Opera confronts the survival question

5 minute read
So many companies, so few great voices


For three centuries opera has rewarded its listeners with unshakable moral guidance, libertarian political aspirations and psychiatric observations drawn from Greek insights and Renaissance thinking. Traffic flowed tumultuously toward the opera houses. Now, traffic no longer aims at the opera houses. Visualize Frankfurt’s Alte Oper: The classic building sits on a street island with traffic swirling around and past it. Besides, it’s no longer an opera house.

Opera itself is undergoing psychoanalysis, depressed by an apparently shrinking financial base and a graying audience, many of whom are on antidepressants, and who now depend on expressionless therapists for the insights they used to derive— with a lot more pleasure— from opera.

This self-doubt is new. While symphony orchestras suffered panic attacks in the ’90s about their aging audiences, their loss of social cachet and the indifference of young professionals, opera gained audiences and found success even in smaller cities. Opera is visual, and in those sunny afternoons of the ’90s opera companies could congratulate themselves on offering an old respected art form that appealed to new generations weaned on the visual gratifications of TV and computer images.

But in our brave new century, social mores shift faster than figures on the TV screen. Young professionals no longer cherish opera— or classical music: These are only a part of the smorgasbord of "entertainments" available on any night. Three hours of music test the endurance of watcher-listeners molded by TV's 30-minute format. Besides, there's the problem of finding a babysitter. A year's subscription? We may be transferred to Houston before spring. Let’s buy the tickets at the box office instead.

Many potential listeners look toward opera as part of their future retirement package, something to fill the void of the empty nest. In that respect, they may possess an insight worthy of a Hans Sachs, Wagner's sage who sees the old fading and the new emerging, or a Wotan. Then again, the graying audience of World War II baby boomers may simply be demonstrating maturity. After growing up with rock, then losing the thread of succeeding pop trends, these listeners often arrive today at the door of the opera house, enticed by forceful melody, powerful words and newly discovered empathy. Sachs bows to the ascendancy of the new music; Wotan sees the old order fall; Don Pasquale embodies the foolishness of May-December marriages; Philip II bows under the weight of responsibilities unrelieved by love. Baby boomers find themselves looking at themselves, wearing other costumes but sharing emotions with the characters onstage. How did Mozart know so much about our 21st-century? In a world where 50 % of couples divorce, isn’t Beethoven's view of heroic love bracing? Janacek’s Katya Kabanova may be as restless as I am, but could I murder my husband? Isn’t that Olaf Palme in Un ballo in maschera? Oh, no, it's a Swedish king, but his assassination is just as real. And Verdi’s poor enslaved ancient Hebrews, sending their thoughts homeward in Nabucco— will their descendants ever find liberation and a secure homeland, even today?

Opera will surely survive, but will it flourish through another century? Its producers act as though it will, despite the short supply of great voices to fill so many houses and the worry about where the next generation of operas will come from. Existing opera audiences, oblivious to all those demographic alarm bells, continue to return to their familiar haunts and old favorites. And opera’s emerging singers— like those at Curtis Opera Theater and the Academy of Vocal Arts— lack the time to ask the question: They’re too busy rehearsing, learning, glowing with the anticipation of being part of this great continuum.

"We’re on the downside of the explosion in interest that occurred five years ago," says AVAís director, Kevin McDowell. "Numbers are down, the market is down, yet our endowment has grown by a multiple of six . And there is enough work and potential opportunity for our singers."

McDowell says he chooses repertoire not to cater to audience tastes but by gauging "whatís in it for our singers. We did Wagner for the first timeó with two pianosó and that project involved the whole school. We have the biggest success where we have the greatest risk. Remember, we did Elektra two years ago"

The survival question hangs in the air in the offices of The Opera Company of Philadelphia. Bursting with the sort of bravado most recently demonstrated by George W. Bush on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, the company boldly added performances and numbers of productions in the ’90s. At its quantitative peak, the OCP offered seven performances each of five operas. But this season chief Robert Driver has four operas, each performed six times.

Still, those numbers show the audience is there to be lured. But by which operas? Driver has to guess carefully, finding popular favorites as well as works to attract even the most serious listener. He has to find new works, too. This year he is doing Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner (Feb.10-26). In numbers, that means a quarter of the season will be given to a new opera. No coincidence, says Driver: "The opera sold out in Detroit and Cincinnati. It’s a sign that we’re seeing something great going on in opera. There’s a global change going on. In Santa Fe last summer, they did a new piece that sold out. I just gave my board a heads-up about two new pieces I want to do. I also told them that if I had come to them a few years ago to say I wanted to do two new operas, each costing $2 million, they would have had me committed."

"It’s up to us to find the audience—and we have to prepare them," Driver insists." We know they’re out there."

The 20th Century amassed a substantial repertoire, despite all those critics’ fears that the great composers (not to mention the great slavish audiences) were gone. Tastes have always changed right under operaís feet, but opera has adapted quickly, even led the way. No idea yet who the 21st Century’s great composers will be, but who saw Janacek coming? Shostakovich? Berg? Zimmermann? Hindemith? Opera can express an age— but only as soon as the age, itself, knows what it is.

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