Crossover Art: If Opera Only Appeals to a Few, Why Does It Keep Turning Up in Popular Culture?

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THE POPULARITY OF OPERA IS CLEARLY ON THE upswing. Television, film, theatre and even pop music all show signs of a new-found acceptance of opera and opera stars. The instances of this integration of the world of opera with the seemingly disparate world of popular culture are almost too numerous to mention. Everyone has heard of the Three Tenors by now, and even rock artists such as Sting, Bryan Adams, Eric Clapton and Elton John are lining up to sing and record with Pavarotti, while Diana Ross has teamed up in the studio with the likes of Placido Domingo. The late Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, recorded an album, Barcelona, with one of the greatest sopranos of our generation, Montserrat Caballe.

In theatre, Terence McNally has scored two commercial successes on Broadway with his plays The Lisbon Traviata and Masterclass, both dealing with soprano Maria Callas. Indeed, Masterclass has been so successful that it is now destined for the big screen. And Hollywood directors are using more and more opera in their films. Witness the success of EMI Music Canada's long-time bestseller, Movies Go To The Opera. And who can forget that delightful Canadian film, Perfectly Normal (directed by Yves Simoneau), which blends opera with our other national pastimes, beer and hockey?

In fact, even sports are not immune to opera's charms. Canadians Tracy Dahl and Gino Quilico both sang at the Atlanta Olympic Games this summer, as did American diva Jessye Norman; four years ago, Caballe, Domingo, Teresa Berganza and Jose Carreras were headliners at the opening ceremonies of the Barcelona Games. The stigma of elitism surrounding opera seems to be slowly eroding. Opera is again becoming part of the mainstream, taking its place once more as a vital art form that no one is able to ignore.

Figures on opera attendance bear out this observation. In July, Opera America published a fact sheet, the results of an exhaustive study prepared by the National Endowment for the Arts on opera participation in the United States. Among other information, the statistics revealed that in 1993-94, total attendance at all North American opera performances increased by 7.4% from the 1992-93 figure. Between 1982 and 1992, the U.S. opera audience grew by almost 25%. And most hopeful of all, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds attending opera performances in the U.S. increased by 18% over the same time span, representing a greater increase in attendance by this age group than for any other traditional performing-art form.

When asked to explain these dramatic increases, Laura Young, director of public affairs for Opera America, responded, "Opera is an art form that encompasses all the other art forms. And apart from having all that glorious music, opera is visually complex and visually stimulating. I think that people who have been brought up on television and movies--as the baby-boomer generation was in the 1950s and as kids have been even more so today--are used to a stimulating visual environment, something that opera clearly offers."

Richard Bradshaw, artistic director and conductor of the Canadian Opera Company, also believes "there is definitely an increased interest in opera. Although I'm not sure that the actual number of people in our theatre has increased, I am absolutely sure that there are a whole load of new people in the theatre. That, I think, is what is so exciting. We've at least begun to break down the perception that opera is something only for older, respectable people who are well-heeled."

One way in which the COC has been successful in attracting a new, younger audience in recent years has been through their use of such major talents as stage and film director Robert LePage (who directed the COC's award-winning double-bill of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung) and filmmaker (Exotica) Atom Egoyan (who recently directed the COC's successful production of Strauss's Salome). …