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“That was not what I was expecting”: To Get to Opera We Must First Get Past Ourselves

by Andrew Swensen

Opera is a fascinating case study in aesthetics. Among art forms, only opera and film encompass so many separate arts and require such a breadth of talents for a production. Opera has a multi-discipline, multi-genre arts festival in every presentation: instrumental music (artists both to compose and to perform), narrative writing, poetry, acting, dance, visual art (in the form of set design), fashion, and of course singing – and in our day has even incorporated digital media. One would think that it has broad appeal because it has so many “entry points,” as the marketing folks say, natural hooks for appealing to diverse audiences. However, opera faces many challenges despite its magical possibilities as the crucible where so many arts meld.

Edgar Degas, Orchestra of the Opera (public domain)

Edgar Degas, Orchestra of the Opera (public domain)

Among those challenges, and certainly not the least of them, are cultural expectations. Call it opera’s baggage and blame who you like – Looney Tunes perhaps, or Richard Wagner more likely – but the reality is that opera faces the barrier of us. Many people seem to shy away from it, perhaps because they expect it to be overwrought and to last longer than a modern American attention span, apparently capped at two hours and shrinking. Yes, opera faces a presumption that it consists of a woman bellowing for too long while wearing armor and a helmet over her blond braids (her name is Brunhilde, in case you have wondered). Or some fear that it requires advanced knowledge in order to appreciate it – and knowledge requires “work.” The great irony of course is that more know the cliché than the reality.

If only they would try.

So often people make up their minds about something based on a fallacious prejudice, and I sincerely believe that many art forms would burgeon if only more people would give them a try. Russian literature certainly has this problem, where everyone assumes that it is going to be an exhausting exercise in patience simply because they see how thick War and Peace is – and then are surprised when they have a hard time putting it down. War and Peace is, by the way, one third the length of the Harry Potter series, and many have read all seven of those as one continuous saga without objection.

Opera might well stand at the top of the list of art forms deserving your good-faith effort to dispel preconceptions. You might find yourself having what is perhaps the most frequent response of first-timers: “That was not what I was expecting.”

The multi-faceted nature of opera led to the creation of at least one cliché and one expectation. Wagner saw opera as the place where art could be perfected because of how it encompassed all the performing arts, and so it offered the opportunity for creating the “complete art work,” the Gesamtkunstwerk. His quest to create the complete art work led to the mammoth Ring Cycle, a series of four operas that take 15 hours to perform, and give us the Brunhilde who has become the opera cliché. Yet even if the Ring Cycle tests the patience, it does not preclude the myriad possibilities of opera. Opera is many things, and ironically it seems that we have now reached a place where most likely don’t even know the historical origins of their bias.

The second apparent bias lies in the notion that opera is somehow removed, somehow inaccessible to a broad audience. This idea seems to be a case of us selling ourselves short. When so many operas were written, they were composed to be broadly accessible – every bit as much as another art form that has utterly massive appeal in our time: musical theater. Musical theater differs from opera in some ways, which we will explore in a subsequent article in this series, but both share a core aesthetic sensibility of a narrative performed through music, acting and song. That is, they are different art forms but not because one is more intellectually removed, and for proof we need look no further than Rent, which is an adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème. Indeed the composer and music critic Kurt Weill wrote in 1937 that America’s rich theater culture and its love for musical theater would make it a natural place for cultivating the future of opera.

I have been reflecting a good deal on several longstanding art forms that currently face a critical point in their histories. In some cases, the history is part of the problem because it builds preconceptions for subsequent generations. Opera needs to be part of this consideration, and as many have noted, it faces an uncertain future (click here for one NPR discussion on the subject). My own reflections brought me to an authority on the subject for perspective, Christopher Hahn, the General Director of the Pittsburgh Opera. Hahn is such an engaging and thoughtful personality that what I thought would be one article has in fact become the series of which this is the first installment – and hopefully a community conversation.

A scene from the Pittsburgh Opera production of La Cenenterola (Photo: Pittsburgh Opera)

A scene from the Pittsburgh Opera production of La Cenerentola (Photo: Pittsburgh Opera)

Hahn goes right into the teeth of the perception that opera is “rarefied, elitist, and boring.” Singing in a foreign language might on the surface seem like an intellectual barrier, but then you have to start to wonder if we Americans really think that the French, Germans and Italians never tell jokes and laugh. Perhaps they do and even set their comedy to music. At a recent performance of Rossini’s La Cenerentola the laughter came fast and frequent, and was set to wonderful music all the while. Perhaps operas also have more serious stories to tell, but entirely accessible ones set to exceptional music and performed by great singers and actors. Hahn puts it well, saying, “Opera does not require a highly educated audience. People react viscerally. I reject this notion that it is a class thing. People come in their Steelers garb, and they are as enthralled by [Madame] Butterfly as by a Rossini comedy.” People react viscerally. Yes.

The inherent aesthetics of opera make it among the likeliest of arts to evolve and grow organically in history. Hahn says, “I think that human beings are hard wired to want to hear the human voice in telling stories,” and he continues, “The ways we deliver that are going to change.” As it uses the living voice to tell its stories, opera taps into humor and grave emotion, beautiful lyricism and dissonance, quiet intimacy and grand spectacle. Its possibilities frankly exceed what most other forms can do because it has all the possibilities of all forms, and can evolve with styles and technologies.

It is high time to dispossess ourselves of preconceptions that have become barriers. Then we can talk about the future of opera — the evolving story of those composing it and the structural challenges of the organizations presenting it — the subject of the next installment in this series.

Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“The Future of Opera, A Conversation with Christopher Hahn” (the second installment of this series) by Andrew Swensen

“A Question of Arts Survival” by Andrew Swensen

“Aesthetic Darwinism” by Andrew Swensen

“Classical Musician’s Paradigm Shift” by Annie Gordon

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Richard St. John #

    Andrew,
    This is timely for me, since (while I’ve attended opera multiple times) it’s not my genre of choice (or comfort).But a friend is encouraging me to take the leap again when he travels to Pittsburgh to watch…yes…an opera.

    Separately, I like your observation that people are afraid to tackle War and Peace, even though the Harry Potter series is even longer. Good point! — Rick

    2013

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