Times are tough, invest in opera…a letter to Christina Aguilera

Opera is work to present, and sometimes requires effort to enjoy…but the payoff is well worth the investment.

presenting opera takes a lot of work, being a fan takes an investment as well, but the payoff is huge

I often like to draw people’s attention to the fact that the very word Opera, comes from the latin word meaning work.

I’ve discussed several times on this blog, the amount of work that goes into a successful operatic presentation.  From the amount of work that the singers and orchestral musicians must invest in order to prepare, to the many man-hours spent building and painting sets, designing and sewing costumes, marketing, fundraising, the list goes on.   I’ve often felt as someone who promotes opera, that we need to open up the doors a little, and invite the public to see the amount of work that goes into bringing this art-form to life.  Opera is the intersection of so many different arts, many of which happen long before the singers even board a plane.  Why are so many people anxious to invest time and effort into an inherently flawed business model?  (opera ticket sales rarely cover even half of the cost). Because the payoff is worth the effort.

This morning, as my wife and I were enjoying our morning coffee, we turned on the TODAY SHOW.  The summer concert series was presenting Christina Aguilera.  As I sat and watched, I was impressed with her skills as a performer.  She is obviously very polished, her performance was energetic, and yes…I even enjoyed her singing.  I wasn’t paying terribly close attention, as my wife and coffee were my focus.  I did find myself tapping my foot, and it was a pleasant back-drop on a beautiful spring morning.  I remarked to my wife as I looked at the sea of people crammed into the plaza, how nice it would be if people were this interested in opera.  Her response stopped me in my tracks.  “People don’t want to invest that kind of time.”

I spend so much time focusing on the amount of work that it takes to present opera, I have never given myself the chance to think about how much effort it takes in order to enjoy it to the fullest.  Why do people gravitate to pop music?  No insult Christina, as I mentioned above, I quite enjoyed your performance…but I fear that people gravitate to what is easy.  As I mentioned, this performance was background in my morning.  I tapped my feet, I felt good.  Really….and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I don’t mean to say that your performance didn’t take a great deal of effort, that you haven’t spent hours honing your craft…you obviously have.  What I mean is this:

  • The inherent musical language of pop music is simple, and accessible.  This is not a bad thing, it just “is what it is.”  I don’t mean to sound elitist, but my musical vocabulary is more advanced than the average guy, as I’ve devoted my life to studying it.  The average person responds to the simple chord progressions, because they “grew up on it.”  The musical language is unknowingly programmed into the human psyche, and becomes part of who we are.  The average civilian may not be able to pick up a guitar and play a simple I-IV-V progression, but they KNOW what it is, and they are comfortable.  Again, I don’t mean to say that this music is without value…quite the opposite.  I love that people respond to it…dance…feel good.

Opera is simply not as accessible, and takes an investment of time and energy in order to enjoy.

Courtesy of bunnicula on Flicker

I’m always careful when sending someone to the opera for the first time, to select a piece that is going to be accessible, and that will make them want to find out more.  Again, I do not mean to be condescending, but let’s face it…if we send someone without a frame of reference to Salome, we might have just missed an opportunity to make a fan.  Opera, in order to be truly enjoyed, takes some level of study.  The human brain can become familiar with a different musical vocabulary, even without the ability to analyze or describe it.  Just as Christina’s fans respond to the simple pop progressions, budding opera fans will be able to differentiate Mozart from Puccini.  After hearing a good bit of Verdi, their ears may be more open to the idea of Wagner…Strauss, etc.

In summation, if you are not yet an opera fan….give it another look.  Give it three looks.  Take a look at the people that are working to bring this expensive and difficult art-form to life.  Ask yourself why?  Find out more.  I’m not proposing that you wipe your I-pod playlist clear of Christina Aguilera, I’m suggesting that you make a little room for Giuseppe Taddei (RIP).  I promise that many of you, if you are willing to invest a little bit of time, will find untold musical riches in the world of opera.

What do you think prevents people from becoming opera fans?

Do you think that the art-form should just be allowed to die?

Any ideas regarding how we can reach a new audience?

Be part of the dialogue…


8 responses to “Times are tough, invest in opera…a letter to Christina Aguilera

  1. For the first question: What I seem to get asked most often by friends who either don’t like opera or are thinking about going to their first one concerns listening to singing in a foreign language and having to watch the supertitles to keep up with what’s going on. I try to explain how I don’t spend all my time watching the supertitles and that many opera-goers tend to know the story in advance so that they can enjoy the music and singing more without being distracted by the titles. It’s a mixed bag: It still pays me to glance at the titles now and then at certain moments, but I still don’t sit there trying to read all of them. (Does anyone ever?) I like Opera Vivente’s approach of singing in English, and there’s certainly plenty of precedence of earlier companies here and abroad singing in the tongue of the performance location, but I still like hearing opera in the original language.

  2. Clayton,

    Yes, we’ve all heard that objection before. I don’t understand a lick of Russian, but have enjoyed many a Russian opera at the Met with the aid of the titles. Rarely are things so rapid fire that you can’t glance at the titles occasionally in order to get the idea.

    Although I am a fan of some aspects of singing in the vernacular (for young singers especially, to really get a chance to dig into the drama) I find that singing (or listening) in English can be a tricky battle…it works for some pieces, but in my humble mind, destroys others. Not to say anything against the fabulous work going on over at OV, just my personal preference. I don’t know that a non-opera-goer would be any more moved by seeing Madama Butterfly in English…in fact, perhaps quite the opposite…as many composers knew what they were doing when they set certain words, certain ways. Personally, I think it’s the musical vocabulary more than the text…again, hard to know, as I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning about this art form…but an important dialogue to have. Thanks for chiming in.

  3. A quick thought from someone with moderate knowledge of classical music and foreign languages, but is by no means fluent in either vocabulary (including English, at times!)…

    The surtitles are usually present, yes, but they rarely need to be distracting. It’s song lyrics, and they frequently get repeated ad nauseum. With most librettos, you can feel free to admire the actors on stage without fear of missing some vital plot point. Anything important will be sung twice, echoed by another character, and then repeated by the chorus! Besides, every opera has the same plot: two people are forbidden to be in love, they fall in love anyway, and then comes death. All that varies is the number of bodies on stage when the curtain falls.

    Okay, I’m exaggerating. But not by much. The surtitles are important, but they aren’t everything. If the cast is decent, then I get as much information and pleasure from the emotion in their voices as I do from the text, even if I don’t know what’s being said.

    I guess my question is: how do we get someone to brave their fear of surtitles so they go to an opera and discover for themselves that it’s more than just reading in a dark theatre for three hours?

    • Dennis,

      A good question indeed. And some good points…we opera singers do repeat ourselves a good bit, and indeed, it ain’t opera if nobody dies. It is, after all…about the music. As far as getting people to get over their fears and come anyway…we’ve tried to let them know that we don’t mind if they bring their beer into the theater..that has helped a little. Keep the faith!

  4. I prefer reaching young audiences with traveling productions, such as, Seymour Barab’s “Little Red Riding Hood”. Kids love it, plus you get the parents involved too.
    What I miss the most is the traveling shows for adults. I used to look forward to the Met on tour. They would scale down the sets, but keep most of the principal singers. It was great. Unfortunately, opera being the most expensive art form, it is no longer affordable. We do have the “live in HD” at the theaters, but even though they are good, it is not the same as being in the audience.

    • Dear Brian,

      Thanks for chiming in. Although I agree that educational outreach for young audience is very important (I performed over 250 outreach performances in schools around Baltimore with the old Baltimore Opera) I have come to realize that the real issue is getting and keeping the parents involved. It’s terrific if we can expose kids to opera, but pointless if they go home and express an interest, only to be met with resistance by their parents. One company that combats this in a really creative way, is Sarasota Opera, where they have a full fledged “company within a company” which is the Sarasota Youth Opera. The kids actually perform in the opera house, and new operas are sometimes even commissioned for the program. This takes it a step further than exposure, to actual involvement…both at the student and parent level. Our main mission at the Baltimore Concert Opera is adult education….those who have not caught the opera bug elsewhere can have a place to come and be exposed to this music in a non-threatening environment. I too wish that we had more traveling productions happening today, perhaps in this tough environment we will see more of that. The “live in HD” subject seems like fodder for another post all-together…a controversial subject indeed. Thanks again for the comments.

  5. Some thoughts re attracting more people and keeping the art alive, perhaps to lead to future discussion: I wish companies could consider more opera written originally English. Britten has been well represented in the area. What about some of the recent new American operas like “Our Town”, “Moby Dick”, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Cold Sassy Tree”? Or Copland’s “The Tender Land”? Or Delius’ “Koanga”, perhaps? The OperaBaltimore web site had a good thread going in this vein.

  6. Pingback: Concert Opera – a vocabulary builder | Baltimore Concert Opera

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