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.