Saving Opera

by Barry Drogin

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Charles Wuorinen wrote a few years back that if you talked to your typical educated person, he/she could name contemporary painters, contemporary choreographers, contemporary film directors, contemporary theater directors and playwrights, but when asked about music, they'd name some pop or rock group! Contemporary classical music and its adjunct opera have, somehow, lost their connection with the intelligentsia, and I don't mean to propose any explanation or reason, or to imply one --- it's just a current fact. I think there is plenty of sophisticated, difficult work in the other arts, so there is nothing implicit about the difficulty or "listenable"-ness of the music that can be the explanation. "Angels in America" was a must-see, despite its length and innovation.

Broadway and movie musical choreography, tap dancing, ballroom dancing, etc., etc. are all more popular and easier to experience than modern dance, but the intelligentsia is still aware of Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp, etc., etc. The "blame modern music because it's not tonal" argument displays a complete unawareness of what modernism of the twentieth century has been in all of the other arts: difficult, in your face, non-representational, ugly (and beautiful), the gamut. Just because popular versions coexisted does not explain music's loss.

Some blame education, and this is true in upper education, given current funding priorities, but what of religious institutions, and home entertainment centers, and radio and MTV? And are we trained in appreciation of poetry, and dance, and film, etc.?

Narrowing the discussion from classical music to just opera, the situation gets worse. What "the public" thinks is "opera" is expensive tickets for rich contributors watching a dead, elite, art form. That's the only reason that Nowheresville, USA, opens an opera house --- to prove to Nextdoorsville, USA, that there are enough rich people in the town to support their own, private club/philanthropy. It should be no surprise, whatsoever, that all of the works in a list of important twentieth century operas (created by Eric Salzman) originated outside of opera houses.

Painting has had a similar good/bad relationship with the rich, and has tried, within the art itself, to address the problem head-on. Opera has that painter/musician duet in "The Cradle Will Rock," but not much else I can cite off the top of my head.

Part of me looks at the twentieth century and at the emergence of Puccini, Berg, Weill, Britten, Menotti and Glass, and thinks: not bad. The other side of me checks a note in the Oxford Dictionary of Music about how Verdi's 27 or so operas were "each eagerly sought by impresarios" after his third met with some success.

Whether the average Joe on the street, who used to hum airs from Mozart, Verdi and G&S operas within weeks of their unveiling, will once again look to opera for his pleasure, will take some time. This is what opera was, which had nothing to do with financial success, but with basic appeal and relevance. That people are more interested in what's happening at Cannes or Sundance than with the Glass Cocteau trilogy is not because of mass taste or stupidity --- many people are very intelligent, sophisticated, and open to greatness.

The fact that opera, like all classical music, was imported from Europe into North America has obviously been a detriment to its status relative to other arts here. The homegrown arts, like the Broadway musical, Hollywood film, jazz and such, have thrived culturally and been exported, too.

The suggestion to create videos and CD's INSTEAD of live performance is a prerogative, but that's creating a new art form and trashing the old. As artists, we will split amongst those developing work in new technologies (recording, electronic, new media) and those with anti-media tendencies. My position, as an a cappella composer, has been clear on this, but I don't deny others their goals. The economic issues aren't clear-cut, as the technologists get the corporate support, so the $150,000 production is more possible than the $15,000 production! Go figure!

I do not disagree with the desire to create a new art form, but I do resent any implication that this art form is "better" or "worse", or a replacement for the old art form. If anything, we are saturated with "mediated" art forms (film, video, recordings, internet, etc.). Those of us merely trying to put a singer in front of an audience are where radical meets reactionary.

It's my aesthetic choice, not my financial choice. I think, at least, we'll have the singers on our side. A major problem is in linking up talented singers with talented composers, which is where the art form is born, and so I am encouraged by singer participants on the listserv seeking career advice and expressing interest in new music.

Another problem is how regional opera has become. Performing groups in England are performing works by local British composers. The same is true in Germany and in Canada and in the US. It must be ironic that, in this era of communication, we have all become so de facto provincial.

We must change from a smattering of localities with local funding rules into a more international group. I don't mean we have to form an international style; after all, Italian opera, English opera and German opera styles coexisted and were even composed by the same composer. But we must excite our audiences by providing the best we can find from all over the world, not just the experiments of a local creator. This is done through active program exchange, touring opportunities and information exchange. Exposing the local creators to this diversification will help them write better, not hurt them.

To blame the art itself, the previous generation, for music's state is convenient but unimportant. Understanding "why" is also irrelevant. What's important is how much of yourself (and I include singers, directors, conductors, set designers, everyone) you pour into the work, how good it is, and whether it connects. You must love opera, all of it and all of its history, and then have something to contribute yourself. If the quality is good enough, it will work. The problem is in going through the motions for the wrong reasons (it's what we can get funded, it's what the board of directors wants, it's what we can afford, it's what we think the public wants, it's what the government will recognize, etc.). Don't think "Is the subject relevant?" Think "How can I get the best singers in the world to sing the best music in the world in an opera about the most important subject in the world presented in the most exciting forum?" And if you don't use the word "opera", they will come.

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A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007