In the wake of the devastating news last week from San Diego Opera, and the even more recent warnings from the storied Vienna State Opera and San Francisco Opera, much discussion and pondering has been taking place about the current state of the art form and its chance for survival. SDO’s surprise “solution” to projected financial issues has caused significant consternation in the music community, including Norman Lebrecht’s citing a “loss of will to live” and questioning what really caused such a radical move.
But this situation and the other closures faced by all sorts of fully established performing organizations may have an upside, in that it reinvigorates the critical discussions that allow art to move forward. In the face of trials, we must ask ourselves:
In an informal email discussion about the state of opera, a local editor who should know better came close to dismissing the genre recently, citing what he sees as opera’s “octogenarian audience” and the poor production values from small regional companies. He simply went too far in the discussion of a related matter, but the momentary lapse revealed both a lack of faith in the general opera community and a lack of understanding of how things are changing in classical music. The conversation serves as a stark representation of the attitudes in the media and in the public that absolutely must be overcome.
Of course, we too have seen and commented on the need for better stagecraft in local opera, and recognize that while we cheer their efforts, most of the small companies in SoCal need to raise the bar and aim for higher production quality. Even “shoestring” opera can be staged well and create atmosphere, and regardless of the beauty of singing, the shows must be truly watchable to attract ticket sales beyond the friends and families of the performers. A tight budget does not excuse disorganization, lack of aesthetics or worse, the inability to grow beyond current means. Distractions such as ill-fitting costumes, nonexistent lighting or the inescapable presence of anachronistic religious paraphernalia eat into the experience, and can no longer be ignored. It may not be possible to rid a production of every visual obstacle. But these issues have become so commonplace that they are nearly accepted by producers of small shows, and that is simply unacceptable. It would be better to do a scaled-back production or concert version exceptionally well, creating some sense of space and allowing the audience to be present in the moment, than to charge forward and throw it together, hoping for the best.
It’s pretty simple: if a staged show cannot be performed in a way that allows the audience to slip into the story and suspend disbelief, they won’t come back unless hounded by the next show’s performers. The companies who accept and even embrace these idiosyncrasies as par for the course or even quirkiness will continue to be small, and cannot be taken seriously as professional endeavors.
Keeping the faith
But we at the List also hold out hope that opera’s current struggles will give rise to new ways of thinking, creating and spreading the word about this fantastically inspiring body of work. Opera is worth fighting for, for its hundreds of years of tradition, the combined collaborative power of its many marvelous disciplines, and for the genre’s ability to examine life and provoke thought in present and future audiences. Those of us who believe in that worth will find new ways to help it live and thrive.
Grand opera is having a rough time (particularly among medium-sized houses), and it’s likely not over yet. Rumors abound that there are more closures to come, adding to the sad loss of recently deceased organizations such as New York City Opera, Opera Pacific, Baltimore Opera, Opera Boston, San Antonio Opera and far too many more. The field is changing rapidly, bringing the reality that making a living working with large organizations, even abroad, may soon be over, except for a lucky few. College and other training programs must continue to realign focus, teaching vocal students to expect less of the traditional path and more from entrepreneurial activities. Established artists will have to do the same: enjoy the work you have, but build your skills and keep an eye to the future, riding the wave and making adjustments as needed. (Those of you who surf may have an advantage of mindset here!)
Artists and audiences with a passion for the opera stage need not despair entirely: the music and beauty will not be lost. Some large and medium-sized companies, including LA Opera, are reporting increased ticket sales and much hope for the future. Symphony organizations are taking up the flag and offering concert and even staged versions of opera as part of their regular seasons. (One could wish they wouldn’t actively compete with the opera companies next door…)
Call to action
Clearly, there is much to be thankful for. But lest we continue to be overly dependent on the large companies that may or may not be sustainable, smart people with the drive to find new venues and new ways to produce an expensive art form need to get moving, and help the opera community evolve. Smaller companies must continue to get better, increasing standards of excellence. They must find ways to innovate onstage and off, filling the needs and tapping into the interests of the community at large, in order to figure out what the future of opera (and classical music in general) will look like twenty or more years from now. Startlingly creative teams like those at Pacific Opera Project and New York’s Le Poisson Rouge are already doing that, with significant and much-noted success. It is pioneers like this who will lead us into a future that may look like a gray fog now, but as they say, it ain’t over until You-know-who sings. We’re not there yet, so it’s time to get to work.