When I began writing this I was in New York City, drinking a glass of cheap wine from Trader Joe’s at about 12:30am. That’s the typical time I get anything personal done because myself and my colleagues at Mannes School of Music tend to be at school or practising or playing for something somewhere in the city between about 10am and 11pm most days. “Let’s just survive today”, says my friend Brianna, as we run down 13th street from our French Art Song class to Mannes Opera rehearsals, stopping only for an average quality New York City coffee and an excellent quality bagel, lest we lose concentration and miss an upbeat. That was a few months ago and I planned to write something like an essay answer to Heather Small’s immortalised question “What have you done today to make you feel proud?”. (Thanks to “Miranda” for being my favourite form of procrastination).
I didn’t write much then because I didn’t know who would appreciate a thousand-word-selfie of my first ten months in NYC. But first impressions are valuable so I tried again a month later when I was at the Miami Music Festival, drowning in production rehearsals for La Boheme, Die Walküre and The Crucible, trying not to injure myself with so many hours at the piano. I also found it curious to be writing for “Vocal Voyages”, not being a vocalist, and amused myself at the prospect of The O Word creating a blog series of “Accompanist Adventures” for me and my scarce colleagues. But I realised of course, my vocation (Collaborative pianist? Accompanist? Repetiteur? Musical life-jacket for singers?) is very much a vocal voyage – I sung in St George’s cathedral choir as a treble, I studied at UWA, WAAPA and LGNOS where the singers grew, I worked at WA Opera where the singers took the stage, I followed singers to New York and then to Miami and now I am in Greve, Italy surrounded by singers studying bel canto technique. I admit, this is absolutely my “vocal voyage” but what I actually want to talk about is the homogenisation of the operatic art form, whether opera is dying out and the struggles artists face when they try to create unstandardised art.
Firstly, what is opera and why does it exist? Entertainment? Spectacle? The power (emotional and acoustical) of the human voice? To be awed by achievement and dedication to craft? To build community and provide leadership? There’s plenty we can suggest but this is what the conductor Giovanni Reggioli convinced me of:
Jokes stop making you laugh if your hear them often enough. The happiest and saddest moments make you cry less and less as time goes on. I’m worried that some artists are forgetting our prerogative to create new catalysts to laugh, cry and think. It’s especially difficult for musicians who create “art in time”, as opposed to a painter’s “art in space” that remains unchanged, but I feel the very beauty of performance art is in the way it evolves with every new performer and circumstance.
When film gained huge popularity in the 1930s, the number of new operatic compositions dropped dramatically. There were still many operas performed in the following decades but existing works were favoured over new ones. I think, in economic struggle and in the wake film, opera just stopped being a place people went to be challenged and surprised.
Perhaps the trend was exacerbated around 1950 onwards by the explosion of opera recordings from EMI, Decca and RCA whose primary preoccupation was record sales. The greatest challenge was that the circumstance-dependent performance was to be decontextualised and immortalised in time (recordings turn music into “art in space” where only the observer changes with each iteration of the art). Since recording an album was an extremely expensive process, the product needed to be a one-size-fits-all. Thus, EMI, Decca and RCA required comfortably “correct”, “tasteful” performances by artists who would be pleasing to most (Callas, Stefano, Sutherland, Pavarotti, etc.) and couldn’t make any risky artistic choices lest they risk polarising their buyers and losing sales.
And this is the crux of my artistic frustration which I think can only be described as the “homogenisation of opera”. General-purpose tempi… rigidly revering manuscript to lazily justify performances with “we’re doing it as written”… the impressive yet cautious and subdued embellishments which we imitate decades later just because “they’re the Callas ornaments”… the insistence to make an artistic choice simply “because it’s tradition”… It seems kind of like democracy, where the goal is to make most people somewhat satisfied. Except opera isn’t about security, the common good or the placation of a country. Opera is dramatic.
The arguments for not-too-drastic artistic choices seem to revolve around concerns for ticket sales or critiques from opera professionals and reviewers like “in poor taste”, “terrible”, “trashy” or even, simply “wrong”, when they are discomforted by courageous artistry. Could it just be that these awfully judgemental responses stem from a “new” experience that was unlike the recordings/performances they’re familiar with?
And OK. Pump the brakes. Is it really anyone’s place to ever describe an artist’s creation as “wrong”? There is almost nothing useful that can be taken from that critique. Absolutism doesn’t really have a place in most of human existence, least of all art.
But back to taste – saying something is in poor taste could really just mean it’s not your taste. Good taste is worthy of existing, terrible taste is equally worthy. The only thing we should truly fear is not having taste. If “good taste” means “stylistic”, then you have a taste for stylistic accuracy. For an artist exploring stylistic disorientation, “good taste” can mean “unstylistic”. It still all makes worthy art if it gives you a visceral or intellectual response; whether it be Victor Borge parodies, a live symphony performance or the desire to riot in the streets after seeing Death of Klinghoffer.
NB: I’m not arguing against training good musicianship or learning about style; don’t rebel against the tools! What I’m talking about is being clear with yourself about who you are and why you’re an artist. Remember why you got into this impoverished, messy life. Express yourself beyond just molding your artistry to the artistry of your prospective Young Artist Program. Otherwise we’re suppressed chameleons, changing our views to mimic the expressive goals of others. That stifles creativity, I think.
So how far is too far? Does it matter?
I think John Cage went “too far” with 4’33”. But that’s me having a valid reaction to art. I do appreciate that, with his composition of nothing but dead silence, we better understand that silence is a powerful tool. For example, a cleverly executed pregnant pause in Mozart dry recitative could be more effective than any possible phonation. Cage’s composition makes you think.
There’s homogenisation and mediocrity in repertoire choices, too. Just before I left Perth I went to the forum for the National Opera Review, at which heard the general public’s thoughts on opera in Australia (since the taxpayer contributes to arts funding). The resounding recent trend was for “big hits” and existing productions to be regularly recycled to boost popularity, particularly among a prospective younger audience. However, the result was actually a decline in subscribers who were bored of the same seasons and a lack of new audience (perhaps alienation due to ignorance, music education in schools, length of performances, different cultural trends in younger generations…) Back in the other hemisphere, I’m very surprised that I don’t see a lot more contemporary or nationalistic American opera in New York. It seems like the perfect incubator for these things. And let’s remember, Mozart and Wagner wrote many operas that were performed and revised but never made it into the standard repertoire. If even they had to try many times before they produced their first masterpiece, then we could do with far more patience and support for our contemporary composers.
That importance of supportive stakeholders brings me to patronage, which I find particularly interesting in the US where arts endeavours are far more dependent on private funding than government funding or ticket sales. What frustrates me in NYC is the influence patrons have over artistic decisions. In their defence, they’re risking large sums of money but when they start making conditional donations like requesting certain artists, venues or production decisions, I can’t help but plead they allow the artist to do their job. Even in Australia, a government funded anti-smoking organisation tried to attach a condition to their pledge – that the company not produce Carmen. The logic was sound because they would be hypocritical to fund a performance that perhaps promotes smoking but I was nonetheless disappointed by the audacity of a donor to dictate artistic choices.
This isn’t new, of course. History is full of examples of artists aggressively arguing their cases for new ideas, different languages, less censorship, etc. Like Palestrina arguing in the 16th-century that polyphonic music should not be banned because well-set text could still be intelligible, artist-activist Ai Weiwei being arrested for speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party and promoting freedom of art, Mozart uncensoring Beaumarchais for his Marriage of Figaro, Michelangelo fighting against the censorship of nudity in his Sistine Chapel depictions. Patrons won’t give up the fight because they’re the ones risking the big bucks but that just means we need to be even more courageous as artists – making even better arguments for our artistic plans to make them laugh, cry and think.
With this atmosphere of declining ticket sales, an aging demographic, companies closing and fewer exceptional singers, is opera dying? Some evidence suggests so. For instance just now, Google Docs spell check suggested I correct the word “opera” to “Oprah”. But firstly, I don’t think ticket sales or operabase.com statistics are necessary a conclusive indication because the 21st-century brings with it alternative outlets for the art form. Secondly, although I’ve been told “Opera doesn’t make money. It’s not supposed to”, closing opera companies are merely an example of poor business management and/or inadequate artistic drive, not a reflection on the art form. However, if it is “dying”, I believe the liability is equally on artists and audiences – through the homogenisation of artistic choices on a mainstream level, lack of work ethic in young artists, absence of art exposure and education in younger generations and a global shift of focus towards intellectual skills rather than emotional, artistic, linguistic and cultural.
I can’t help but think of Kodak facing a steady decline in desire for it’s product in the ‘90s. Tweaking or modernising the camera film a little wouldn’t have saved them from bankruptcy, nor would creating more historically authentic film. Perhaps if they created some of both, in addition to embracing new camera technology and even creating more options the customers didn’t even realise they wanted yet. I recognise that opera isn’t technology but it has likewise been ultimately dependent on audience desire. Like Kodak’s customers, some opera audiences (myself included) will still go crazy for the old stuff, but others need a significant injection of new inspiration beyond tailoring and modernising.
The idea that many of us want opera to be constantly changing is a hopeful one for me. It’s so easy to get depressed by the past and the glory days of opera that have gone and the feeling that it’s all doom and gloom. Well yes, opera is an art form from the past but not of the past. We have so much to look forward to in the new ways that it is going to grow and change. You never know who is going to make that change. But change usually comes out of a dark or desperate place. Maybe opera will actually need to go out of business and become desolate for us to come up with great ideas that will work sustainably. Whatever happens, we who admire the art form must strive to artistically and emotionally educate and to create a growing smorgasbord of artistic output as diverse as the demographic is in culture, interests, income, attention span and age.
On that note, I’m heading back to Mannes to acquire all the tools I can from this wonderful school and this energetic city to thoroughly equip myself for whatever my musical future holds.