Is Opera Ailing? A Conversation About The State Of The Art
Is opera healthy today, or is it a 400-year-old art form struggling for its life in the face of fractured budgets, aging audiences and an explosion of new media options to occupy our eyes and ears?
F. Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News, is optimistic. He feels every age has potential to be golden, yet he adds that "we don't know if it's real gold until we rub it a little bit, do we?" Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who looks to Mick Jagger for performing tips, strives to make opera zing, "like when you break an orange peel and there is a spray of some fragrant zest," he says. And Anne Midgette, classical critic at the Washington Post, says opera could use a shot in the arm: "We do opera no favors when we try to make it all be high art and rip away those populist roots."
We've corralled these three experts in a roundtable discussion (hear it at the audio link or read it below) to try to answer some important questions about where opera is today and what it might look like in the future. Our jumping off point is the cover story of the August edition of Opera News, which explores opera's next wave of pioneers and up-and-comers from singers and directors to administrators.
TOM HUIZENGA: From reading the article you might get the impression that opera's on a sure foot.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL:What we looked at was people who had a chance to do good for the industry and do good for the art form within the next decade. What is interesting about the people that we chose, they are all in a very good place in terms of what they've done with their talents and skills and what they've done with the particular job assignments they've been given. Whether or not this is a golden age, I don't know. I'd like to think every age has the potential to be gold. We don't know if it's real gold until we rub it a little bit, do we?
OPERA VERSUS TECHNOLOGY
HUIZENGA: It's intriguing that just before the good vibes cover story, there's a very provocative article by Phillip Kennicott, who doesn't exactly see opera's future as all that rosy, does he?
DRISCOLL: Well, Phillip is looking at opera in that particular essay from the point of view of technology. He takes in a lot, he talks about virtual opera performances, the influence of HD [high definition] — what the impact of that might be. I also think that Phillip is taking the tack that all media is facing challenges from the increased availability of technology and the speed with which technology is developing.
I can be very critical of HD because I do think the experience is a kind of slickness like eating potato chips. It's a very easy access form of opera ...
HUIZENGA: One of the points that Philip tries to make in the article is that the HD movie theater transmissions — the cameras, the microphones, the very fancy audio mixing, the kind of perfecting of opera — is actually serving to separate us more and more from real live opera.
ANNE MIDGETTE: Well that's been true of every form of recording since the recording industry began. So yes, you could argue that HD is creating its own kind of experience, which is unique and distinct from live opera experience. But you could also say that type of technology is also why we're able to listen to Caruso today. I can be very critical of HD because I do think the experience is a kind of slickness like eating potato chips. It's a very easy access form of opera; on the other hand, I enjoy it and there's a chance it can be reaching new audiences and certainly it's bringing opera to a much wider audience than was previously possible — those have got to be good things.
HUIZENGA: Some people are wondering whether it's actually luring people away from their local and regional opera houses. They can go to the theater and have a good time and see a production at the Met, or some of the other houses now that are doing HD broadcasts, but then not spending money on their local opera house.
MIDGETTE: I used to blithely say that it was much the same as baseball when baseball went on the radio and then went on TV people said nobody will go to the ballpark anymore and in fact, people went to the ballpark in greater numbers — we now have more baseball teams and more playoffs. That unfortunately has not happened in opera based on my conversations with opera administrators. People are not necessarily flocking to their local theatres in quite the same way — the HD has not provided that kind of funnel.
HUIZENGA: Anthony, we've heard a lot about the pros and cons of the Met and other houses that are doing live HD broadcasts and I'm wondering what effect it has on you the singer? Do you feel when you're up there on stage, you sing or act any differently when you know that that high-tech camera is staring you right in the face?
ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO: Well this was my first season doing an HD broadcast and I have to say going into it I was very nervous, and I would watch the monitor backstage before I went on going, 'They don't look like they're swallowing or clearing their throat. What if I have to do that?' So, there was a certain anxiety but once you get out there into the auditorium there are 4,000 people sitting there and you know, I've been performing for 20 years now in musical theatre, Broadway, film and finally, opera. My instincts told me — just perform. As a singing actor I try to never be overly theatrical or too naturalistic so I think it meshes well with the HD format.
HUIZENGA: It's interesting that when you read the descriptions of the singers in the Opera News article, so many of them actually mention HD broadcasts, worrying about how to act properly in front of that camera. What are you hearing from your fellow singers?
COSTANZO: People do get preoccupied with it. All singers, if I can say this, we have this neurotic side which begets our quest for beauty and all sorts of things. But it does enter our psyche and I think that those who are most successful tend to push it away and do what they do. I see opera singers up close just like in HD broadcast everyday, you know, I'm working with them and I see them act from that close and most people are not acting in a wildly overdramatic way. Opera is a pretty cathartic art form. It sort of takes on these moments which only occur a few times in our lives — these very dramatic moments. That's what we're portraying, so people who are really successful don't change the way they perform for the camera.
TALENT IS AN ACCIDENT LIKE HAVING RED HAIR
HUIZENGA: There are a lot of singers listed in the magazine cover story. F. Paul, are you implying that we're in some kind of golden age flushed with a lot of great talent right now?
DRISCOLL: There's always a lot of great talent. But, talent is an accident like having red hair or being left-handed. Just because someone is talented does not mean that he or she is going to be a success. The ingredients are there for all of these men and women, and I hope that they have success going forward. It is great for us to be able to cover an industry that has so much talent in training. I worry sometimes that there's going to be so many talented singers and not enough jobs for them going forward because that is a narrowing field of employment.
MIDGETTE: I would point to something else in the Opera News issue that I think is a very heartening sign of the times. In 2005, I did an article about voice training and the difficulty of training large voices in an environment that encourages young singers to be put in small roles so they get practice on stage, which is not where you want a Wagner singer — in some comprimario role. But I noticed in the Opera News article, there are several singers with big voices, and I know that people did begin to realize that this was a problem and young artist programs began working to try to catch the big voices, which tend to mature later and not be as flexible and not be as easy to put in little bitty roles on stage, and it's nice to see there are some big voices — the Amber Wagners, the Angela Meades coming up, Latonia Moore. May that continue.
HUIZENGA: Angela Meade is another one of those singers spotlighted in the magazine. Anne what do you think about that voice?
MIDGETTE: It's an impressive voice. I happened to do an article about those 2007 [National Met Council] Auditions, which seems to have been one of those years, and I remember seeing on the program one of the singers was going to do "Casta Diva" and thinking "Oh yeah, right" — and really being blown away. She's got a lot of talent and a lot of ability and may she keep developing. F. Paul said talent is an accident and that's true but so much hard work is even necessary for the most talented person, and that's another intangible — how is that work going to play out? But, she's certainly a singer I will be watching and wanting to hear more of.
HUIZENGA: F. Paul, you chose her as one of the next wave of opera singers. What beside that voice led you to put her in the magazine of one of the faces of the future?
I refer to that moment as a "five pencil drop" because all of us were poised to write something and the pencils all dropped and we sat there and just listened.
MIDGETTE: You want more?!
DRISCOLL: Well, curiously my own interface with her is that I happened to be a judge in the Liederkranz Competition which was before the Met auditions, and there were five of us sitting at a table and she walked in and said, "My first selection is going to be 'Casta Diva.'" I refer to that moment as a "five pencil drop" because all of us were poised to write something and the pencils all dropped and we sat there and just listened. Part of what she has — in addition to the beautiful voice and the beautiful technique — is something about her I find incredibly centered. It's like I know that if she's flying my plane, it's not going to crash. I don't have to worry about whether she's going to make it to the end of a phrase. I don't worry about whether or not she's going to have enough stamina to make it to the end of the evening. She has a sense of self that reminds me of singers that I saw when I was first coming to the opera. I don't think she sounds like anybody else; she sounds like herself. But that self knowledge and the confidence is something that is a big blessing for audiences.
HUIZENGA: So Anne, are there any signers in this Opera News article that you were sort of surprised, pleasantly or maybe otherwise, to see on the list?
MIDGETTE: There were a couple I didn't know, but most of them were names I recognized and this is one of the results of having this sort of baseball-like farm team system of leading conservatories and apprentice programs that you start of get to know the next generation. A lot of effort has been put in America into finding ways to train the next generation and making opportunities for people after they leave the conservatory and that's a very good thing. Of course you become partial, you start to root, you recognize these names. All of us who were there in 2007 at those Met auditions remember those singers and so you're looking out for them and the people who do the hiring are looking out for them. You know it takes about 10 years to see who's really going to have the staying power and to see who drops away.
THE 'AGE' OLD QUESTION
There is a discrete instant, one moment, like when you break an orange peel and there is some spray of some fragrant zest that you can smell for a long time but that is totally ephemeral.
HUIZENGA: I'd like to read you all a recent comment on a blog post from the Operavore blog that is run by our good friends at WQXR. Someone commented:
"Lovers of classical music seem caught in a 'love me, love my music' trap. They fail to recognize that many people dislike their music and come up with superficial reasons to explain it. The fact is that without the over age 60 crowd, audiences would not exist today. What will happen in 20 years is obvious." Anthony, does that remark make you nervous about your chosen profession?
COSTANZO: It actually doesn't. Lots of opera singers spend time with other opera singers, and I have a very diverse group of friends — many of whom have never been to the opera. So, I have the great pleasure of often singing opera for them or taking them to the opera for the first time and that's very instructive to me and it's important for me to read their reactions and to understand what they like and what they don't like. Almost unanimously, what happens — and I feel like this is what I have tried to start and create as an opera singer — there is a discrete instant, one moment, like when you break an orange peel and there is some spray of some fragrant zest that you can smell for a long time but that is totally ephemeral. If you can have one instant like that, even if it's just for a second during an opera where someone is really moved, where someone gets goosebumps, where someone connects to it, then you've got them and then you're hooked.
HUIZENGA: Anne, what do you think about that comment — 20 years from now it's obvious, there won't be anyone left to watch opera?
MIDGETTE: There's been doom and gloom about the future of classical music for years. It would be foolish to deny that audiences are shrinking and the landscape is changing considerably. On the other hand, I don't think opera is going to die. There are a lot of people who are very invested in keeping it alive. We're going through a time of transition in a lot of areas as Phillip's piece points out and some parts of opera may not continue to exist in the form we're used to. Certainly I say it about newspapers and particularly about music criticism in newspapers, people bemoan the dwindling of it, and I say a lot of it really hasn't been very good and if it dwindles and we can replace it with a more vivid kind of writing about music that's to the good. I would say the same thing about opera — the best parts of it will prevail and find ways to prevail because this art has endured for a long time and many of us care about it enough to keep it alive.
It's essential to remember that opera in the 19th century was a popular art form, it was like going to the movies and opera no longer fits that slot in our society.
HUIZENGA: You know the era that we're living in, there's a generation of folks coming up who are used to curating their own content — on demand, mobile, whatever, and opera is something that you have to get up out of your seat and go to an opera house and sit down for three or four hours and listen.
MIDGETTE: It's even more basic than that. It's essential to remember that opera in the 19th century was a popular art form, it was like going to the movies and opera no longer fits that slot in our society. But we do opera no favors when we try to make it all be high art and rip away those populist roots, because part of the fun of opera is that it is a little bit vulgar sometimes and kind of down and dirty and a little trashy in places and then there are operas that are very high art. The really unfortunate thing about the idea of renewing opera into the 21st century is that most of the new operas that are written come from this very sort of high art place and don't lock into the popular culture as much in ways that would be healthier, that are very much a part of this tradition. The comparison has been made between opera and sports and it is, in a sense, a sports-loving crowd. You're there rooting; you're watching incredible athletic feats going on stage live in front of you. That's part of the appeal.
HUIZENGA: So, how do we build future audiences for opera then?
MIDGETTE: If we had the answer to that we'd all be off running opera companies, wouldn't we?
COSTANZO: As a performer I have really tried to diversify my influences and my inspirations, so I had an opportunity to see Mick Jagger up really close and see what he was doing as a performer or to see a cabaret performer like Justin Bond up close and see what they're doing, and to see the way they rally an audience and interact with an audience is really instructive. I'm not sure enough opera singers approach their interaction with an audience in that way and it's very possible to do that with opera. Another thing important to remember is that opera is the original interdisciplinary art form. In 1599, this group of Italian thinkers is sitting in Florence and saying 'Well, we've got this music thing and we've got this drama thing, and we should put them together and maybe add some dance and maybe add some fashion and add some art, some scenery we can put up in the back.' So, it continues to be completely interdisciplinary, but now we have a lot more art forms, including, namely technology. As those art forms proliferate and become much more diverse, if opera continues to include them and becomes completely a cross-pollination of all these things, it can move forward with momentum and with speed.
DRISCOLL: In terms of attracting new audiences — and this is my pet horse I guess — in terms of new operas, all of them that I see tend to follow the same 19th century linear narrative: beginning, middle, end, Act I, Act 2. And then you turn on television and you have something like Seinfeld that zips back and forth in time. Non-linear narrative is something that a really casual consumer of popular culture gets and understands, and I don't understand why opera can't take a little bit of that in.
COSTANZO: [Librettist] Jeremy Sams really achieved some of that nonlinear thought with The Enchanted Island. But also Handel was the king of that; he's so internal and psychological. There's a short burst of action but then a character is sort of stuck in their memory or in their past or in their obsessions and that's something we relate to in this very psychoanalyzed age.
DRISCOLL: Right. And the fact that they say the same thing more than once and then they decorate it the same way we would in a conversation if you have to restate something to make someone understand that much more.
COSTANZO: I often think of an aria that's in da capo form (meaning there's an A then a B then an A) as if you have a thought, and then your mother calls, which is the B section. And then you go back to that original thought and then you go, 'Oh no, she's right.'
THE MOVIES-TO-OPERA CONUNDRUM
HUIZENGA: Are there enough good operas being written today?
MIDGETTE: Well, you need a lot of operas being written to have good ones be written just like you need a lot of movies being made to have some good movies be made. As F. Paul was saying, we're stuck a little bit into this template of: 'Okay let's take a great book. Let's take a great movie. Let's put some pretty music on it and let's make it into an opera.' Also, we're struggling with the fact that the opera audience is almost by definition is not musically avant-garde in its leanings. The conventional subscriber/audience that loves La Boheme, wants beautiful melodies and beautiful tunes and trying to figure out how to create that has caused people to tie themselves in knots a little bit. I would love to see some more forward looking work and I think there are people trying to do it but it's not always the opera houses that are the places to stage that.
HUIZENGA: Thinking about some of the recent operas that are based on movies — you've got Silent Night, Dead Man Walking, The Fly, El Postino, The Letter and then those based on books, we've got Moby-Dick, Heart of a Soldier, Little Women, Amelia. So, is there room for new stories and librettos?
MIDGETTE: Absolutely, and this is of course a very America-centric discussion because if you go to Germany you get a lot of nonlinear, weird, experimental stuff. I just wish opera houses were open to it particularly because I think regional opera houses are going through a bit of a cyclical thing where they've built up an audience and that audience has actually gotten to know Rigoletto pretty darn well and maybe it doesn't want to see it yet again. By developing a more knowledgeable audience you've also developed an appetite for something new and they're not quite sure what that new thing is.
HUIZENGA: Name me a couple operas that have been written in the last 10-15 years that you think are really dynamite.
DRISCOLL: I did not see Unsuk Chin's Alice In Wonderland at the Opera Theatre in St. Louis, which was the American premiere, but I liked it very much in the production by Achim Freyer that I saw on video. I thought that was a very interesting way of telling that particular story in 21st century terms. I liked the [Salvatore] Sciarrino Macbeth which was another Achim Freyer production that was done in New York about eight years ago.
COSTANZO: This doesn't quite fall within the 10-15 years but Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, which I had the great fortune to participate in with the New York Philharmonic, is a true masterwork, and it really embodies a lot of what we're talking about. It embodies the ridiculous, the nonlinear, the very poignant and the sort of choppy nature of what we see in film editing and TV shows today. In this particular scenario the New York Philharmonic was very worried about not getting enough subscribers to buy tickets and selling enough tickets so they made YouTube videos of Alan Gilbert, their music director, playing Guitar Hero with Death. And we were completely sold out. Even the scalpers couldn't get tickets. People were hysterical, laughing, people were standing up in the middle of the show. It was a real rock concert atmosphere.
HUIZENGA: That's easy to sell out in New York, though.
COSTANZO: It is very easy to sell out in New York and it is very esoteric but it has a certain appeal. There are operas that have either a rock show or an independent film feel. A lot of what Jake Heggie is writing really touches people in various communities in different ways.
MIDGETTE: In the last couple of years, the thing I've seen that I liked the most was Moby-Dick and I hadn't been a big fan of Jake Heggie before but it was of its kind. It was extremely well done and that was partly because it was a great production and it was sort of well thought out. But, I would love to see more Le Grand Macabres going on.
A PRESCRIPTION FROM THE MINISTRY OF OPERA
HUIZENGA: I'd like you to imagine yourselves as the supreme overlords of the Ministry of Opera in America and I'd like you to each name two relatively doable things that you would make happen right now to ensure the success and vibrancy of opera.
DRISCOLL: Make it cheaper and make it shorter.
HUIZENGA: What do you mean by make it shorter? Writing shorter operas?
DRISCOLL: That's part of it, yes. I mean getting it more compressed, the newer operas especially.
MIDGETTE: I would love to see more emphasis put on the artistic side, purely in terms of the singing. I think that singers are often thrown into opera without the kind of careful preparation they used to get and without a real understanding of what kind of voices fit what kind of roles. Therefore, you're more likely to get unexciting performances of repertoire standards and the way to find the crackle in opera that made us all fall in love with it is to put a little more care into the musical side which is difficult to muster if you're operating under financial duress and the jet set age.
COSTANZO: I'm going to talk about it from a performer's point of view. The focus for us singers on really direct and exciting communication is what will take opera forward because that in my experience is what people respond to. I think that doing that in every possible context inside and outside the opera house is really important.
HUIZENGA: That's great. I'd like to thank my guests today F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and Anne Midgette, classical music critic of The Washington Post.
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