“[Elektra] will blow [teenagers’] minds! Think of the anger expressed in this piece. It’s about rage, matricide, disempowerment between generations. It’s also about revolution and not accepting the status quo. Very, very few people in the audience will find nothing to relate to in experiencing this opera.” – Sir David McVicar, director of Lyric Opera’s recent production of Elektra, on the accessibility of the opera
“I thought opera was for old farts, bourgeoisie and people in dinner jackets. Opera’s for anyone who’s willing to submit. Stick your nose in and find out what’s going on.” – Terry Gilliam
The answer to the titular question is, of course, no. There are some people – possibly even a large faction of people – who will either never be able to experience an opera or abhor the experience regardless. What this is really asking, though, is whether opera has a wider (and, more importantly, younger) audience than it currently has. To this end, I think the response is resoundingly affirmative, and as these given quotes portend, I’m hardly alone on that.
Two recent events have led me to ponder this dilemma. My wife and I recently attended Lyric’s production of Strauss’ Elektra. As someone who respects opera more than I like it, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the performance. There were certainly some things with which I took issue, but the combination of Strauss’ emotive score and the powerful lead performances proved to be a lethal combination. One thing that shocked me, though, was the aforementioned quote from the director that I found in the program. While I may have otherwise thought that the general public would find it difficult to relate to many aspects of the opera, McVicar insisted on the contrary.
The other instance was an article brought to my attention on the English National Opera (ENO), which has recently launched a campaign called “Undress for the Opera.” The goal of Undress is to provide accessibility to the genre and to appeal to a younger, wider audience, and it is achieving these by offering reduced ticket prices and a more relaxed atmosphere. Furthermore, ENO is collaborating with some pretty big names from other media in order to generate interest. Damon Albarn, whose Doctor Dee helped to inspire the campaign (and who was also the subject of my first blog entry [synergy!]), and Terry Gilliam, a Monty Python alum and distinguished director of both film (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and opera (Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust), were both on hand to help launch Undress.
Not only is this a unique promotional idea, it is also a relatively bold acknowledgement from a major opera company that perhaps opera is struggling to exist as a living, evolving organism in our post-modern society. In honor of National Opera Week, and in light of the ENO’s recent efforts as well as my own recent experience at the opera, I’d like to address some of the major complaints leveled against opera and how the genre can respond and adapt to each.
Opera is outdated.
Actually, this concern applies to pretty much every type of concert music in existence today, and that’s likely not changing any time soon. The arts market in general is traditionally driven by nostalgia, and the people who have the greatest control over the mass consumption of art are historically resistant to change.
According to Operabase, of the nearly 1200 different composers and 2600 different works to receive performance runs from about 700 opera companies around the world, only three composers received more than 2000 productions: Verdi (3020), Mozart (2410), and Puccini (2294). Two more (Wagner, 1292; and Rossini, 1045) had at least 1000. The most popular living composer, Britten, was only the 13th most frequently performed composer, having received 359 productions. This lends credibility to the assertion that opera companies continue to go with what is comfortable. Perhaps being a composer makes me biased in this regard, but this current balance between new and old works is far too extreme.
There are two major and equally viable ways to address this. Obviously, opera companies can produce newer operas from a wider range of composers. This is made inherently challenging by the fact that a name like Mozart is going to draw a much bigger audience than a composer unfamiliar to the general public. However, as the success of Doctor Dee has proven, the market that comes with something new and exciting can be much larger than originally anticipated, but it is at the very least a market that went untapped before. Commissioning a new work, as Lyric has recently done, can also generate buzz regardless of the composer, as audiences genuinely enjoy getting to be the first to experience something. In a way, it is like they become a part of the piece itself.
The other way – and what seems to be the more common approach – is to solicit new interpretations of beloved classics. Gilliam’s version of Damnation of Faust serves as a good example of this. Berlioz’ opera is nearly 200 years old and has been produced many times over, but critical consensus suggests that Gilliam’s unique perspective brought vigorous life to the piece. There are countless other examples of old staples being revived in fascinating new ways. However, this is a great example of an opera company taking a leap of faith on an outsider to the genre, which can be a fruitful means of maintaining continued growth for opera. Ultimately, companies should maintain a balance between presenting new pieces and fresh perspectives, much like ENO has done with Albarn and Gilliam.
Opera is too overwhelming.
Of all the issues people take with opera, this is the one I feel the genre should feel least obligated to address. Taking in an opera in its entirety can be a gargantuan task, but it is really not much different from some of the other entertainment experiences people undertake. If someone can sit through nearly three hours of a Transformers movie, they are perfectly capable of sitting through a three-hour production of The Magic Flute.
Although some operas have much denser material than others, I believe most people would not be averse to experiencing most operas. Generally speaking, the desire for spectacle is a major driving force in entertainment value. Say what you will about opera, but there is no denying that its myriad ingredients combine into a massive spectacle. From the ornate set designs, to the virtuoso vocal performances, to the full orchestra (which can’t even be seen!), opera is a sensory overload that rivals, at least in an abstract sense, the biggest blockbuster movies.
Moreover, people have tremendous respect for the magnum opus in art. Examples of this cover an expansively broad spectrum, from Michelangelo’s fresco at the Sistine Chapel to the surprisingly warm critical embrace of Green Day’s out-of-left-field rock opera, American Idiot. Whenever people know that an artist is taking a bold creative leap and crafting a work that will define them, they tend to form an even greater appreciation for it than they may have otherwise had. It would be difficult to imagine an opera that did not fill these criteria. Largely because of this, most people may not enjoy listening to excerpts from an opera and appreciating the music for its own sake, but they would almost certainly be in awe of the full live experience.
Opera is inaccessible.
This is very much related to the previous area, but while the overwhelming nature of opera is global, its inaccessibility is more local. Specifically, there are verbal and musical language barriers that many find to be insurmountable. Most of the widely performed operas are not in English, which presents an obvious obstacle for American audiences. Opera companies have adopted real-time superscripts (like watching a foreign film with subtitles), but the biggest issue with these is that it is impossible to simultaneously follow the dialogue and absorb all the visual accoutrements offered on stage.
One of ENO’s most emphatic selling points in their Undress campaign is that every production will be sung in English. This is a relatively bold step for a major opera company to make. As an outsider to the opera community, I cannot speak with great authority on the significance of maintaining the original language, but I can at least empathize with opera purists’ insistence on preserving this. However, sacrificing some of the original piece’s integrity (if, in fact, it does this) may well be worth it at the expense of appealing to a wider audience.
As for the inaccessible nature of the music in opera, a lot of this depends on the piece itself. Some of the more popular opera composers (notably, Mozart and Rossini) have music that is very accessible, in that it is clearly tonal and organized in a concise way that is relatively easy to follow. However, even some of the denser operas (particularly those from the past 150 years) can be accessible with the proper perspective. Take Elektra, for example. If an untrained ear were to focus solely on the music of this opera, it would be easy to become disoriented. If, on the other hand, this person heeds McVicar’s advice and latches onto the more abstract yet relatable emotive qualities found in both the story and the music, the complexity of the music becomes a non-issue. As in other realms of modern art, a lack of understanding of technique and semantics of the craft can be quelled by focusing not on what the art means but what it means to you.
Opera is elitist.
This may be the area the opera community is least willing to address (at least in some factions of it), yet it is also the most crucial in regard to its continued success. Opera is very much a status symbol, which is simultaneously empowering to those who are already within this circle and extremely disengaging to those who are not. The elitism of opera is at least partially inherent in nature – because of the various costs associated with putting on an opera production, it will never be a cheap experience. This will automatically exclude those who do not have these sorts of discretionary funds, but it will also turn away newcomers who are not fully committed to getting such an experience.
ENO’s Undress campaign addresses this in a couple ways. For starters, not only are they offering cheap seats for select performances, they are also including perks with these reduced-price tickets. Newcomers who participate in this initiative will get premium-quality seats as well as pre- and post-show supplemental activities. They are also emphasizing a “come as you are” strategy, in that dressing up is notable non-issue. Once again, this may or may not speak directly to the integrity of the genre, but it is certainly showing that they are actively seeking to broaden their audience.
The collaboration with figures from popular areas of art such as Albarn and Gilliam also serves to counteract the elitist stereotype of opera. Not only are these figures ones that the general public are more likely to recognize, they also bring with them their own artistic perspectives that are undoubtedly unique from those already within the opera community. Just because opera companies like ENO are starting to actively cater to larger and more diverse interests does not mean that opera will no longer be a privilege; it will now just be a privilege that can be shared by more people.
In order to have continued growth and success, opera does not need to be revolutionized, nor does it need to be imploded and rebuilt. Opera fans should cherish their rich history, but they should also openly embrace new directions and the challenges that come with fresh perspectives. Opera may not be for everyone, but if opera companies refuse to operate under the mindset that it can be, then their lifespan can only match those of their most ardent followers.
While I have singled out ENO’s recent campaign as an example of a major opera company making an attempt to bridge the gap towards a new audience, they are hardly the only major company to do so. The San Francisco Opera, for instance, has taken similar steps to reach out and broaden their base. If you have others, please feel free to share them below!
Article also posted on Metronome Online