The Trouble With Opera

IS it more prominent than ever, or disappearing from American eyes and ears? It may be some of both, in a time in which opera is played in movie theaters and opera companies struggle to survive.

An aptly ambivalent story by Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times looks at the strange predicament of American o350px-Metropolitan_Opera_auditoriumpera in 2014. Things were looking fine for a while, he says. “But during the final days of winter, a deadly opera virus hit. The first case was discovered in Southern California, threatening to fell San Diego Opera… Now, the virus has crossed the country. Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb recently told the Guardian newspaper in England that opera as an art form was in trouble.”

In some ways, things are lively and dynamic, he writes.

Opera has never had a wider or more anarchic reach. You can’t escape it. Opera is broadcast in cinemas and at Times Square in New York. Opera pops up on the streets, in parks and at clubs. Museums mount operas, often with the intention of reinvention. There have been opera performances of late in grocery stores and banks as well as at a wax museum in New York and Union Station in Los Angeles. Symphony orchestras everywhere do it. Hipsters in Brooklyn do it.

For what it’s worth, in the last year or so I’ve seen one of the most thrilling (Invisible Cities) and most frustrating (The Classical Style) operas of my life.

Swed’s story is well worth reading. And we’ll be curious how the trouble in San Diego, New York and elsewhere works out in the medium term.




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  1. Sarah says

    That virus seems to be self-inflicted in a lot of cases. If there is big money, and big egos, involved (i.e. San Diego and the Met) then the issues go way beyond revenues and expenses. If, to quote the headline of a recent Washington Post article by Anne Midgette on the very successful and just-completed summer season of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, “The Opera Theater of St. Louis marshalls resources, keeps loyal audience, offers strong season” – well you’ve got a well-deserved formula for success. Take a look at my home team, the Minnesota Opera; they just had their most successful season ever.

    Opera as an “art form” seems to be growing in popularity. Opera as “we’ve always done it” isn’t working.

    • MWnyc says

      Yes, Sarah!

      There may well be an “opera virus” about in the U.S., since several companies have had severe trouble over the past few years. But it seems odd to me to choose as examples (1) a company whose longtime boss evidently decided that he wanted to retire and didn’t want the company to continue without him* , and (2) the posturing of a CEO during contentious labor negotiations.**

      Those two examples may be the ones handy if a critic wants to do a think piece about The State Of Opera In America Circa June 2014, but I’m not sure they’re good examples of wider problems – the situations are too tied up with the particular individuals and institutions involved.

      * Really, that’s about what the Ian Campbell fiasco looks like to me at this point. At best, it’s that he decided he’d rather shut San Diego Opera down than watch a successor turn it into anything other than exactly the kind of company that he had built up.

      ** Until these negotiations are over (and maybe until he gets his own contract extended), I don’t think we can take anything Peter Gelb says about the state of opera at face value. His ulterior motives – of necessity – are just too strong.

      • MWnyc says

        Well, now that I’ve actually read Mark’s column (he said shame-facedly), I see that he’s actually making the point Sarah and I were trying to make.

      • says

        When considering the problems with opera in the USA, San Diego isn’t such an anomaly. Like the companies in Washington and Philly, it did about 15 performances per year. Such paltry seasons and budgets, which are caused by our ineffective system of funding the arts, are exactly the problem. Houston’s budget is about 1/6th the average for major houses even though the city’s GDP is equal to the entire country of Austria. It’s only natural that shoestring operations like the SDO suddenly collapse. The NYCO is another example.

        The Met is also symptomatic of our funding system, which concentrates large, lavish institutions in a few financial centers while leaving the rest of the country culturally impoverished. The only reasons there aren’t more collapses like the SDO and NYCO is that most American cities don’t even have a company at all.

        And speaking of Anne Midgette (see below) she lived in Europe for many years (we were friends in Munich) and knows how much better the funding systems for the arts there work. Germany, for example, has 47 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year, while the USA with four times the population has only 3. And yet she never discusses this in the Post. She knows who butters her bread. There will be no pinko discussion about how much better Europe’s social democracies fund the arts and how dysfunctional our system is by comparison.

    • Neil McGowan says

      [[ Anne Midgette is a credible observer far as I’m concerned. ]]

      Nothing Midgette writes has the slightest credibility. She is, in fact, a part of the problem. She, and her readership, view opera in terms of sipping prosecco in scarlet-clad gilt reception rooms, while dissing the careers of professional people with chit-chat about their private lives.

      Midgette isn’t a musician, and she never writes about the music. She’s a gossip-monger, first and foremost – who is sleeping with whom… or what fees are being paid to whomever. This is not opera.

      Opera is an art-form which is only incidentally connected to this effete world of backbiting social posing. Opera is a theatrical genre based on classical music – and THAT is the problem with opera in the USA. Whilst American opera remains the purview of the Koch Brothers; while singers are engaged on the basis of their bankability, instead of their stage ability; while productions are assessed on their budgets; and while the public continues to expect a static, high-gloss, emotionally empty shows – then nothing’s going to change.

      Come to Europe. We do opera differently here.

      • MWnyc says

        Neil, I’ll refrain from the nasty tone you’ve used, but I disagree with every word you wrote there, including “and” and “the”.

        • Neil McGowan says

          That’s great, MWnyc – because those of us professionally involved in opera disown you, and every hissy-fit emptiness you spout.

  2. says

    Yes, opera is everywhere inside the teacup universe of the literati. If a poll were taken to see how many Americans are aware of the SD Opera collapse or the Klinghoffer affair at the Met, what would the numbers be? Would it reach 1%? Even at its height, the SDO’s entire season was less than what little Pforzheim Germany’s city opera would put on in a month (pop. 120,000.) St. Louis ranks 187th in the world for opera performances per year. Never mind, let’s call it a “strong season.” After all, Washington D.C. comes in at 182 in spite of having the 11th largest metro GDP in the world. American arts journalists are the oddest cheer leaders. The wizards of Oz.

    When we become old our past becomes more and more of our life and our future plans correspondingly smaller. In the same way, when cultures are in the process of dying they become curatorial. The past glories of opera are maintained with a fervor motivated exactly by the fact that it has so little future.

    And even more, we become like the old man in tennis shoes defiantly refusing to go into that good night. We claim a vital embrace of life exactly because we are facing death. Our ironic challenge of fate is watched with ironic sadness by the young. Put some video in the production, build an elaborate Ring Machine all Cirque du Soleil, demand that the sopranos be hot babes, take the plots from CNN. And then like the Met, fall in the gutter wheezing from over- exertion.

    Art that is alive doesn’t have to consider strategies for its future. It needs no Viagra. It can’t stop it’s fertility. Like viral teenagers in the backseat of a car, it risks formulating the future even when it’s not trying too.

    And the lack of financial support only hastens death. Here in NM where I live several months a year, droughts sometimes forces animals to face starvation and death. Coyotes, bears, and even herds of elk that much prefer the wilds are forced to invade populated areas searching for water and food. In the same way, we say opera is everywhere because it shows up in the oddest places trying to scratch out an existence and survive in its impoverished landscape. How innovative of that starving coyote to invade the suburbs and eat pet cats! A great act for an arty café. What noble innovation the bear in the dumpster shows! Just like an operatic flash mob in a subway station. That lean skunk learns to live out of tract housing garbage cans like piano-accompanied, independent opera companies. And how wonderfully American. There’s nothing like starvation to make one an entrepreneur. Never mind the indignity and mediocrity. As Mr. Swed and Ms. Midgette tell us, somewhere far beyond death, there’s always an Emerald City.

  3. says

    BTW, Minneapolis ranks 233rd in the world for opera performances per year. So I can believe it just had its “most successful season ever” since there’s basically no direction but up. Let’s all watch for the meteoric ascent, and the big splash in the American teacup! Sorry if I sound like the wicked witch of of the North, my little darling…

    • Sarah says

      OK, let’s compare MN Opera with all of those European subsidized opera houses which have 5 performances a week, practically year-round. Not that I wouldn’t love the options, but let’s get real here, witchipoo! There have been several articles in the press recently about Opera Theatre St. Louis’s well-received and innovative season. There are many many other summer festivals and companies with one or two productions a year which are creating new audiences among people who would never have thought they would “like” opera. It’s QUALITY, not quantity, I’m talking about here. Incidentally, MN Opera just announced ANOTHER opera premiere for 2016-2017.. Kevin Puts won the Pulitzer for “Silent Night”, which premiered at MN Opera, and is now making the rounds of several regional houses; “Dead Man Walking” was produced this last season at Madison, Des Moines Metro, and Central City opera. So please spare me the “no direction but up” blather – if the “top” is the Met or San Diego, then we are all in serious trouble.

      • says

        Sorry, Dorothy, but this is just the usual rationalizing that keeps the US opera scene frozen in its small time parochialism. They don’t like it when Toto pulls back the curtain shows how the Great Oz of the American opera world is mostly smoke and mirrors. Never mind the man behind the curtain…

        BTW, this whole we’re-big-shots-because-we’re-doing-a-premiere rationalization is just more of the nonsense. It was a practice established by John Crosby at Santa Fe, and has a certain logic there since Santa Fe only has a pop. of 80,000 people, but now even huge metros like Minneapolis, Houston and San Diego think they can claim greatness by doing some new opera (usually never heard again) to pimp up a paltry season.. Premieres are great, but they are no substitute for a substantial budgets and seasons — unless maybe you want to stay in the black and white world of a Kansas farm girl as you obviously do. Your sincerely, Witchipoo.

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