Re: 5 Reasons Why Traditional Opera Kind of Sucks

About a week ago (maybe longer?  I’m only just recovering my sense of time after the madness of July/August), a commenter by the name of Antonio pointed me towards Re:Classical’s “5 Reasons Why Traditional Opera Kind of Sucks” post.  The “About” section of my blog is getting rather ungainly, so I’m trying to start shifting discussions from the About section into blog posts.

Without further ado, here is my response…

Re:Classical’s post was written as a response to Zachary Woolfe’s NYTimes piece, “Uncertainty of Operatic Proportions”.  I wouldn’t say I’m overly familiar with Woolfe – I’ve read maybe 4 or 5 of his pieces, but I do find him to be a little too “doom and gloom” regarding the future of opera.  Maybe he’s just a little young (says the 27-year-old)?  A little newer to opera culture?  I don’t know.  Opera has been on the verge of collapse throughout it inception.  And in general there seems to be an obsession with declaring things to be dead in our culture – literature is dead, print media is dead, film is dead, theatre is dead, opera is dead.  The king is dead, long live the king.  Maybe it moves more merchandise.

Re:Classical’s opening sentence “There’s been some hand-wringing in the classical community lately about the massive budget cuts descending upon U.S. opera companies as a result of the recession” expresses a similar innocence.  This is not recent.  Did you miss the whole City Opera crisis?  The dissolution of the the Baltimore Opera?   The postponement of the American Ring Cycle in Washington DC?  The ’08-’09 Opera Pacific cancellations?  I think opera is actually doing better, recently.  We’re doing better than the symphonies, and at least opera crises are getting coverage.  But okay.  I may think your premise is deeply flawed, perhaps a little ignorant, but I’ll bite.  Let’s move on to the 5 reasons.

#1: No Good Actors
Yes and no.  Yes, acting is a problem.  The problem of acting in opera is one of my passions in life; however, Re:Classical’s assessment is simplistic, to say the least.  Singers do understand dramatic beats, they certainly understand subtext (I’m pretty sure anyone who has been through high school English understands subtext), and they are champions of portraying operatic characters as “real” individuals.  “Park and bark” performances do happen, but I find that one of the biggest problems in opera today is over-blocking scenes and lack of focus.  There’s nothing wrong with standing still for an aria.  A Shakespearian monologue delivered while standing still can be very powerful; why should it be any different for arias?  It’s not the standing still or the blocking that’s the problem, the problem is the lack of dramatic focus.  I absolutely believe that we need to reevaluate how we teach opera students acting.  All opera students are taught acting, they know the process an the mechanics; and if you handed opera singers a script and asked them to do a cold reading, I think most of them would do quite well.  The problem is much more subtle and has to do with the working environments of music performance vs. theatre.

My discussion of opera vs. theatre is very long and at the bottom of the post, if you wish to read it.

#2 No Good Directors
Well this is just wrong.  There are lots of good opera directors and lots of good directors in opera.  It’s interesting that they’ve put Robert Wilson’s Butterfly as an example of “bad directing”.  I’m not a huge fan of Wilson’s choreography-style opera directing, but I’ve never found it offensive, and it’s hardy representative of opera directing in general.  Nobody else does what Robert Wilson does.  Re:Classical’s definition of “traditional” opera gets a little confusing here as well.  Are you talking about the repertoire or a style of production?  I’m not sure.  I’ll just take a moment to list some of the “good” directors working in opera today (in no particular order): Peter Konwitschny,  Frank Castorf (or he will be…), David McVicar, Jonathan Miller, Werner Herzog, Calixto Bieito, Nick Hytner, David Alden, Francesca Zambello, Stefan Herheim, Patrice Chereau, Hans Neuenfels, Graham Vick, Willy Decker…  That’s 14 there, not even counting people like Julie Taymor, Robert LePage, Bartlett Sher, and Peter Sellars.  Or the many film directors who’ve recently taken a crack at opera like Anthony Minghella, Terry Gilliam, Woody Allen, David Cronenberg, or William Friedkin.  (Disclaimer: I don’t personally like all of these directors, but I wouldn’t call them bad directors… At the very least, these are all people who have made very successful careers as directors.  I would even go so far as to say that they have all made some kind of noteworthy, positive contribution to either opera, theatre, or film.)

“No Good Directors” is definitely not the problem.  Alternatively, who do you think should be directing opera?

#3 Shitty Source Material
Here we are again, the old “opera’s are all a bit crap” argument.  Well… That’s not really true either.  Opera has great stories.  Many of them could use some editing (and I am all for  strategic cuts in opera – Konwitschny’s Traviata being a great example), but they’re wonderful, dramatic stories.  The examples of opera’s “shitty source material” come from Boheme and Rigoletto.  I hate to be put in a position to defend Boheme (probably the most overplayed opera in the rep), but the first act scene where everyone manipulates Benoit hardly defines the opera, nor is it even the sole source of humor in Boheme.  Tom Bombadil is in The Fellowship of the Ring, but I wouldn’t call it a shitty book.

As for Rigoletto, part of the reason that opera is so tragic is that Gilda is so irretrievably in love with the Duke.  Whether or not she was raped is up to the production and that’s something that has to be dealt with dramatically.  If you get a good Gilda and a good Duke (which is hard to do), Gilda’s situation becomes much more sympathetic.  Rigoletto is a series of unfortunate events, but I wouldn’t call it shitty source material (and it is Victor Hugo…).

#4 Who knew theatre could be so hetero
Huh?  Have you been to the opera?  The gay audience is huge.  And when I worked at one of the big opera companies a lot of the admin, at least 40% of the chorus, most of the directors, most of the supers, and all of the countertenors were gay.  I do think it’s funny that Benjamin Britten is “newer stuff”, that aside, Britten is a staple of modern repertoire – I think it’s unfair to marginalize his works like that.

Yes, most of the repertoire was written when homosexuality was neither part of public discourse nor acceptable in artistic works.  Shall we ask Mozart to revise Marriage of Figaro for us?  I’m pretty sure there are homoerotic productions of Don G (and surely someone’s done a Cosi that ends in two sad sisters and a pair of homosexual dudes).  What about the Prince in Die Fledermaus?  McVicar’s Herod in Salome is at least bi.  I guess Lulu doesn’t count because it’s a “new” work.  To argue that a homosexual audience can’t relate to stories based on heterosexual relationships (and/or hetero-normative characters) is to suggest that opposite also applies – that heterosexual people can’t relate to homosexual stories – and that is really not a helpful attitude.

#5 Everyone Calm Your Raging Hard-On for Wagner
Well, as someone who’s got a pretty big boner for Wagner, I may not have the most objective take here.  Yes, the sudden “All Wagner, All the Time!” programming does have to do with the Wagner bicentennial.

I really think it’s important to place Wagner and his anti-semitism historically.  George Washington was a slave owner and a racist, but we’re still comfortable celebrating him and his contributions to the modern world because we generally accept that it is unfair to judge him without placing his actions and attitudes within the correct historical context.  Karl Marx and Henry Ford were also anti-semites.  Gustav Mahler frequently made anti-semitic comments, but at least he was Jewish.  Anti-semitism in the 19th century is not the same as anti-semitism today.  It was not a radical or exceptional attitude, and ideas about Jewish people and “Jewishness” were very different.  I do not advocate anti-semitism, and I have a lot of problems with Wagner as an individual and as a moralist, but it is unfair and unhelpful to divorce him from his context.

Wagner is important.  His operas are arguably the ultimate realization of the form, he is the reason we have raked seating in theaters, seats are arced so they all point toward the stage, the lights are dimmed or turned off during performances; he created the orchestra pit, popularized the concept of the leitmotif, and is responsible for the modern director and the idea that all elements of a production should work towards achieving a singular idea or concept.  Modern musical and theatrical history owe a lot to Wagner.  He cannot be ignored.

Have you seen any Wagner operas?  They’re really good.  The source material is good.  The stories are good.  The music is really good.  He has some really complicated and strong female characters.  Wagners operas are nothing if not problematic, but there is something truly great amid those flaws.  That’s a big theme in Wagner.

The post closes by saying, “Some opera venues (notably music schools and conservatories) are getting the hint, in fits and spurts, that opera needs to be relevant to people other than themselves if it has any chance of surviving the next century.”

Are you arguing for new works?  There are new works being written all the time.  I agree that opera companies need to do a better job fostering new works and modern composers, but new works are performed quite regularly.  Just because an opera was written recently does not make it more relevant.  And just because an opera was written a few hundred years ago does not make it less relevant.  A lot of companies and directors work very hard to try to make their productions relevant to and engaging for modern audiences.  You can argue that they’re not successful, but to suggest that they’re not even trying to make their work relevant to “real people” is missing the mark.  But I suppose I can’t expect a nuanced, hard-hitting assessment of “what’s wrong with opera today” from someone who clearly has very little experience with opera at all.

My long discussion of opera vs. theatre performance follows…

Most theatre classes take place in groups.  In my years of studying acting in high school and college, I never encountered an acting class with only one student.  With the exception of the requisite monolog unit, you are always working with or off of someone.  You are always engaged with and reacting to someone else as a performer.  Even during monologs  you are constantly scrutinizing and under the scrutiny of your peers.  Acting lessons : Theatre Performance :: Voice Lessons : Operatic Performance, and voice lessons are always taught individually.  Operatic Performance is not built on a foundation of ensemble work the way theatre is, and so opera performers don’t have the ensemble instinct.  Engaging with other performers physically and emotionally is not as natural for them.  Of course there are exceptions on both sides (and singers are really good at vocal interaction), but what I have described is generally accurate (and I think being more aware of this difference would do opera training a world of good).

The second big difference is the director/actor relationship vs. the conductor/singer relationship.  Theatre directors come in with an idea or concept for a production and (ideally) everyone is supposed to participate in shaping that vision.  (Yes, there are dictatorial directors who have no interest in what the performers think of his or her ideas, but they’re the exception, not the rule; and, odds are, they’re not particularly good directors…)  The director gives everyone their blocking, tells them what they think is going on in the scene, the actors do it that way once or twice, and then the bulk of rehearsal time is spent with the actors responding and contributing to the director’s plan.  The thing that gets performed in front of an audience is not necessarily the production that the director walked in with.  There is an expectation that things will change and that the actors have something valuable to contribute.  If a director’s blocking isn’t working for an actor – if it doesn’t ring true or feels awkward to them, dramatically – the expectation is that they will say something and work with the director to find something that is meaningful and appropriate for both of them.  Singers generally only ask to revise blocking if it doesn’t work for them vocally.

The conductor’s job is a little more concrete than a director’s.  In a large orchestra, the conductor is the only person who knows and can hear everything that is going on musically.  A play can get performed without a director.  It may not be elegant or totally coherent, visually or dramatically, but the text can be intelligibly delivered.  This is not the case with an opera score.  A 30-60 piece orchestra, plus 10-50 singers trying to perform an opera score with out a conductor is a hot mess.  If it’s a top-level professional orchestra and chorus and a score everyone knows backwards and forward, it might be okay, but there will probably be lag somewhere.  Anyway, when a conductor tells you to do something it’s generally a about something technical, and you do what they say.  If you’re having a hard time achieving their recommendation, you can discuss it with the conductor until you understand it, but a singer does not typically suggest a different dynamic or interpretive detail to the conductor.  Singer’s don’t push back against directors the way an actor does, and when they do there’s a certain defensiveness about it that can add a lot of tension to the rehearsal room.

Part of the problem is the way operas are rehearsed.  In theatre, you block the whole show right away, run through the blocking once or twice, then you do work throughs.  Most of the work happens in the work throughs.  You deviate from the blocking, you try different things, you rehearse the whole thing over and over until the actors are totally comfortable with it and can make it their own.  In opera, you block the first scene, you play through it once or twice (singers will often raise objections during the blocking process, if they have them), then you move on to the second scene, and so on.  The piece will not have been run through in its entirety until the last week of rehearsals which means the singers have had much less time to get comfortable with the scene work, and it shows.

Most opera performers’ backgrounds are in music.

8 thoughts on “Re: 5 Reasons Why Traditional Opera Kind of Sucks

  1. Hi there! Thanks for your thoughts on my post!
    I’m not here to change your mind about anything about which we disagree, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to clear up a couple misconceptions.

    Regarding the rather chromatic sexuality of opera (#4), I was not suggesting that people of other sexualities do not like, or are not involved, in opera. That would be a patently absurd suggestion. I meant just what I said–the traditional opera cannon does not REPRESENT many (if any) homosexual relationships (while occasional rape and incest are perfectly a-ok to perform in front of the patrons.) There are new operas that have gay characters, and you can even infer gay relationships from the old operas and completely change the dramatic settings based on this (and you might get some SPECTACULAR results), but like I said, I’m talking about the well-known classics being done in the TRADITIONAL manner. It’s not that I expect opera to be more progressive than any other genre–but if opera is going to seek a broader appeal, new relevance has to be found for an *inclusive* audience (which is happening slowly!)–whether that’s through performing new works, or revamping older ones, is up to opera companies, and I think doing both would be a good thing.

    As for my problem with Wagner: it’s not that I think he should not be performed at all just because he’s anti-Semitic (I mean, god, that would be almost every composer before now, most likely.) I have a problem with the over-representation and uniform reverence for him when there are other works, old as well as new, that could stand to gain some exposure. Some of this is just a matter of personal taste, of course, (I never developed a big taste for Wagner, others live and breathe him), but is it really necessary to celebrate a bicentennial for such an icky dude? I know they’re obviously celebrating him because of his magnificent achievements in music and opera, and not his questionable “politics”, but it’s not as if we have grand centennial celebrations for *every single composer* whose operas we perform, right? Past a certain point, the world-wide Wagner-fest is becoming a little tacky in my eyes.

    ”But I suppose I can’t expect a nuanced, hard-hitting assessment of “what’s wrong with opera today” from someone who clearly has very little experience with opera at all.” Well, here’s the thing. I have studied music for sixteen years, voice for thirteen, performed in operas, and hold a degree in classical vocal performance. Now I don’t hold multiple degrees in the field, nor do I teach or write books, so I’m not going to claim to that I possess encyclopedic knowledge, but believe me, I have much more than ”very little experience with opera at all.” The article you read came from someone who earned a degree in the field, struggled with defending it’s typical execution, and finally became exasperated with the genre. Again, this is not an across the board assessment of the genre (there are some WONDERFUL productions that go against the grain), but the general trends are losing relevance (which happens all the time–think Beat poetry, nickelodeon picture shows, etc), and as time goes on, it’s realistically pretty hard to keep defending those trends when they could be changed instead. Which is starting to happen! I am hopeful!

    Thanks for reading!

    • Hi, Erin! Thanks for the civil reply. I do love discussion.

      First, I’m not sure I’d say they instances of incest and rape in opera are “okay” or acceptable in opera. Generally those are either villainous or problematic acts. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incest isn’t okay – it’s explicitly defined as a violation of marriage and natural law and ultimately leads to their demise. Were you referring to any other incestuous relationships? I can’t really think of any. As for the instances of rape, I can’t think of any rape in opera that is meant to be regarded as morally acceptable by the audience. I mean objecting to a lack of homosexual characters in 17th-19th century opera is kind of frustrating because it’s just not really part of the social landscape. According to Foucault, the idea of “homosexuality” as a specific sexual and social identity is a modern concept that wasn’t event developed until the 19th century (and Foucault isn’t the last word on the subject, but it’s a concept that I am inclined to accept). I can understand objections to 17th-19th century opera and its depictions of feminism or race, nationalism, etc., but there isn’t really much operatic material that explicitly deals with homosexuality either way. It’s like saying one of the major problems with European silent films is that East Asians aren’t represented. Is that an essential criteria? It doesn’t necessarily indicate a deliberate bias, it just wasn’t really on their radar the way it is today. Does that mean that any art form that doesn’t explicitly include all minority groups (or even all large minority groups) is somehow deserving of obscurity? Anything that doesn’t directly address the mores of culture 200 years in the future is invalid? And what if we suddenly uncovered Verdi’s lost gay operas, what would that achieve? Given that gay people are already a significant opera demographic, I don’t think audience sizes would explode. I don’t think lack of representations of homosexuality in opera is what’s hindering audience growth. And, again, there are quite a few operas with homosexual relationships and themes if we include the 20th century works that are staples of operatic rep like Britten operas, Lulu, Elektra, etc. You should look into queer theory and opera – there’s a lot of material:

      Wagner actually doesn’t get that much representation. He’s easily eclipsed by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, or Carmen. Again, it is the bicentennial next year which is why you’re seeing a lot of Wagner; but, except for the Seattle Opera and the Met (and German opera houses), you’ll see a Wagner opera maybe once ever 3 years or so. They’re very expensive, very few singers are even capable of singing though most Wagner operas, and they’re very demanding in every respect – which is why Wagner is often treated as a rite of passage among opera companies. You have to have significant amounts of money, resources, and relationships with a higher level of performer, conductor, director, etc. than you would need for something lower key. The Met hadn’t had a new Ring Cycle in 20 years. Wagner fans are also very vocal and tend to be on the fanatic side, but they are also generally the nerdiest of the opera nerds. It’s just how they express themselves. But a lot of opera fans (perhaps even a majority) do not like Wagner and could happily live their lives without ever spending an evening in a Wagner performance. Given Wagner’s contributions to opera, art, and culture in general, I do think it’s worth pulling together a Ring Cycle for his 200th birthday. There won’t be parades or anything, it’s just that there’s a clear marketing strategy to planning your new Wagner productions for his 200th birthday, so everyone’s doing it. At Bayreuth the Wagners are celebrating with a new Ring Cycle by one of the German pioneers of post-dramatic theatre, releasing family documents to the public, and opening an exhibit on antisemitism in Bayreuth in the spirit of full disclosure and open discussion of their ancestor’s biases. And generally there are festivals and programming choices made around centennial celebrations for any composer (or 50 years, 25, etc.).

      Yes, I agree that operas need to move away from the typical, period interpretation that explicitly follows the original text, given circumstances, and/or traditional interpretation of the text as if it were holy writ – they are stale and uninteresting – but I don’t think those productions are quite as ubiquitous as they used to be and as you seem to think they are. All the major opera houses in Europe consistently present new and avant-garde productions. They’re not all good (most of them aren’t…), but they propel the art form forward. American productions are also given modern twists all the time. American opera houses are still very artistically conservative in their programming and many of the “modern twists” are superficial, but I think it’s unfair to suggest they aren’t even trying or are totally oblivious to the challenges of opera for a modern audience. It’s very surprising to me that you have the experience you do and that you aren’t more aware of what’s happening in opera today. I too earned a degree (or two) in the field, struggled with defending it’s typical execution, and am completely exasperated with the genre. I’m one of the most cynical people I know regarding opera, and I think it’s important to have these discussions because opera needs to be better. I find your piece so frustrating because you don’t present any ideas about solutions (other than new works, which is something that is being actively worked on), a lot of the statements you’ve made are easily refuted, and you’re not really providing any new insight into these very old problems. Surely, with your experience, you have more complicated ideas about what is wrong with opera and why things are the way they are?

  2. Caitlin,

    Thanks for addressing this topic.

    My 2 cents worth:

    Honestly, as much as it pains me to say it, opera just does not have a central place in the culture anymore. It’s too dense, too complicated, it requires too much effort for the WAY WE LIVE today. And I don’t think the current flaccid attempts at being hip is the way to go about reclaiming for the art some of the space it used to enjoy.

    I also do not see the point of trying to attract people to opera by offering them something different. If you are selling soup, would you advertise toothpaste? (See Renee Fleming’s collaboration with Chicago’s celebrated Second City comedy troupe. Yikes)

  3. Latest news

    “The Metropolitan Opera is going downtown. The Met has arranged with Le Poisson Rouge, the high-art cabaret space in Greenwich Village, to present two concerts based on Met productions of two contemporary operas: “The Tempest” by Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys.” The collaboration gives the Met some visibility in the slightly hipper, younger and more contemporary music scene, and adds big-institution luster to Le Poisson Rouge, which has become firmly established as a New York concert site. The Met often collaborates with major institutions like Juilliard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art but rarely with such a small fish. “It seemed like a good idea, as a way of educating the audience and reaching out to a new audience, to have performances down there,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said”

    I think this is a major coup on the part of Le Poisson Rouge and folly on the part of the Metropolitan Opera. This would be a good venue to attract an audience for perhaps Gotham Chamber Opera or the newly gutted New York City Opera. When ticket costs have risen by 30% in the last few years and the average ticket price in a decent seat is between $180-250, Gelb will never attract that crowd. He is wasting his time.

    In general, the audience of Le Poisson Rouge understands where Lincoln Center is and has little to no interest at this time in spending this much money to see an art form that they have only a middling interest in. Trying to build interest in an audience that is, in general, upwardly mobile 20 and 30 somethings seems foolhardy in the short term. It tries to send the message…… “No, no you really like Opera and we are cool too, you just don’t know it yet”

    For Opera to survive, it depends on wealthy patrons, both thru donations and top priced seats who put their money down NOW. We can’t worry about future generations, even though they should. It’s just the way it is.

    I feel bad for Mr. Gelb. I really do. He is caught between the standard-bearer of Grand Opera and trying to expand the audience by introducing productions like “The Nose”, “From the House of the Dead,” and “Satyagraha” which seem to be the only productions that excite a younger crowd, yet to my knowledge has not turned to the major warhorse productions. Casting that has fallen to the worst standards in recent history. The last casting of Willy Decker’s “La Traviata” being a prime example: an interesting new production that may attract a younger crowd but so poorly cast that it was nauseating to most of us that understand the form.

  4. Pingback: Concert Performances at Le Poisson Rouge and Mathis der Maler in Zurich | Goodbye, Florence!

  5. Just saw Semiramide at the Met and, I have to mirror what others have said. Classical Opera as it stands should be revised. Many of the situations are irrelevant to modern times, and talk about convoluted story lines! Before you start it is NOT because I do not appreciate theater, nor is it because I am dim. It simply doesn’t follow story arcs that are relate-able. Semiramide – written 200 years ago by a french writer (Voltaire) translated by an Italian composer (Rossini) with subject matter from ancient Assyria translated into English (because I do not speak Italian) on the digital translators. Seats were uncomfortable (balcony box), and most of the people (other audience members) were surly. I would rather go see a show at the Schubert (whose seats were also uncomfortable)! Perhaps a new Opera would be better, but I doubt it – since for some damned reason they think that they have to hold onto Latin/German/Italian. And the story! Wow, terribly outdated. Most people cannot relate to the machinations of a royal household, and since so much other entertainment is available (unlike when this was written) the average person has no impetus to try to. I enjoy operatic singing, I enjoy musical theater. I did not enjoy this. But hey, on the brighter side it was three + hours! Seriously, who wants to sit there for that long?! If it was about connecting with people they would modernize most of it, but since it is about status (I went to the Opera!) or for a feeling of superiority (You obviously don’t get it) for many opera enthusiasts I believe it should change. That will likely be my last opera, at least for a very long time.

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