The Decline and Fall of Opera?

When I married an operatic soprano more than two decades ago, I had absolutely no idea how much that would change my life and also affect my writing. One of the earliest directly observable results was Of Tangible Ghosts, the first of the three books comprising the “Ghost Series.” Later came the Spellsong Cycle, as well as other books and other characters. I’ve also come to enjoy opera, not all operas, I’d be the first to admit, but many, and I’ve been introduced and observed a great many opera professionals, largely because my wife is a national officer in a national opera association as well as president of the local music arts society and in charge of bookings and contracts for classical artists and groups.

Consequently, I’ve ended up doing a certain amount of research in the field, and I have to say that I’m worried about the future of opera. While the number of tickets sold to operas nationwide has not seen a significant decline, overall, the number of patrons has declined, but the decline in diverse patrons has been offset by the fact that core supporters – those who really love opera – are buying more tickets. One of the problems with this, though, is that many of these patrons really love old established operas. Part of this may be due in part to the fact that a number of the newer operas are more avant-garde and have fewer singable melodies. That’s not to say that some new operas aren’t gripping and melodic, but for whatever reasons, new operas are staged less frequently and don’t appear to draw as large an audience as the old chestnuts.

Another critical factor, and this is strictly a personal belief on my part, is that all too many opera directors are so wedded to “period,” i.e., the movements and the way the opera is believed to have been originally sung and staged, that they’ve forgotten the basic and original purpose of opera – to entertain the audience. To me, it appears that the press for the new and different and the emphasis on “period” and tradition tend to come at the expense of entertainment value.

As I’ve noted before in my blogs, the first thing that I as a writer must do, if I’m to continue as a professional writer, is to entertain my reader. If I don’t do that, nothing else I do will count, because I’ll lose readers rather quickly, possibly all of them.

This is not a new issue in the history of opera. Almost all early operas were about gods and other mythical figures, or about rulers. Mozart broke convention by writing operas about everyday people – like a valet and the lady’s maid he loves – in The Marriage of Figaro and in other operas. This trend proved wildly popular for Mozart and other composers, as evidenced by the subsequent success of La Boheme [with a consumptive seamstress and starving artist], Carmen [cigarette factory girl and love triangle between her, a soldier, and a bullfighter], or many others, not that a few royalty-based or diety-based operas also weren’t popular, but they all emphasized human qualities and entertainment.

When she directs, my wife is well aware of this precept. She has to be, because she’s presenting operas in a university town set in rural Utah where a majority of the students are from rural backgrounds and even most of those from urban backgrounds have never seen an opera before. What she presents has to both be true to the basics of opera and yet to entertain… or she won’t have an opera program, regardless of its educational and instructional value, because universities do look at both student participation and audience numbers. She’s been successful, as evidenced by the fact that her program is in its twenty-third year and that a significant number of her students have gone on to careers in music, and while some of her operas have won national awards, she’s also been criticized by those judges for not being “period” or traditional enough.

I’ve seen some of the more “traditional” presentations, both professional and scholastic, and frankly, I’ve been bored stiff in some cases, possibly because a beautiful voice or set of voices and a “stand and plant” presentation of an aria just doesn’t do it for me… and I have my doubts that it did it for Mozart either, if The Magic Flute is any example.

9 thoughts on “The Decline and Fall of Opera?”

  1. Frank says:

    Love your books…I’ve read almost all of them, just waiting on the Solar Express.

    I enjoy your blog. Your politics and political/social discussions are interesting; sometimes fascinating; sometimes infuriating; but always hold my interest and are worth reading.

    I love a variety of music: born and bred on Rock (losing Glen Frey is so sad); raised as a kid on the “standards” of the “greatest generation” (Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller); appreciate classical (symphony) music. I just can’t get into Opera. I don’t know if it’s lack of culture, knowledge, if I’m just missing that gene…I just don’t find it entertaining. I’m not putting it down, as it may say more about my short comings than Opera…but, it’s the truth.

    1. My background — prior to my wife — was similar to yours. I never thought I’d like opera. I found I was wrong, not that there aren’t a few operas I don’t like in the slightest.

  2. Grey says:

    Regarding tradition vs entertaining the audience, it’s certainly true that it’s a concern for the opera company and it’s bottom line. I recall there was more than a little pearl-clutching and need for smelling salts when Chicago’s Lyric Opera announced it would start performing “Pirates of Penzance” (I thought it was great, and I think it all turned out fine).

  3. corwin says:

    Frank, for many years I couldn’t get ‘into’ opera either. Then I was given a CD (which I believe is still available) called ‘Opera Without Words’. It has a symphony orchestra playing all the marvelous melodies from many of the world’s greatest operas and it is magnificent. I probably listen to that CD more than any other. From there I began to listen to recordings of famous opera singers such as Pavarotti, watched The Three Tenors and now my appreciation for the genre has grown.

    1. Frank says:


      Thank you for the responses. It is definitely food for thought. I also failed to mention that I have watched/attended some live theater musicals, which are a different genre, in ways I’m not competent to elaborate upon, but are in the direction of opera. Some I enjoyed enormously (a Chorus Line, West Side Story, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, 42nd Street) some less.

      I will take your “Opera Without Words” under advisement and thank you all for your interest and suggestions. My largest problem is time…taking what little time I can spare for entertainment and experimenting. But, if change is the spice of life, maybe it’s time for some pepper.

  4. Tom says:

    “… it appears that the press for the new and different and the emphasis on “period” and tradition tend to come at the expense of entertainment value.”
    Can the opera/music I consider entertainment be the same that a significant number of an audience would also call entertainment? For me if the music is not melodic – forget it. Which reminds me of our symphony. When we first came here the conductor made familiar pieces sound unfamiliar. The replacement maestro has presented all manner of pieces but at least the ‘traditional’ ones are recognizable and thus for me ‘entertaining’. Maybe one out of three pop bands/groups that my kids go to I also find entertaining. Thumping hysteria without melody does need a lift from chemicals and then one wonders if the entertainment is not just the buzz. Entertainment is in the eyes/ears of the beholder so the audience that finds one genre entertaining may not find another so stimulating, even assuming excellence in presentation. I hope the death of Grande Opera will hold off until I die.

  5. CRM says:

    For potential audience members, another issue is relative cost. I like opera, especially Verdi, but to go to live performance is ridiculously expensive (although for me, that would also include travel costs and probably an overnight stay). It could easily cost me $300, depending on ticket price. For people who are unfamiliar with opera, the cost could definitely be a barrier to going to go see one. Also there’s the language barrier….

  6. Phineas says:

    Regarding cost: Check out the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series at They broadcast around 10 of their operas live to movie theaters all over the world. I know it sounds like you’d have to find an artsy movie theater, but you might be surprised. At least in the Chicago area there are a lot of theaters that show them. Tickets are $25 – more expensive than a movie but much less than seeing the opera live. And it’s way more comfortable and you can a great view of the stage, backstage specials, interviews during intermission, etc.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    I grew up listening to the Met on NPR every Saturday when my father and I would putter around in the garage.

    If it weren’t for the Live in HD series, I’d never get to see the opera because of travel time and costs. Even then, I have to travel about an hour to get to see one. They are invariable packed to the gills, though.

    The newer ‘operas’ are getting subsumed by the musical theater genre: even JC Superstar, which is an opera in the true sense of the definition is considered more of a musical.

    You can’t just write an opera these days: it must be a blockbuster and it must gain 150-300% of the money spent on producing it or it is considered a failure. Apparently, 30% margins just don’t cut it anymore.

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