned, rehearsed, performed, and recorded for posterity. It is tied to what happened in baroque music during the later half of the 20th century.

First off, though, everyone needs to understand that I love baroque opera. I love directing baroque operas, and love coaching Handel. I love baroque music in general, albeit famously not getting the big Bach vocal works, (once referring to them as pretentious hymns written in a hurry and in need of judicious cuts.) How dare I think that, let alone that something about the Early Music "movement" might be responsible for the current crisis in opera?

Early music musicians understand that their music is about improv, about the re-creation of scores barely written down onto the page, about making massive amounts of decisions based on conquering how to recreate figured bass, how to ornament, when to ornament, plus all those period tuning decisions which I don't understand but are super important. They are musical Indian Jones archeologists - not just studying it, teaching it, or finding it but getting down and dirty in old scores, digging into the minds of those dead composers and finding bits and pieces of things to put together to make something that was once dead, live again. They are the most exciting thing about the "classical" music scene right now; leaders who acknowledge that the creation of new music is just as important as performing the complete Bach Cantatas. Look no further than the vocal group Roomful of Teeth, or Julian Wachner at Trinity Wall Street to see the future being led by a total dominance of understanding the past while creating the future, oftentimes through a baroque musical lens.

Opera folk just don't do this -- why? Because they've missed the message of historical performance entirely.

There is a by-product of this early music "movement": score reverence. Our early music colleagues discovered that scores of their beloved music were impure, discoloured by centuries of editors and musicologists trying to understand this crazy, misshapen - literally baroque - music. So they altered the scores and reprinted them for 19th century tastes. They added harmonies not available to Handel or Telemann, inserted Romantic notions of dynamics, articulations and tempi markings. They created monstrosities. This is how baroque opera (particularly Handel and Monteverdi) was first resurrected in the mid-20th century, via very Romantic editors. The early music nerds took decades to clean this all up, finally printing all the holy critical editions found in music libraries around the world today. But of course they didn't think for a moment that any of these critical edition musical scores were, by themselves, the point.

That essential meaning of the why and how of critical editions didn't successfully transfer to opera.

Once other editors and musicologists moved into the operatic oevre, cleaning up Mozart, then to Rossini and Donizetti, and ultimately to Verdi, the damage was done. Scores were scraped clean of anything not found in the autographs, and anything that was suspect was sent to the purgatory of the "appendix" or notated in forwards sometimes longer than the actual scores themselves. We lost the notion of the Mozart appoggiatura, cadential fermati, and why bel canto traditions were splashed all over the aural histories and first-generation divas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. We lost thousands of performance traditions put into place during the lives of the composers. We lost traditional cuts, we lost performance practice that wasn't written down in 17th century treatises, but put down in scores that were passed on down through the generations. In this brave new world of Critical Editions, scores became bibles and everyone became way too scared to do anything not found in these new operatic testaments. One might be burned at the stake for daring to sing some Ricci ornaments in front of Pope Muti, unless it was ordained holy by one of the new Bishops of Critical Editions: Cardinals Gossett or Zedda. And now it's the local, mostly uneducated, small town vocal priests selling the praises of things like secco recit rests that must be taken exactly as written, (even the rests!) because "that's what Mozart wrote" to unsuspecting parishioners attending Mass at the Church of Our Holy Opera.

Currently it is de rigeur for any operatically inclined artist to use these by-products of the rise of the early music movement when learning and performing most opera rep. We use the dogma of "critical edition" knowledge to perform only what's on the page. Put another way, we use this dogma to justify NOT making any decisions based on historical knowledge, NOT to dig into the minds of dead composers, and NOT to work on that very important part of the operatic craft that was once integral to the art form: understanding that composers' scores were pretty much just hints, blueprints, and/or jumping off points to specific brilliantly trained singers in order to create entertainment that sold tickets to live audiences so that they could make a living and not starve.

I'll continue down this path…

Today, this misunderstood notion has led young singers to be told by VIPOP's (very important professional opera people) to say things like "if I hear you ornamenting the Count in Nozze I'll kill you" while at the same time offering up serene wisdom about using appogiaturas in secco recitative. We are left with an art form that is more or less a "paint by numbers" systematic approach, and more troubling, a non-offensive yet very generic next generation of singers.

Creating Opera by a Paint-By-Numbers philosophy will lead to no one buying tickets because it isn't art anymore, it is a pale imitation. Modern day audiences want authenticity, they yearn for it, in ways they do not understand. Yet opera is feeding our present day audiences a diet of white-washed, watered down, clean-yet-oh-so-bland, boring opera.

And it's the voice teachers, coaches, conductors, directors, administrators, and casting directors - along with the singers - who are complicit in this problem. Not all, but many. Those who find any kind of modest success at an operatic singing career understand that it's not about being clean and correct, but about being effective and exciting that makes audiences stand up and take notice. Yet those who train young singers whose first step into the professional world - the young artist programs - understand that this path seems to begin with an "offend no one" approach to auditioning. They learn not to offend, to sing just what's on the page, make no major artistic choices, and hope that this will get them hired. Many get hired and then a few get a career, having been trained to not really penetrate an operatic score because we have schooled our new generation of singers to offend no one, entertain no one, and ultimately be no one.

We do this by creating PRODUCTIONS that distract the audiences from missing what was once the essential component of opera: great singers singing in the stratosphere, singing loudly or softly and beautifully, creating roulades and fioratura passages that defied gravity. Now our "divas" are Lady Gaga, Christine Agulara, and Taylor Swift.  The only way to really save opera is to put singers at the forefront of this art form again: allow them to LEAD the bulk of the musical decisions, not passively receive wisdom from a conductor who may have little experience with the literature; make them LEAD dramatic decisions, not passively receive direction from a stage director who may not have ever attended opera in an actual opera house; make them responsible for understanding the differences in performance practice between Handel, Rameau, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, Bizet, Strauss, Berg, Weill, Bernstein, Sondheim, Heggie, and all of the great opera composers to come.

It is time for the singers to take back opera!

Click Here for the Link to Part Three: 
Part Three
(Marketing Opera in the 21st century)


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  3. Excellent series of posts! Thank you! You'd think that scholars of critical editions—and their acolytes—would know that opera singers of the 18th and 19th century were essentially composers. But no. That knowledge and ability seems to be lost. Enjoy your blog very much!