Recently, I posted a (perhaps) ill-advised status update on Facebook, marveling at what passes for classical music these days. It sparked a lively conversation about the general public’s perception of opera, and the idea that Paul Potts, Susan Boyle and Jackie Evancho might not be the most accurate representation of an opera singer.
The sheer number of comments and types of comments that I received were quite interesting. Of course, a large percentage of my friends on Facebook have some sort of connection to the opera world, and their responses were as I’d expect…showing a great deal of frustration that the Boccellis and Boyles of the world are what the public thinks of as opera. I spoke about this very fact in a previous post about “vocabulary building” for opera fans, and again…Marcy Richardson’s short video (linked in previous post) is a perfect description of uphill battle that many singers and opera fans face.
I was quite surprised by the backlash that my comments received from some folks. I was accused of being elitist. I was warned that in my current position as the general director of the Baltimore Concert Opera, I should think twice before posting anything that might offend our patron base. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’ve been able to clarify my thinking. I sincerely appreciate being challenged on this, because it has allowed me to spend some time really digging into what bothers me.
I would take no issue if someone preferred to listen to Susan Boyle, or Andrea Bocelli rather than Joan Sutherland or Luciano Pavarotti. Truly, I would not (you should see what is on my i-pod!) They both seem like very nice folks. It is not the fact that people like to listen to these folks that bothers me. It is that the public is being told to listen to these folks, and being told that this is opera. Producers found the “everyman” characters that the public can relate to, and have thrust their moderately talented faces in front of the camera. A few short years ago, late night TV had some class…you’d routinely see real opera singers getting a fair shake…Robert Merrill, Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, appeared right after Elvis, or the Beatles. Why is it that today, opera is being represented in the public eye by those who are rather ill-equipped to represent it?
One argument is that people need to “walk before they can run” when it comes to classical music. Of course, on some levels, I agree. I’ve written several posts on how opera takes a little investment on the part of the listener, and how a listener needs to gradually build their operatic vocabulary. My problem is that I do not think that a watered down “pops” version is a terribly effective way to bring people in….at least past the point of consuming watered down “pops” material. I don’t have any numbers on this (maybe someone out there does, and will share them with me) but I don’t think that pops/crossover material by singers and symphony orchestras ever really brings people in for the regular season. Sure, Josh Grobin has a pleasant voice…for once, I’d like to see Tim Mix appear right after him so that the public can make some decisions for themselves.
My theory is this:
Give the public something so extraordinary that they are compelled to find out more – Not : Give the public something pleasant, so that they can find some more pleasant, un-inspired garbage to listen to. Challenge people, and they might surprise you.
Recently, I had some hope that television producers might be getting it right. There was a lot of buzz about a project called LONESTAR OPERA, which chronicled the off-stage lives of some opera singers (including our pal, Michael Mayes). LONESTAR OPERA was getting a lot of attention, until sadly, the good folks at the BRAVO network (remember when they used to show operas?) found that there was no room in their programming for such a show…I suppose they’d have had to bump the real housewives of who-cares-where in order to make room. This would have done wonders for the opera world…for the public to get to know characters like Michael off-stage….sadly, we’ve got to find another way to get the word out! Michael has picked up the gauntlet, and taken matters into his own hands with THE TEXAPOLITAN OPERA, I encourage you to sign up for his hilarious podcast, if you have any interest in the seedy underbelly of the opera world!
Opera singers…perhaps we can all follow Michael’s lead? Hollywood thinks that the American public is more interested (in some cases) in the story than in the talent. How can you tell your story? There are some great stories out there about football players turned opera singers (looking at you Mark Rucker) and bounty hunters turned opera singers (recent NYTimes article on Carl Tanner’s Met debut) what’s your story? How did you get here? Why do you devote hours of daily study to an art-form that the general public seems to be losing interest in? What are you going to do to help? You are some of the most interesting people I know….get to work.
Adam Hall’s tenor-dad blog is a pretty colorful commentary about the trials and tribulations of a stay-at-home-dad-when-he’s-not-traveling-and-singing opera singer. Any other fun things I’m missing?
OK, so maybe my thinking on this subject isn’t as clarified as I thought….this post sure rambled on!