Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

How Opera Became a Drab Affair

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

How Opera Became a Drab Affair

Article excerpt

There are problems deeper than financial ones with American opera. Across the country, you find pockets of innovation and experiment, but the landscape is overwhelmingly drab.

"The opera?" the main character of Kenneth Lonergan's recent film, "Margaret," sourly asks her mother. "Why are you going to the opera?"

This is just a teenager being sullen, but her question unintentionally gets to the heart of the matter. Why do we go to the opera? What are we hoping to get from it? These are crucial questions as opera companies across America struggle simply to survive.

This art form, with its enormous casts, sets and orchestras, and its armies of stagehands and administrative staff, was a dubious financial proposition even before the recent downturn. I was once told that the good opera company directors are those who lose money responsibly.

There are problems deeper than financial ones with American opera, and they predated the recession by decades. Across the country, you find pockets of innovation and experiment, but the landscape is overwhelmingly drab.

The repertory is largely stagnant, focused on the same small group of hits. The Placido Domingos, Renee Flemings and Anna Netrebkos are needed to sell almost anything that is not "Aida," "Carmen" or "Turandot."

The typical production style is blandly nostalgic escapism rather than vibrancy or relevance. This was the case through much of America in the 20th century, and there hasn't been much change so far in the 21st.

When asked the origins of these deeper problems, I say there are two: "Moonstruck" and "Pretty Woman."

After all, these films are what most Americans probably think about when they think about going to the opera. Each has a key scene set at an opera performance, in both cases the most standard of the standard repertory: Puccini's "Boheme" in "Moonstruck," Verdi's "Traviata" in "Pretty Woman."

In the two movies the vision of opera is the same: lush, static, stale. It is less a living encounter than a trip to Madame Tussauds. The experience of going is about wearing fancy clothes and having an expensive dinner, about leaving everyday life behind. It is about a few tears, not about deep emotion or thought. Opera is the most solemn kind of date night.

Though both films have been given credit for helping to popularize opera, the idea of the art form they have popularized has profoundly damaged it. The films have taught Americans a particular idea of what opera is, so that is the kind of opera Americans think they want.

So companies, well aware of what sells, offer endless iterations of operas like "La Boheme" and "La Traviata." With scant opportunity for people to experience other pockets of the repertory or production styles, the vicious cycle continues. It is no wonder that most opera in this country is musty and inert when popular representations of opera suggest that is the only option. …

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