Opera: “I’m not dead!”

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in “Fidelio.”

holygrainotdead

With all the talk about San Diego Opera, the Met Opera, and a bit further back, the closure of New York City Opera we might be quick to say that Opera is a dying art form in the US. Indeed, a recent NAI report shows that Opera attendance is steadily declining from a recent high in 2007 of 3,568,000 to 2,304,000 in 2011 (of course, this report is also showing increased attendance at Symphony Concerts from ’09 – 25,443,000 to ’11 – 26,812,000 — more than 10 million more than the declining NFL audiences in all three years. But these are besides the point.

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in “Fidelio.”

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in the Bollywood version of “Fidelio” by the Skylight Music Theatre.

Bill Eddin’s recent post is by guest blogger, Viswa Subarraman, conductor and Artistic Director of the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee. Subarraman and Skylight recently produced a Bollywood version of Fidelio and the director has some things to say about the San Diego Opera’s decision to call it quits.

San Diego is choosing to go quietly into that good night. The rest of us are choosing to fight to preserve an incredible 200+ year old art form. You know how? By doing great theater. Would we love to hire the Renee Flemings of the world? Sure! But let’s be real – it ain’t gonna happen in Milwaukee. So what can we do? We can find the future Renee Flemings of the world and give them a shot at learning and honing their craft, so they can go on to those big paychecks and big stages. I’m very proud of companies such as ours and Fort Worth Opera that seem to nurture the next generation of great opera singers. It’s also great for our audience – they have the opportunity to see these wonderful artists develop right before their eyes. We also focus on our communities.

Subarraman says, “It is sad to me that a company with the resources that San Diego has doesn’t understand that downsizing, creating variety in their programming, finding young, talented singers (read cheaper) to mix with the stars on stage isn’t diluting the art form. It’s called progressing the art form.

and closes with the admonition to

Try things. You might find that you actually diversify your audience base, which might allow you to start raising even more money. Funny how that can work in so many cities where we create magic with our “diluted” companies! I’m sorry to see San Diego lose its opera company, but man… what an opportunity for some creative opera people to take those resources and bring great art to a community that still wants it.

This echoes a piece I read (thanks to You’ve Cott Mail) by Mary Wisniewski discussing all these big Opera Organizations failing while a plethora of smaller and new opera companies are cropping up all around Chicago–which shouldn’t detract from the fact that the Chicago Lyric has seen its ticket sales up 15 percent for fiscal year 2013.

The smaller Chicago Opera Theater (COT), known for out-of-the-box productions like Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie,” last year saw a 20 percent jump in subscribers, said general director Andreas Mitisek.

New companies have sprung up as well. Haymarket Opera Company specializes in the Baroque era, and South Shore Opera Company has done shows using African-American casts, including William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island.”

 

After my previous post, which discussed the Louisville based Thompson Street Opera Company (as well as my own Klingon Opera which premiered in Louisville), and after performing at Classical Revolution Cincinnati doing some arias from the Klingon Opera last year and getting to hear “The Bubble” by Jennifer Jolley and Kendall A. produced by NANOWorks Opera (North American New Opera Workshop) there, I’d say Opera is evolving and thriving in ways that the big organizations are masking due to all the media attention they get (that Negativity Bias at work again).

Of course, Opera’s death has been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t evolving in ways that mass media representations of it can hope to show given the focus on big organizations. As Rosenberg notes in the link, “Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world ‘stillborn,’ ‘as something outdated.’” and they “acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains ‘a huge relic’ and ‘an enormous anachronism.’

The irony being that in 2020 the Royal Opera in Britain has commissioned four new works for the 2020 season inspired by Žižek.

The Royal Opera will challenge leading European composers Kaija Saariaho (Finland), Mark-Anthony Turnage (UK), Luca Francesconi (Italy) and Jörg Widmann (Germany) to create large scale new operas. The vision is for four distinct operas, each one in part inspired by the composer’s response to a set of questions developed in collaboration with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “What preoccupies us today? How do we represent ourselves on stage? What are the collective myths of our present and future?”

In other somewhat related news, my interactive video and cello project, Camera Lucida, will be giving a performance and a talk/performance at The International Žižek Studies Conference next weekend. While we can only be there for one day of the conference and will not likely have much of a chance to interact with Žižek, our day talk/performance will focus on a piece we call “Fossils” which uses appropriated text which will be incorporated in the multi-media performance (with Acro-Dancers, Holly Price and Christopher Cox) both as a pre-recorded element and live by me.

Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida's "Fossils" at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI.  November 10, 2012

Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida’s “Fossils” at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI. November 10, 2012

 

The closest analogue I can think of to our performance would be the late, Robert Ashley’s “Different Lives” which is a completely different and more experimental way to approach opera.

Opera isn’t dead, it’s just changing far too fast for most people to understand and morphing into new forms and smaller, more nimble organizations which can produce works that can be a bit more experimental and exploratory. As long as we allow the Crisis folks to dominate the discourse, we’re not going to see much focus on this.

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3 thoughts on “Opera: “I’m not dead!”

  1. Even within the sphere of what is considered “typical” opera, things are changing. We’re seeing shit staged that went for 200 years without a staging. That sort of thing happens when you put out an art form that was invented in 1609.

    I grew up in a family that could sing opera at the dinner table, big chunks of it. My dad was a nut for it, and my mom grew up in the same kind of family. And I’m sick and tired of Lucia di Lammermoor and the Ring and Traviata and fucking Tosca all the damned time. I’m basically sick of every opera that ends with, “Then the chick dies.” I’m sick of opera that makes me as a woman feel like a gay man sitting through “Brokeback Mountain sixteen thousand times in a row. (Most “new” opera works are just like the old ones in that vein, though.)

    The warhorses will always be performed in places, but it is LONG past time that new stuff was tried.

    • I wonder how much new opera has been written over the years. Sure, the big companies usually do the warhorses, but things like Robert Ashley’s Operas and Tod Machover’s hyperoperas are significant bigger productions which have pushed boundaries over the years.

      Until I had these encounters with the NANOworks and Thompson Street Companies I hadn’t really thought about Chamber Operas and small companies which obviously have been commissioning and performing only new works–and it makes me wonder how often things like this are the case and how often they get overlooked!

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