"Opera"

by Barry Drogin

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I recently had a small exchange with "The New Music Connoisseur," the only publication I am aware of reviewing new music performances in the New York City area ("Ear" and "Modern Music" now long gone). The Publisher/Editor-in-Chief opened a review with the sentence: "When we think about it, chamber opera is a sort of oxymoron --- a forced diminution of what should be a grandiose theatrical event, i.e., something larger than life."

It was probably the "should be" that set me off ("is often" would have been more politic), but the kind editorial reply got me thinking about this word, "opera," and the trouble it is giving many of us. My Webster's only begs the issue:

"op-era [It. work, opera, fr. L, work, pains; akin to L oper-, opus](1644) 1: a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes; specif: GRAND OPERA"

It is that final equation of the word "opera" with the form "Grand Opera" that is giving those of us in the NewOp field such heartache. I was in a magazine shop recently browsing through the likes of "Opera Quarterly," "Opera News" and others of that ilk, all of which have no connection to the work I am doing.

I realized: this is like the situation that arose in the dance world. Now there is "ballet" and there is "modern dance." "Ballet" uses dancers trained to dance en pointe, has a rich repertoire to preserve and the occasional new piece by choreographers interested in the genre. "Modern dance" is a rich, diverse form using different movement techniques, different trained dancers, their own performance spaces and so on. Sometimes a ballet company asks a modern dance choreographer to write a ballet for them, and certainly the choreographers are cognizant of the tradition, but this healthy coexistence has done all right.

I am ready to give up the label "opera" if I can find a good term to use. I started in musical theatre, and when I left it was to write what I called "A Jewish Opera," a sub-title I considered somewhat arch (I don't know what others consider it). My next piece was a "scena," which only begs the question. I was going to call the piece I am working on now an "opera," but now I'm thinking otherwise.

Obviously, some of the members of this list may be writing "operas," and I have no objections to them doing so. Some others may think that we should just write what we want, and that labels and categories are meaningless, but this ignores the importance of marketing and audience expectation to what can become a vital form. We've already been doing this for quite some time, so coming up with a word for it isn't going to change what we're doing. If we don't come up with a term, someone else may impose one on us.

We've been trying. "Music Theatre" is too close to "Musical Theatre" to be easily recognized as a different thing to the average layman (it's used in the Oxford to describe "quasi-operatic" work after 1950, which also recommends that "the term is better avoided"). "Small-Scale Opera" has already expanded to "Small and Middle Scale Opera" for those companies uncomfortable with the implications. "Contemporary Opera" and "New Opera" are being used by this list and our meeting, respectively, and "New Music" has certainly established a base for itself, but it would be better if we could come up with a word or words that don't need "opera" at all. Similar arguments apply to "operetta" and "chamber opera."

What's interesting is that the word "opera" itself doesn't really contain anything in it to imply music, orchestra or Wagnerian sopranos. That Wagner himself hated the word "opera" (he preferred "Music Drama") is irrelevant, as his work largely defines the form. This either implies that we can pick something equally vague, or that appropriate choices are wide open to our use.

I'd prefer something that had something to do with "voice" or "sing," and "theater" or "stage" would be good, but I don't know my Latin. A German "MusikTheater" may be as subtle as "Amerika" and "singspiel" is already used for 18th century musical comedy, but maybe "sangspiel," "songspiel" or "Musikspiel" are available ("spiel" means "play"). I really don't care what language it sources from, or even if it's linguistic nonsense, as long as it sounds good, and enough of us agree to sub-title our works and re-name our companies, listservs and meetings to make it effective.

I don't intend to fly off onto philosophical considerations of the history of art. It's really a very practical shop-talk kind of question: what to put on the title page, what to reproduce on the program, what to put on the press release and in the advertising. It's clear to me that modern dance companies can put out brochures and use lots of words --- choreography, music, movement, dance, drama, etc. --- and never have to use the word "ballet." I am seeking a similar thing (especially since "opera" in any form, including modifying it with lead adjectives, may mislead any and all possibly interested audiences). Sure, we can use words like "theatre, music, drama, voice, singing, etc." and avoid "opera," but there's still that question: What is it? I am looking for a chance to invent a label ourselves (like "Bang On A Can" did but "minimalism" didn't) rather than be labeled by some wag in "Opera News" who condescends to cover our beat. The word "opera" itself is kind of meaningless ("work, pain"). It's kind of like a contest: name the form, and earn your place in history forever for having coined it first.

If the result is to merely shore up "music theatre," that's great, but then there are those who will claim "music theatre" is a superset or subset of "opera," which just destroys the whole enterprise. For my own music, I've tried on "The New York School of Opera" for size, as well as "Singers Theater," but can one refer to a "singers theater company" and "a piece of singers theater"? Maybe?

Eric Salzman is right that those who wished to stay out of opera ended up being absorbed back in when the form died. If we call our form "whoozit," soon there will be "whoozit houses" and "whoozit performances" and "whoozit performers" and these may end up in smaller alternative spaces funded by "opera companies" that, when the "opera houses" end up taken over by touring Broadway shows, become "whoozit companies" instead. That'll be in about 50 to 100 years, when all the government funding dries up and the endowments are devastated by a few too many recession/depressions. Death to opera!

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007