Des Moines Metro Opera

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A few weeks back I had the pleasure of finally making it to Des Moines Metro Opera to experience its unique theater, which I had read and heard about for years. It did not disappoint. It’s a very intimate theater, seating app. 500, in a thrust configuration with the audience wrapping evenly around both sides of the stage. Its most interesting feature is having the orchestra pit located within the playing area, so the performers can be positioned downstage of the pit as well as upstage and to the sides of it. This feature enables the action to be even closer to the public. The acoustic is good, not as dry as most theaters of this type, and the stage house itself is quite wide and reasonably tall, so that one gets an “epic” feeling.

I attended two performances and gave an acting seminar to their young artist program singers. My first evening was Dead Man Walking in its Iowa premiere. Jake Heggie was in attendance and I enjoyed chatting with him. When I was head of Cincinnati Opera, we offered a production of this work–the first company to do so after its world premiere in San Francisco–and it was a wonderful experience for our community. The same could be said about the Des Moines project, for which both Sister Helen Prejean and Jake attended and gave talks. These two wonderful people are extremely generous in going around to companies and involving the community. Hats off to them both.

The production was clean and strong and I was really struck by how the resemblance of the performer playing Sister Helen to the real Helen Prejean. Pretty remarkable, not only in appearance but in spunky behavior. Everyone in the cast gave it their all and the band sounded terrific.

The next evening I attended La Traviata, which featured a couple of former students of mine in the leads. Caitlyn Lynch was doing the role only for the second time and was really wonderful, sounding fresh and full, able to pull off the vocal demands in the first act and then evolve the sound to encompass the greater depth of tone required by the later acts. Diego Silva was a lovely Alfredo, beautiful tone to the voice and for his first time out with the role did very well. Todd Thomas is someone I worked with many years ago and great to see him in action again after so many years, very convincing as an older, mature character. The chorus was absolutely spectacular–kudos to Lisa Hasson who prepared them. The production looked very sumptuous and Lillian Groag moved the actors around fluidly. She invented 4 silent clones of Violetta who appeared at various moments doing ghostly movement–I am always interested in such choices but I confess this one did not deliver a payoff for me.

The acting seminar started off in a very interesting way: a tornado sent us all to a secure basement room, after about 5 minutes of class activity! So the first singer and I did some talking work while we waited out the storm. The sky became incredibly dark to the point of seeming to be a very strange night sky–quite amazing. My wife Mari is from Iowa and confirmed seeing many such skies while growing up. After about 30 minutes of basement life, we resumed and had a lovely class.

Michael Egel, the General and Artistic Director of the company, is doing a stellar job taking over from Dr. Robert Larsen, who founded the company and led it for decades. Not an easy task taking the reins from such a legend! His approach is measured and gradual in terms of instituting the changes he envisions and the public is reacting very well. I wish him all the best for continued success at this gem of a company.

Opera Troubles in the US

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There has been a lot in the news lately about the challenges facing opera in America. The latest catalyst for this round of talks has been the near demise of San Diego Opera. Fortunately the community out there–and the opera community nationwide–has raised their voice in support of continuing the company, perhaps a re-tooled company. This is wonderful news!

Below is an article I wrote about 7 years ago after leaving the Cincinnati Opera and reflecting on the state of opera in the US. It’s a sobering look and I believe touches on a lot of the points that have recently been raised about the future of opera. Though it’s an older article, I believe a lot of the points are still valid.

Let me know what you think about this topic!

 

The Opera Box
By Nicholas Muni

Part One — THE ASSESSMENT

What does the future have in store for Opera in America?

To answer this question, I propose an examination of the art-form separately from the way it is being produced; how each of these is aligning (or not) with our social/cultural evolution.

In terms of the essence of the art form itself, the future has never been brighter.

However, I fear that the way it is being produced puts the art form, as we know it today, on a path to possible extinction in all except for the very biggest opera companies.

The whole question of the future of opera has been a topic of concern for decades. The writings, speeches, panels, think tanks, etc. on this subject have almost exclusively focused on dwindling, aging audiences and its critical, related challenge: how to increase financial support.

Trendy Marketing, Education programs, examination of social trends, Yuppies, Generation X, under 40s groups, ticket discounts, web-sites, telemarketing, E-marketing, subscription enticements, date-night schemes, diversity outreach, plaza-casting, web-streaming, telecasts, visual enhancement (large video screens in the balcony), Twitter, Podcasts—these and other things have been explored over the past three or four decades; still, there remains great concern that the audiences are not noticeably or sufficiently increasing.

The only “recent” innovation that has had a noteworthy positive effect on audience attendance has been surtitles; the growth of opera in America over the past couple of decades is in large part due to this innovation.

On the artistic side, we have seen more new productions, Konzept-Regie, Updating, Backdating, new works, crossover works, Euro-trash, multi-media, singers-who-look-the-parts, younger artists, “family-friendly” reduced versions, producing rare repertoire, amplification—
The audience problem still persists.

This has prompted me to explore this subject in a more holistic manner. In this article I will avoid the many topics, which, while both stimulating and aggravating, ultimately distract us from far more pressing fundamental issues. Arguments about production direction and design, avant garde versus traditional, “there are no great singers anymore”, why should we “dumb down” everything, sound enhancement, should there be surtitles or not, marketing is the key, education is the hope, etc. etc.–these things are not what this article is about.

By examining the core aspects of opera production (repertoire, funding, theater facilities, production aesthetic, labor costs) in relation to current social/cultural conditioning trends, I hope to stimulate discussion and possible solutions for a healthy future for opera in America.

Why the art-form has enormous future potential

The essences of opera are consonant with the way our society is conditioned to experience entertainment:
• Opera is multi-media in nature, combining visual information and music.
• Opera features characters in extremis, experiencing highly intense emotions.
• Opera story-telling is abstract, episodic, surreal.

Multi-media
Multi-media, multi-tasking, multi-discipline events dominate our everyday lives.
Most visual stories have music soundtrack: most of what we view on television, almost every single commercial-based film and to an increasing extent, many sites on the web and video games. Sound tracks even accompany some of the perfunctory events in our life: elevator rides, working out in the gym, eating in restaurants, flying on airplanes, waiting for service in banks, in department stores. In large scale urban environments there is very often music as background.

Conversely, most events that are musically based have an added (or enhanced) visual component: pop music singles (music videos), rock concerts, even the occasional symphony concert.

This linking of visual and aural story-telling is, fundamentally, opera.

“In extremis”
Recent trends in commercial film, television, popular music, and rock concerts increasingly feature characters in extremis. Action films tend to focus more on the physical side of this while television soap operas deal more with the emotional side. Rock concerts have developed a kind of “action line” which nearly always builds to an in extremis climax of some type over the course of the concert. Of course, crisis is an essential element of drama and certainly nothing new. But this thirst for the extreme has carried over into all sorts of “entertainment”, including news broadcasting. For some time now we have had numerous reality-based talk shows (Springer, Povich) which feature or promote in extremis situations; court reality (Divorce Court, Judge Judy) does something similar. A more recent development is reality TV shows: Fear Factor, Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor, The Apprentice which take the “common” person and artificially induce in extremis experiences. There are shows like Extreme Make-over and The Biggest Loser, which take mundane events like house renovation and weight loss and apply an emotionally charged, dramatic framework to them. But the point is this: more and more audiences are being exposed to the exhibition of characters (or real people) in extremis, a hallmark of opera.

Not only has in extremis become more common but most entertainment that we experience has become much more “serious” and “dark”. TV programs deal much more in tragedy and violence than ever before. Look at the ads of Calvin Klein—notice the expressions of the models, which are very dark, almost threatening. Of course, there is still lots of comedy being created but in general it has veered increasingly towards a darker tone. The serious plots of opera fit in very well with this trend.

Abstract Story-telling
Although operas in the standard repertoire follow linear narrative models, there is also a strong sense of the “episodic” and the “abstract” due to 1) the abstract quality of music itself, 2) the reduction of text to emotional essence, 3) “narrative jumping” (skipping often large segments of logical narrative progression), 4) the basic sur-reality of characters expressing themselves through singing (or “primal screams”) and 5) The “time stretch” of opera, which creates a further sense of “sur-reality”. In our post-Freudian, post-Jungian world, the language of dreams and/or the subconscious plays an increasingly large role in story-telling methods. In contemporary story-telling, there is greater focus on emotionally-charged episodes, which are more loosely connected than in more traditional linear-narrative models. This is especially the case in what our youth are exposed to, like music videos and cartoons. In commercial film, techniques of fragmentation are increasingly being used: flashbacks, stories told in reverse, “puzzle” structure, dream sequences and the like. Many of these devices are used in contemporary television programming. Even in advertisement commercials, which last 30-60 seconds, complete stories are being told in super-short fragments. Finally, advancements in computer-generated imagery techniques offer unlimited potential for special effects: what once would have been considered bizarrely surreal or abstract has now become the norm. The fundamental abstract quality of opera is in line with all of these trends.

The problems with opera as presently produced in America

There are a number of opera-production “ways-of-life” that, in totality, do not bode well for the future, both in terms of basic sustainability and interfacing with present-day social/cultural conditioning.

• The standard repertoire has too high a proportion of old work to new work
• The cost of producing opera has become too high
• The audience is too small
• There are too few good new works
• The standard works are too long and move too slowly
• The production style, as a whole, is antiquated
• The theaters are too big
• “Opera” as a term is a source of ridicule in our culture

Repertoire
The standard repertoire is comprised of masterpieces. These great works of art should be preserved, re-explored and valued. However, I don’t believe that any art-form can be truly vital to a broad cross-section of the public, if it consists of so high a proportion of old work relative to new work. What is this proportion of old work to new? According to Opera America, in the 2003-04 season opera companies staged 587 productions of opera, operetta and musicals. Only 14 of these were world premieres. That translates to 97.7% existing work to 2.3% new work. And while much of this older body of work transcends the topical to achieve universal status, there is just as much that is not really relevant to our time.

This preponderance of old work has put unnatural pressure on interpreters to create new ways of doing this old work, in order to satisfy the natural desire for new.

Why is “new” so important? Because one of the most intense U.S. social/cultural conditionings is its emphasis on youth/new. It is everywhere, pervasive, dominant. “Old” is no longer respected, desired, aspired to or coveted. In previous times “old” and ‘great” were bonded into one concept (and that is still true today in some cultures). Attaining an old age automatically meant attaining greatness. Now, in the U.S. at least, this is no longer the case. “Greatness” is associated with youth/new. On one level, “old opera” is not valued in our popular culture simply because it is old.

Today the proportion of old work to new work is vastly different from what it was in the 17th though 19th centuries, when the masterpieces that we present now were being created. There were many more new works being created in proportion to old works being presented. Most of these have long been forgotten—for good reason. But we greatly underestimate the true value of these forgotten pieces: not as individual works of art but as a foundation or springboard for the masterpieces—a Petri dish, if you will. A fundamental question we must grapple with is this: would the masterpieces we present today have come into existence were it not for the thousands of failed/forgotten operas that were created contemporaneously?

Why are we unable to provide this artistic Petri dish? Because opera is too expensive to produce and our audience is too small.

Too expensive to produce
Of course, opera is inherently more expensive to produce than the other classical art forms. I am not referring to this inherent high expense but to a specific factor that has arisen in the 20th century: collective bargaining groups-. First, to be clear, I am not anti-union. Unions arose during the industrial revolution for a very good reason and should continue to exist in any capitalist economy. In the capitalist, commercial sector the financial incentive to abuse workers is very intense and protections against these abuses are vital. However, collective bargaining philosophies, rates and conditions transferred from the commercial sector over into the non-commercial (a.k.a. non-profit) sector nearly lock, stock and barrel.

While abuse of workers by management can happen for any reason, it is far less likely to occur in a non-commercial environment for the simple reason that such organizations, as a matter of law, are not permitted to make financial profit. Even in the rare event when such entities end the year with a dollar surplus, this money is not distributed to the owners, Board of Directors or shareholders, as is the case in commercial enterprises. These surpluses must remain within the company assets. Bonuses to employees are sometimes given but rarely are the entire proceeds disbursed. So, what happens to this surplus money? Essentially, it is plowed back into the company product, which is the art—or the indirect support of the art.

Should there be any collective bargaining group agreements in the non-commercial sector? Absolutely. The problem is that these agreements are far too similar to those in the commercial sector. The result of this is simple: artificially high costs in relation to earned income. Consequently, available capital to expend on the art itself follows a consistent downward trajectory. This reality not only negatively affects the quality of what we produce but also discourages risk-taking of any kind, whether it is the creation of new work, exploration of unusual repertory or progressive productions.

Small Audience
According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ most recent statistics, 2% of the adult population attended at least one performance of opera. This same document asserts that 17% of the adult population attends what is termed “musical plays” (Broadway musicals), which is essentially the same media as opera. Why the huge difference in these numbers?

Because the audience share is so small, the percentage of earned income (ticket sales) to start up costs (per production) is very low. This means costs cannot be recouped at the box office, which in turn means other revenue streams must be found. Traditionally, these are mostly in the area of philanthropy. In Europe, this occurs in large measure through direct government support. It is a common, yet incorrect, belief that the US Federal government does not subsidize not-for-profit art organizations. What is true is that it does not directly fund the arts (except in very small measure through the NEA). It funds indirectly through the charitable contribution deduction. In the U.S. this philanthropy comes primarily in the form of individuals and foundations. There is also corporate support and though this is increasingly marketing-based, rather than philanthropic, the problem is the same: because the production of opera is so intensely dependent on these forms of philanthropy and because this philanthropy is dominated by a very small number of individuals, the pressure to please these individuals is far too great to support the creation of Art.

Side Bar #1: Art versus Entertainment—what is the difference? First of all, they are not mutually exclusive. Second of all, there is a big difference between the nouns (art, entertainment) and their adjectives (artistic and entertaining). Entertainment can be artistic and art can be entertaining. However, there is a fundamental difference between Art and Entertainment. The prime function of Art is to disturb the status quo; the prime function of Entertainment is to confirm the status quo. One shakes up our world with the implication that things either need to change or can change, the other relaxes us with the implication that everything is OK just as it is.

We need them both in our lives.

However, human nature being what it is, most of us would rather relax than have our outlook on reality challenged. If you believe that opera is Art, then there is an inherent problem with so few individuals controlling the financial viability of opera organizations to the extent it occurs in America. In effect, this arrangement necessitates artistic choices that are both conservative and Entertainment-oriented. This means presenting tried and true classics, produced in conservative ways; which makes producing new work very risky business—except for the instant masterpieces, which can’t be created without all the failures, which can’t be permitted because there is too big a financial risk, because the costs are artificially high and the fiscal health of the organization is dependent on too few individuals.

We should remember that a great many of the masterpieces disturbed the status quo at the time of their creation.

Side Bar #2: I hear a not-so-distant alarm bell sounding in regard to philanthropic giving, upon which all non-commercial arts groups are deeply dependent. It would be very difficult to assess to what extent philanthropic giving is due to the laws that allow a tax deduction for contributions made to non-commercial (a.k.a. not-for-profit) organizations. But it seems that a high proportion of philanthropy is related to the tax break. The present Federal fiscal problems are projected to continue over the next 20-30 years, with very large annual deficits and an exponentially rising national debt. Baby-boomers hitting retirement age are already creating fiscal panic, as are the numerous ramifications of the increase in life expectancy.

Is it conceivable that the tax deduction for charitable giving will be reduced or eliminated? Some in the know are doubtful, citing that religious groups and social service agencies would be too hot a political potato to touch. However, what would happen if arts organizations were segregated from religious and social service groups? I do not think this is beyond possibility, brought to you by the same people who have been trying to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts for many years now. If eligible charitable organizations were ever split along artistic and non-artistic lines, it would be a very short step indeed to the elimination of the deduction for contributions made to artistic groups. That would be catastrophic.

Why aren’t there more good new works?
A question asked with increasing frequency. Because new work cannot be consistently, systemically supported, no “laboratory” for librettists and composers has developed—there are no research facilities. Would we expect scientists to discover the cure for cancer without doing hundreds of failed experiments?

No laboratory means very, very few experienced opera composers. Consequently, we co-opt successful composers from the instrumental world (mostly symphonic) and film media. The symphonic world has a built-in laboratory: mixed programming. A ten to twenty minute new work can be imbedded between Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The same is true with ballet. Film is commercial and populist so the lab is very well funded, in much the same way that Microsoft internally funds their own research and development department.

The problem with co-opting composers from these other media is that the way music functions in these various media is vastly different than the way it functions in opera. Therefore, most of these new works fail.

Symphonic work depends on a certain amount of time for the musical structure and thematic development to be perceived by the ear—the entire story must be told aurally. It must be “absolute” music without words. The prime function of film music is to provide emotional cueing and atmosphere: it is an aural editor, a tool of the director to tell his/her story. Its sole function is to support what is happening visually. The function of music in opera falls between that of symphonic and film: the music must have an “absolute” power, which is to say it must have the ability to tell a story all by itself but must also play a supporting role to the visual and dramatic story-telling, which means it must move along much faster, dramaturgically speaking, than its symphonic counterpart. Additionally, these wonderful composers usually are not experienced in writing for the unamplified voice, in a large theater.

Similar problems exist with opera text creation. Again, because there is no opera lab we have no choice but to co-opt wonderful writers from other media: poets, novelists, playwrights—and the more famous the better. The way text functions in opera is vastly different than the way it functions in these other media, which are either meant to be read or to be heard as text without music.

I’d like to pause for a moment to emphasize that any inferred criticism of composers and librettists who work on opera is completely contrary to my intentions here. The majority of those who work on new opera are brilliant artists. It is the system that is at fault in not providing the proper process for growth through repeated opportunities.

Finally, where are the dramaturgs? In this mix of excellent, sometimes famous, but relatively inexperienced opera music and text makers, the dramaturgical work often gets ignored, mishandled or completely forgotten. Opera dramaturgy is a very particular animal. Perhaps a better title to use is Dramatist—in any case, someone who looks after the “skeleton” of the new piece, the way the piece functions and flows dramaturgically.

OK, so we have no laboratory. But the natural pressure for “new” still compels companies to produce new work. Unfortunately, this urge collides with the huge risk factor, which in turn increases the pressure for new works to be “instant hits”. So, in desperate attempts to enhance the prospect for “instant hits”, we co-opt not only famous composers and writers but also successful titles from other media and adapt them for opera. Most frequently, this means either novels or plays—but also famous, recent historical events (or figures). The Great Gatsby, Little Women, A Streetcar named Desire, Dead Man Walking, The Grapes of Wrath, A view from the Bridge, Our Town, The Handmaids Tale, The Elephant Man, The Golden Ass, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, Jackie O, Marilyn, Malcolm X, the list is endless. Co-opting successful material is not new to opera, but combined with the present lack of writers (librettists) and composers experienced in opera-making, too great a proportion of these works fail because the transformation of these works from their original media into the language of opera fails. This is very dangerous because each failure of something that was successful in another medium tends to underscore opera as a failed art form.

From reading this, one might infer that I believe no good opera is being written. Not so. But I think we could all easily agree that not enough good opera is being written, and certainly not enough to supplant the standard repertory to any significant degree—and that is what would be necessary to ensure that opera remains a vital art form.

Another related, very important point is that new work is rarely sung by singers with ravishing voices. This occurs for several reasons, the most common of which is that new work often takes more time to learn and is more taxing on the voice and the singers with the most ravishing voices can make a much more profitable investment of their time and resources by learning standard repertoire. New works are usually presented only once, a poor investment for a singer. So what we generally get are singers with, at best, good voices and in a surprising number of cases downright unattractive voices. Therefore, generally speaking, an audience at the premiere of a new work is encountering unfamiliar music, usually much more complex than the standard repertory (which they know better anyway, from repeated exposure), less tuneful (which the ear has more difficulty comprehending) and sung with unattractive voices—and, of course, often in a huge theater. If all new work were sung with absolutely ravishing voices, the audience would at least be experiencing aural pleasure in exchange for their efforts—and chances of success would be much enhanced.

Standard operas are too long and move too slowly
When most of our opera classics were composed, social conditioning was vastly different in every respect from our current cultural climate. An evening at the opera was (in the pre-20th century experience) a very complex event, involving much more than the opera performance itself: social and business intercourse, political deal-making, dining, personal intrigue, etc. An evening at the opera needed at least 3-4 hours for everything to transpire—and the more intermissions, the better. Additionally, because of the various distractions (let’s remember the auditorium remained illuminated up until the time of Wagner), the dramaturgy needed to move along more slowly and repetition of text and music was necessary in order for everyone to get the story, in between their other forays away form the stage.

Today, we are conditioned to feature film length (generally 100-130 minutes, without intermission). This has become the standard to which most of the public is accustomed to absorbing a story in a darkened theater. Everything moves faster, including the dramaturgy. Because the auditorium is dark, our attention is completely focused on the stage, experiencing what is there as if under a microscope. The basic tempo of the standard repertoire is out of line with present day social conditioning.

Antiquated production style
In opera production, where there is very little new work, the quest to achieve “new” tends to concentrate itself in the area of stage direction and design because the range of noticeable novelty is fairly hard to achieve on the musical side of the equation, in part due to current social conditioning toward visual over aural sensitivity. So, we look toward directors and designers to supply the novelty. After decades of so-called Regietheater in Europe, the director must go further and further afield to create something novel, very often resulting in artificial and even perverse interpretational work. America has increasingly been following this course (some call it Euro-trash) but it has evolved to the point where opera directors are no longer adequate to generate novelty. Now theater and film directors are engaged to achieve that goal; famous architects and visual artists are brought in to design the scenic environments. But because the American funding mechanism is different than Europe’s, these attempts at novelty bump up against conservatism in a more violent way. This results in two very unfortunate occurrences:

1) reactionary forces push the work in even more conservative directions and
2) it spawns/encourages endless arguments about the liberties that directors and designers take versus the intentions of the composer—which distract from the primary argument, which should be about the proportion of old work to new work.

The preponderance of old work pitted against the conditioned expectation for new not only keeps opera boxed into these fruitless arguments but it also distracts us from fully appreciating just how different story-telling is today. In this regard there is a huge disconnect between our little opera universe and the 98% of the adults in our society who do not attend opera. How we will continue to perform these great classics and attract at least some portion of this 98% of non-opera-attendees will depend on many factors. But one of the most important issues will be the way these works are presented. I am not speaking about updating or a multi-media approach but about getting in tune with much more profound visual and story-telling techniques.

Theaters are too big
Relatively few of the standard repertoire operas were composed for theaters larger than 1500-1700 seats and many premiered in theaters far smaller, of 600-1000 seats. La Scala is the notable exception. Opera is no less particular than any other art form, which is to say, if we trust the intelligence of the creators of this body of work, we must trust that they crafted their pieces to have the most impact in theaters of smaller seating capacity and designed such that the audience is closer to the stage. Do we really expect that nothing is lost in presenting these works in theaters twice or three times larger than originally intended? Imagine watching Gone with the Wind on a 20” television. The relationship between media, content and experience is dynamic, inter-dependent. Simply put: energy dissipates over distance. The energy of sound, light and personal charisma diminishes almost exponentially in these large houses, which are large in both the number of seats and in sheer cubic footage of the auditorium.

In response to such cavernous spaces, opera performers instinctually exaggerate gestures, interpretational expression and push vocal production in order to reach the back rows. This approach falsifies everything. Sitting in the near rows, for those who can afford it, only serves to offer those patrons a close-up experience of bad opera performance. Even in those large theaters that have a great acoustical environment and excellent sightlines, the performances can be heard and seen—but not felt. And if opera is about anything, it is about triggering intense feelings in the audience.

In smaller theaters, the work of both the composers/librettists and of the performing artists can be more subtle and credible, drawing us in much more. Because we are receiving the communication signals faster (because we are closer) we have more mental concentration to piece these subtleties together. Most of the time, opera in a large theater is a distant, artificial, boring blur.

But there is additional, crucial fallout from producing opera in very large spaces: the audience has difficulty absorbing anything unfamiliar. The more unfamiliar the material is, the more necessary it becomes to experience it in an intimate setting in order to “get it”. This goes for new work, unusual interpretations, new production styles—anything unfamiliar.

Why do we have such large theaters? I don’t know. Maybe because everything in America tends to be big, compared to Europe. But I am fairly certain why we continue to operate in large theaters: because we desperately need to maximize income because the costs are artificially high.

“Opera”, a term of ridicule
Opera has a very deeply imbedded negative image in American culture which gets constantly perpetuated. It is almost always used as an image of either ridicule or snobbery, unlike the other classical art forms. Uses of these other art forms in feature films are almost always treated in a credible, quality way. Yet opera does not achieve this status. Even in films like Pretty Woman the opera episode (which is serious in tone) is depicted in ways that underscore a negative stereotype: La Traviata, an old work, in old-fashioned scenery.
This consistent ridicule of the art form is a further obstacle for opera in terms of attracting the 98% of the adult population who do not attend. For this group, the fact is that the word “opera” conjures up compelling reasons, almost insurmountable, for not attending.

Summation
What all this means so far is that our opera audiences are experiencing old works which are repetitious and move too slowly in spaces in which they can’t feel much and what they can see and hear is exaggerated and false.

The Mystery
So why are there still opera devotees at all and why are they notoriously intense in their passion about opera?

It’s not surprising to me that there are passionate opera devotees because of all the positive points I made earlier about the art-form itself. Opera functions at all in this country because once a person is “hooked”, they can be developed into a devoted donor, in large part because our government offers a tax deduction for charitable contributions.

This very small group of people (which is getting continually smaller or, at least, certainly not larger) continues to support it in the way it is badly produced because when they attend a performance of one of the standards (some 90% of the overall output), they are actually not experiencing what is on the stage before them. They are experiencing a combination, a synthesis of what is on stage and what is in their hearts and memories.

Nostalgia is a natural, human need. When we experience something pleasurable, we wish to re-visit it. Since it is impossible to re-create the initial pleasurable experience exactly as it first occurred, we synthesize the approximation of the original event with our memory of the original version (of course, our memory is selective and has edited out all the bad, boring parts of the original!) This synthesis is what creates the pleasure. Nostalgia trips also confirm the “known” and “comfortable”. They generally make us feel in control of our reality, less afraid of life.

In opera this phenomenon is perhaps more prevalent than in other art forms. Why? Because the synthesis between the memory and the actual re-creation being witnessed is such that more pleasure is being derived from the memory than from the re-creation. Why? Mainly because our theaters are too large. In these large-theater experiences, it is the internal opera we bring in with us that puts the distant, blurry experience into some sort of focus.

But what about the 98% of the adult population who don’t attend opera, those who don’t have those positive memories—who, in fact, have only images of ridicule in their hearts and minds? What do people from this group experience when they attend opera for the first time in a large space? Well, they are most probably attending because of an invitation or recommendation and are only willing to buy the cheapest seats, unless they are trying to impress a date. This means they are very likely sitting in bad seats and/or far away from the stage. They are fully experiencing exactly and only what is on the stage because they have no previous incredible opera experience to bring with them—no Tebaldi singing Vissi d’arte in their inner ear. So what are they getting: a kind of funky event, put on for rich people who belong to a club (of which they are not a member) with really big people the size of ants in weird, old costumes screaming at them for a really long time, in a foreign language (with the subtitles in the wrong place), in a strange story from centuries ago, standing in front of giant walls and doorways, holding oversize goblets and swords—sort of like a circus or a renaissance fair (without the good food). Is it surprising that these people generally do not return on a regular basis, if at all, or if they happen to attend a magical performance they may decide to try it again every once in a while—especially the one with the elephants?

Part Two — THE FUTURE OF OPERA

How will it be possible to realize the very high potential of the art form while breaking out of the suffocating box in which opera production currently finds itself?

The basis of this attempt should be the understanding that whatever it is we do, it must somehow reach a much broader band of audience. The 2% attendance figure must be significantly higher in order to overcome some of the other problems. This figure should be closer to at least 5%, if not more.

Clearly, a radical approach will be necessary to achieve this attendance goal, to address the production problems cited above and to align the art form more closely to the current/future cultural trends. In other words, opera must approach commercial viability to a much greater extent. To do that, it needs to become significantly more “entertaining” in order to capture a larger audience share in the face of all the other available forms of Entertainment. But we should also note that entertainment has evolved. It needn’t be superficial drivel anymore, all glitz and no serious content. And I believe that unamplified sound—as long as the voices are natural, fresh, clean and rich—will be a welcome change from what is currently out there in commercial Entertainment. I believe the public is looking for “shows” with substance and beauty as well as razz-ma-tazz.

The notion of radically changing opera is frightening to all of us who love the art form just the way it is. Why should we change it? Why dumb it down just to appeal to a wider audience? It has survived for 400 years, why alter it now? What will happen to the great traditions?

Hopefully, there will always be a place for opera just the way it is. I am not suggesting we do away with it—as if that were even possible. But I believe there exists a much larger audience that can be tapped if we are willing to alter it in such a way as to retain its powerful essences and jettison aspects that just don’t work well anymore.

Here are some notions of what the future opera experience might be like:

The Total Experience
First, we need to create an attractive and very convenient environment for the performance event. Increasingly, much more of the patron’s decision-making is affected by ease, comfort and logistics, therefore we need to make it a “no brainer” to attend. This means parking (or egress) with easy access to the auditorium and with parking entrances and exits organized in such a way that arriving at the last minute and leaving after the performance is not at all a daunting prospect.

What happens for the patron before and after the performance needs to be a performance in its own way. By that, I mean it needs to be created in a very considered manner. The ambience of the lobby needs to be highly energetic, classy, bright and fun in order to have the proper contrast to the serious but dazzling performance they are about to witness. The “pre-show experience” should be designed and directed to compliment what is about to be presented onstage. It should have a real “concept”, one that either overtly or subliminally prepares the public for what they are about to experience in the theater itself.

Same is true of the after-performance atmosphere, though this will be a shorter event. It should be designed to “wrap things up” for the public. This could be quite subtle and simple, dealing with just the right lighting atmosphere. This means the lobby must also be equipped with lighting and other atmospheric devices (music, décor, fragrance?) that can be adjusted for each different production. It is kind of a theater itself.

Food and drink is an increasingly dominant aspect of our lives, so this aspect must also be “designed”. In short, everything the patron experiences prior to and after the show must be so pleasurable that it “imprints” itself emotionally. These pleasurable feelings will become mingled with the memory of the performance and the patron will value their evening at the theater accordingly.

There are other aspects of pre-performance that need equal attention: the website, advertising, the ticket-buying process, etc. All of these aspects need to be “designed”.

A New Theater Model
The ideal theater will have a seating capacity of 1200-1500 seats, configured in such a way as to place everyone in the audience as close to the stage as possible; it will have a superb acoustic, perfect sightlines all the way to the back of the stage house, with wide seats and ample leg room. The auditorium lighting will be bright and energetic as the audience enters, but when performance starts can become eerily dark.

The stage house needs to be equipped in a state-of-the-art way, to accommodate all sorts of special effects, mechanical and technical wonders—not unlike Baroque theater models. A vital aspect of new opera will be the visual spectacle and this must be easily accommodated every step of the way. In new opera, the technical and lighting capabilities will be as important as the music, story and performers.

A New Organizational Model
The new opera organization will be a hybrid: non-for-profit legal status operating in a more commercially viable way. Unearned income will continue to be necessary, but the goal would be to reduce the dependence on it substantially and increase the earned income to cover upwards of 70% of the expenses. This new model would combine a “love of the art” approach with commercial incentives.

A New Cost Model
That the new opera organization will need to be administered with a superior level of efficiency, from soup to nuts, goes without saying. Find the most efficient models in the commercial world and emulate them.

The new opera organization will be a non-union environment or, perhaps, a union environment re-invented to fit within a non-commercial universe. There will be certain working conditions in the existing standard contracts that will be retained, others that will be jettisoned. The compensation packages will be competitive enough to attract talented people, however we shouldn’t think solely about the pay scale. There are other items that talented people find increasingly important, like those that affect quality of life. The new opera will still be expensive to produce, but will take down the expense a big notch.

New Material
What will this audience be experiencing?

The hallmarks of new opera would be:
• The use of the word “opera” would be completely absent.
• Beautiful, unamplified singing, produced in a completely natural way, without the false coloring, wide vibratos or pushed sound that often characterizes most opera singing.
• Physical type-casting would be pursued to the greatest extent possible.
• Directors and Conductors would be principals in the casting process.
• A robust physicality would be a dominant aspect of each production.
• Live orchestra of small to medium size, possibly with subtle sound enhancement to approximate a “surround sound” during moments when an overpowering musical sound-scape is needed.
• A sophisticated sound system for delivery of sound effects and atmospheres.
• The duration of each piece would be about 100-120 minutes, without intermission.
• Use of abstract, episodic story-telling techniques.
• Use of projected imagery techniques.
• Vibrant and intelligent use of color
• Heavy emphasis on lighting and potent visual imagery
• Mixture of sung and spoken text, as needed to advance the story. Text would be in English.
• Dramaturgs would become principal players. The dramaturgy would be fast moving without feeling rushed or pushed and the production concepts would be “air-tight”.
• Rehearsal periods would be long, more on the European model of 6-8 weeks
• Previews would be used as a tool to refine the product before the official opening.
• Exploring the potential to capture the events on video and the web would be key—also developing techniques to make live performance really work in video media.

Eventually, a body of new work would be created especially for this new approach. However, since there is no lab for opera at present we might start off re-visioning existing opera classics to fit this new approach, altering existing classics by shortening, re-orchestrating, composing new transitions where necessary, transposing as needed, adjusting text as needed–and this process would involve the conductor, director and designers from the very beginning of the process.

Opera is an amazing art form. I find it to be the richest and most satisfying of the classical arts and have devoted my career to it in joy and astonishment. While I know it will somehow survive, I fear it may not fare well in our American society–and I want it to be accessible to many more Americans, not only so that it might flourish, but so it might enrich more lives through its power. If the thoughts above can in some small way inspire ideas that help achieve this goal, I will feel greatly rewarded.

National Opera Association Convention Presentation

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I just returned from New York City and the National Opera Association Convention at which I was a presenter for one of their sessions. The subject I was given was how to help singers improve their auditions and I was allowed 45 minutes to get the job done (!). Always up for a challenge, I thought about what I could say/do in the time frame to get something meaningful across, rather than simply offer “band-aid” advice. So I decided to focus on acting values and tried to narrow the focus down to one thing. I chose the topic of how to grip an audiences’ attention, how to be a riveting performer. It was an interesting exercise on how to distill the ideas and I put together a quick PowerPoint presentation to help give some coherence to what I had to say. If you are curious about it, go back to my Home page and click on the link in the “My Book” section and you will be able to view those ideas.

I hope you enjoy them! And please do be in touch with comments and questions.

Opera Philadelphia

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I was able to catch a performance of Opera Philadelphia’s production of Nabucco, conducted by Music Director Corrado Rovaris in a production designed and directed by Thaddeus Strassberger. It was the first time this opera had been presented by this company and was cause for celebration in this Verdi bi-centennial year.

This was a rich and interesting experience, an adventure well worth taking. I salute Opera Philadelphia and their co-producers (Washington National Opera and Minnesota Opera) for taking the risk involved and for successfully bringing it to fruition. The production approach involved framing the opera within a story about the premiere of the opera at La Scala in 1842, the idea being that Nabucco actually had a political impact by spurring Italians to revolt against the oppressive control of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which held Italy in its grip at that time. The famous chorus “Va, pensiero” became the unofficial national anthem and Verdi eventually became a kind of folk hero of the Risorgimento movement.

During the overture, there were supers dressed as Austrian soldiers who came down the aisles of the theater and opera patrons of the period who were ushered across the stage (?) and into one of the theater’s boxes from which they observed the opera itself and were sometimes lit and interacted with the event onstage. Because the performance took place at the Academy of Music, which itself was somewhat modeled on the design of La Scala, one had a solid sense of the period.

On the whole, I found that the framing device, while an interesting nod to the historical significance of the opera, was not developed fully enough to justify its inclusion. The set-up (Austrian soldiers in the theater, opera patrons in 1840’s clothing) was a gloss on the reality it was trying to portray–how could it have been otherwise? But more than that, there was no possibility to construct a satisfying drama within the framing device–again, how could that have been possible? So, by headlining the framing device but not being able to fulfill the expectations it spawned, the concept remained on the level of historical information–not uninteresting but also not inherently theatrical–leaving the opera itself in a sort of no-man’s land of existence. Was the opera proper a foil to the framing device? Or was it a theatrical reality in and of itself? Only at the very end, during the curtain calls, was a real connection made between the singers and the frame characters, when the prima donna enacted a kind of protest against the patrons in the opera box (who were presumably Austrian?) by throwing the bouquet of flowers she had been honored with back at the patrons. To have this one action be the culmination of the conceit struck me as a weak, and late, attempt to tie everything together–although it did motivate a reprise of the famous “Va pensiero” chorus quite nicely. What it also supplied was a surprise, which was terrific. Sadly, it upstaged the opera…

The other interesting thing was the effect the framing device had on the actual opera. It motivated a sort of historical re-production in terms of the scenery, which put on display a nearly lost art of two-dimensional scenery. The program notes even mentioned that the designs were painted by one of the artisans from La Scala itself–and this was a lovely notion. The scenery was colorful, featuring false perspective and other techniques of simulating reality in theatrical language. The clothing seemed to echo that stylistic approach to some degree.

The question that kept arising in my mind was whether the singers were instructed to employ the acting style of the period. And this was where the aesthetic confusion lay for me, because I saw no potent use of the “attitudes” that I associate with the acting style of that period. It struck me as a sort of slightly heightened naturalism. The problem with this approach (if it indeed was the directorial approach, I could not tell) is that it came across to me simply as poor, provincial level acting. And this was a real blow to believing in the opera itself.

I have directed Nabucco once (see photos of that production on this website) and fully appreciate how difficult it is to pull off successfully. The dramaturgy is riddled with contrivance, it is extremely difficult to cast–especially the roles of Abigaille and Zaccaria, and a great Nabucco is also not easy to find. To assemble singers capable of the vocal demands and who are good actors is a very tall order. Opera Philadelphia certainly found a capable group. Morris Robinson, as Zaccaria, displayed a truly distinctive sound with a timbre that seemed to match the grandeur of the role. Ismaele was unusually strong for this critical but underdeveloped role; Adam Diegel’s sound was clarion and heroic and he cut a great figure onstage. In a very real way, he showed the most distinction as a singing-actor. I wish I could be more positive about the rest of the cast. Perhaps it was the concept itself, in its conceit that this was the premiere performance at La Scala, that unwittingly raised vocal expectations beyond what could be realized by this wonderful company? The chorus should never go unmentioned in this opera and they were absolutely splendid, delivering power and beauty in equal measure, spurred on by the eloquent, crisp and rich conducting by Maestro Rovaris.

All in all, an interesting night at the opera house and kudos to all the artists involved. It made me more deeply consider the technique of supplying a framing device (an opera within an opera, a dream, etc.) and how such a device can really enhance the main story…or not. When a production stimulates this kind of response it is well worth the effort and I am thankful for having seen it.

 

Glimmerglass Festival

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A few weeks back I made the beautiful trek up to Glimmerglass Festival to see a couple of the productions (unfortunately not able to see all the offerings). Experiencing opera of this quality in an intimate theater surrounded by such natural beauty is a rare treat. I had last been there in 2008, when I directed the US premiere of DAS LIEBESVERBOT (an interesting piece, visit the portfolio page to view photos) and I really miss this wonderful company and hope to return soon.

The first night I saw Cesca Zambello’s clean, focused production of DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER. I make it a habit to avoid reading the program before performances because I like the experience of not knowing the names of the performers in advance. Many times, I recognize them from previous outings but occasionally I am both stunned by a performer and have no idea who they are. This was the case with the Senta. She was extraordinary and I could not for the life of me place her. The voice projected like a laser beam wrapped in velvet. The soft singing was floaty and gorgeous. Her acting was totally committed and energized in just the right way. I thought “Glimmerglass has made a stunning discovery. Who IS this wunder-soprano?” Turned out to be Melody Moore, with whom I had worked briefly at CCM a few years back–but I did not recognize her in the slightest. For me, she was the ideal Senta and I know she will be highly sought after for lyric Wagnerian roles very, very soon–or what’s this world coming to? Fantastic. This is not to diminish the excellence of the rest of the cast, but Melody truly stood out.

The following day another nice surprise, the final dress of UN GIORNO DI REGNO, Verdi’s first comedy. Sparkling music not-stop, but also lovely bel canto segments. It was the kind of production which made me wonder why this piece is not done a little more often. Certainly the plot is very thin and the various turns of events seem clichéd and contrived but equally true is that this piece stands up very well in comparison to many an occasionally-performed Donizetti opera. The two women in the cast, Jacqueline Echols and Ginger Costa-Jackson, a mezzo-soprano who sounded to me like a soprano, were absolutely stellar. Jackie is a recent grad from the CCM Artist Diploma program but this was her first role which demanded comic spark and verve–and she showed a very different side of herself, which I hope she continues to explore. Ginger lit up the stage and dominated every scene in which she appeared, singing beautifully even when being asked to perform some very physically demanding action. Andy Wilkowski was his usual excellent self, both very funny and humane. Beautifully conducted by Joe Colaneri, GF’s new Music Director–buoyant with teeth and grit.

The production by Christian Räth was bright and zany and really helped keep this thin piece alive in a great way. The farcical style started to wear thin after a while and I started to wonder if there was any possibility to deliver some depth in order to more fully appreciate the farce–but I am not sure if the piece would support that. Also, it was beautifully lit by Robert Wierzel, one of my favorite lighting designers.

Finally, got a look at CAMELOT and enjoyed the lovely production. Especially strong was the Guenevere Andriana Chuchman, she was riveting, humane and spunky in just the right measure as was Nathan Gunn as Lancelot. David Pittsinger brought an unusual level of vocal heft to Arthur, which was actually a little disconcerting at first but rewarding in many moments.

I love Glimmerglass in so many ways: casual yet serious, the intimate theater which has enough scope to embrace the power of opera and the real sense of artists as a family. A superb place for opera and under Cesca Zambello’s leadership it is flourishing.

How have your experiences at Glimmerglass been?

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