Crossover Art: If Opera Only Appeals to a Few, Why Does It Keep Turning Up in Popular Culture?
Crory, Neil, Opera Canada
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). Was this a conscious strategy on the part of the COC? "No," Bradshaw admits. "I think it just happened. Of course, I'm not unaware of the box-office attraction of someone like Egoyan, but I think, in general, we were looking at ways in which to get the best of other worlds into this art form--because in opera you have so many art forms that are melded together."
Egoyan clearly responded to the challenge of directing his first opera with enormous enthusiasm. "It seems that in an opera, everything is really working at full command," he says. "Nothing is subservient to anything else. The music is given an extremely high profile, the singing is given a high profile, the design is of paramount importance, the choreography, the sense of light... In film, because of its ability to suggest reality, you always have to tame your more theatrical side. So it's great to work in a form that lets you go and just lets you almost wallow in the theatricality of it."
In terms of attracting newer and larger audiences for the COC, Egoyan says, "Clearly, many of the people who went to Exotica probably never thought of seeing an opera, so if Salome can tweek their interest, that's great." Bradshaw confirms that "there will be more film directors in the future. Next year, for example, Canadian Francois Girard will direct Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. When he did Thirty-Two Short Films on Glenn Gould, I thought that with his sort of musical sensibility, he should direct an opera."
A quick look at recent films shows that the two disciplines intersect more often than you might at first think. One can, in fact, list countless mass-market movies that have successfully incorporated opera into their soundtracks, from Amadeus, Apocalypse Now, Babette's Feast, Bull Durham, Chariots of Fire, Diva and Fatal Attraction to Godfather III, Hannah and her Sisters, Moonstruck, Philadelphia, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Prizzi's Honor, Raging Bull, A Room with a View, Wall Street, The Year of Living Dangerously and on and on.
While the list is large, does this translate into new audiences for opera? "Absolutely," Egoyan says. "Although there is a tremendous amount of operatic music that is just so extraordinary, many people are quite intimidated by the form. So when they're allowed entry into it through its utilization in a film, I think it comes as a revelation."
Bradshaw agrees. "Directors are finding that in dealing with big emotions, big passions, that opera is the precise medium that has always dealt with those things the best," he says. "I also think that people have broken down the idea that opera is about fat people singing loud music."
This is clearly reflected in the recording industry. According to Brandon Bayer, classical marketing manager for EMI Music Canada, "Movies and television commercials have been a great help in boosting opera sales on record. It certainly accounts for the success of such recordings as The Movies Go To The Opera and a number of other compilations, and even complete opera. Delibes' Lakme, which is obviously not a terribly well-known opera, has become a bestseller strictly on the basis that the Flower Duet has been used by half a dozen commercials--like the British Airways spot--and at least two or three movies, including the Canadian film I Heard the Mermaids Singing."
Television commercials, selling everything from Lexus, Nissan and Mercedes Benz cars to Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are another area in which opera is both noticeable and popular. Laura Young says, "I think very often it's a subliminal effect. People are hearing opera--they may not know that it's opera, but as they watch that beer commercial, or whatever, they're getting used to the sound of opera and an operatic singing style, and are connecting it up, hopefully, with a pleasurable product or experience. Opera is becoming fixed more and more in their ear, so that when they actually see an opera or hear music that is identified as opera, it's not as alien or strange-sounding."
According to Ted Rosnick, a 19-year veteran of the ad business, opera is popular with clients and successful in commercials "because opera is so emotional and it can deliver that emotion quickly. It's got that immediate emotional appeal that is very powerful, and it can just grab you." Rosnick points to the cult film Diva and to such artists as the east German rock diva Nina Hagen and pop musician Malcolm McLaren as giving opera a certain legitimacy. "When McLaren did his hit single Madame Butterfly [from the album Fans], that also seemed to be a turning point in terms of opera and its use in commercials. It kind of made people think it was a little bit hipper."
In many cases, the music for commercials appears to have been almost more popular than the product being sold. Canadian soprano Joanne Kolomyjec has done a number of commercials over the years, ranging from beer and shampoo to cars. In the 1980s, she sang the aria, "Ebben? Ne andro lontano" from Catalani's La Wally. "It was for a Honda Accord commercial. It was so successful that Honda Canada actually had to put another girl on the switchboard to accept the calls, because people wanted to know what the aria was and who was singing in their commercial."
Given these current trends, will going to the opera one day become a populist activity? "If we could bring down our prices, that might very well happen," says Laura Young. "I think our prices are a barrier. People are getting use to the fact that these things cost a great deal, but it is still an expensive habit to cultivate. But we're seeing that change."
Richard Bradshaw responds, "It's a long process. Let's face it, though. Opera is expensive to produce and high ticket prices are an obvious concern. There are an awful lot of people who want to come and see Egoyan's Salome because they're from the film community. But they're used to going to a film for a couple of bucks, and then they see what it costs to go to an opera! But because of what's involved in putting on a performance of an opera, there's no way we can reduce ticket prices. In the end we have to produce a certain revenue at the box office if we are to survive."
What about the phenomenon of the Three Tenors and the stadium concerts? "At our annual conference last spring in Los Angeles," Young relates, "we had Domingo on a panel and he was asked that question. He felt that it was one way in which to expose people to opera or operatic singing. What percentage of those people actually go off and buy a ticket at their opera house, I don't know. I don't think anybody does. But again, it's all part of this acculturation, if you will, of opera into our society. In short, the more opera--in whatever form--the better, and the more it does to increase our audiences. The more they hear it, the more they see it, they more they want it."…
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Publication information: Article title: Crossover Art: If Opera Only Appeals to a Few, Why Does It Keep Turning Up in Popular Culture?. Contributors: Crory, Neil - Author. Magazine title: Opera Canada. Volume: 37. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1996. Page number: 18+. © 1997 Opera Canada Publications. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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