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Opera is kept alive ‘for the benefit of snobs who refuse to watch soap opera’

Al Jazeera, the outstandingly well-informed culture channel, has published a provocative essay by Chiara Bottici, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.


Ms Bottici’s thesis is that opera has been made redundant by its ‘step-sister’, TV soap opera, and the only reason for maintaining it in live performance is for the handful of rich snobs who would not be seen dead watching Downton Abbey.

Sample quote: Be they sophisticated intellectuals with their notorious necrophilia for objects of the past or super-rich magnates who need to put the new red dress of their girlfriend in display, in both cases, they are people who want to distinguish themselves. Opera is an occasion for distinction. Rousseau once wrote that people think they come together in the spectacle, and it is here that they are isolated. Today, we can say that people come together in the spectacle because they want to be isolated. Opera is dead.

Read the irrational stuff here.  Rest assured, it will be widely quoted by autocue TV presenters. Be prepared for your next interview.


UPDATE: It turns out that Asst. Prof. Chiara is a self-declared leftist anarchist with a strong sense of victimhood. Watch her confession below, then wonder how she fits with the Islamist authoritarianism of Al-Jazeera’s Qatari owners. The world makes strange bedfellows.



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  1. Those commenting on the article at the Al Jazeera site have made insightful rebuttals to Prof Bottici’s conclusions, though it’s not a bad thing to raise the issue of relevancy from time to time. I think her historical narrative is helpful but the conclusions are a bit off the mark. (Yet, I must say that for those of us with declining eyesight who are leading a more sedentary life, but are still dreaming of a youth unfulfilled, watching the Spanish soaps from time to time are fun, especially with the closeups. And it helps learn or polish one’s skills in the Spanish language (the same excuse one used to use for reading the serious articles in Playboy). In that regard the Chinese soaps are more difficult to follow. Query to those in Germany – e.g., Mr Osborne- can you get this budget opera on the internet, or do you need some sort of encryption program to beat the system? )

  2. Malcolm James says:

    People have ben writing obituaries for opera for years!

  3. Obviously she’s never tried to get a ticket for The Ring.

  4. I find the relationship between the recurring beer and fish’n chip leitmotifs in Coronation Street particularly interesting.

  5. Hate soaps, love opera and I’m a working class woman from South Wales, daughter of a steel worker – in the glory days of Welsh industry!

    • Dominy Clements says:

      Good for you Beryl! I remember the heat, noise and excitement around Llanwern – just a wasteland now.
      This son of Newport has an opera being performed at the Nargen Festival (Estonia) this August, and I’ve just been chatting to Martijn Padding who is living on the edge still writing his for the Holland Festival – for which tickets are already on sale. Opera, dead? Ask George Benjamin, or Michael Nyman, or John Adams….

  6. Just goes to show that her “associate professorship” in philosophy isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

    • Clyde McConnell says:

      The article said Assistant Professor. I think she’ll have to write one more of these articles to hit the next rank.

      • Musiker says:

        Sorry, Clyde, I meant “assistant”. Thanks for correcting me.
        But the point remains the same.

      • With all due respect — it takes a brilliant mind to be named Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School, which hosts some of the most eminent philosophy faculty in the world. Some of the most important minds of the 20th century — among which Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss, just to name a few — taught at that school: One may disagree with her thesis, but let’s at least recognize that being Assistant Professor at the New School is no small feat — indeed, it is an immense accomplishment, certainly no lesser than being an accomplished musician.

        • Musiker says:

          This “brilliant mind” doesn’t seem to realise that opera is all about music.
          Soap opera isn’t.
          Aside from the word “opera”, the two genres have nothing in common.
          A rather fundamental point to ignore when comparing the two, don’t you think?
          Or did I miss something and did Wagner — after completing “Der Ring des Nibelungen, “Tristan und Isolde” and “Parsifal” — switch to composing the theme tunes to those long-running British daily soap operas, “Eastenders” and “Coronation Street”?
          Maybe one day we’ll discover the long-lost score to Monteverdi’s “Il coronazione di Bet Lynch”?

          With all due respect, d1966, it doesn’t take a “brilliant mind” to know that the basic premise of her article is complete nonsense. And that doesn’t exactly augur well for her other writing, does it.

          My guess is she’s never been to an opera in her life.
          Maybe she should stick to writing about things she knows about.

          • Correct, and theater, and sometimes dance, which is an entirely different aesthetic and experience, not something on the “boob” tube that has a similar name..

  7. Homo sapiens ignorant.

  8. It’s the MUSIC, stupid! Glorious music. (And, by the way, there are very few red dresses at the opera these days where there are many pairs of blue jeans and even tee shirts.)

  9. Although I suspect there is a provocative element in the essay, I do believe she has a point. There is definitely something dead, not just in opera, but in classical music altogether — and one might question whether this might indeed be playing a role in the current “dumbing down” of the industry of classical music. Indeed, many people do come to the opera, or to classical music concerts, mainly to “distinguish themselves”, as the author so eloquently put. Those who don’t feel the need to distinguish themselves, or to “isolate” themselves, can then freely weed out the wheat from the chaff, decide for themselves what is definitely dead — and what is still alive — in classical music, and make a truly personal choice based, not on the latest buzz, mere societal convention, recommendation of eminent critics or of the classical music marketing machine, but on truly informed musicianship. They may even claim that classical music does not have a monopoly on artistic worth, and that the brilliance of a Michel Petrucciani or of a Miles Davis has nothing to envy to even the most solidly established classical repertoire. Let’s not fool ourselves — going to the opera, or to a concert, has been for a while now mostly a societal ritual designed for the well to do and for those who, as the author puts it, “need to put the new red dress of their girlfriend in display.” Those who genuinely love it often don’t have the funds to attend, or do so at a great cost. What is truly dead nowadays is what Jean-Paul Sartre called “esprit de serieux” — a mindset that eventually leads one to treat classical music as a sacred, and intouchable, icon — and the times are catching on to this in a major way.

    • For me ‘going to the opera’ is a huge joy – not for the dressing up but for the music, the colour and the wonderful singing – perhaps one needs to be Welsh to appreciate it! And, I am one of those who can barely afford the cost but I make every effort to see as many productions as possible.

    • “Those who genuinely love it often don’t have the funds to attend, or do so at a great cost.”

      There are many lower cost options (The Proms – from £5, Royal Opera – 40 % of all seats for £40 or less) which work out cheaper than a Madonna concert or a ticket for a Premiere Division football match.

      And I’m not sure what rule dictates that those who have the funds cannot be genuine. I used to struggle to afford tickets, now I don’t. Have I become less “genuine”?

      Abject nonsense.

    • There is indeed a provocative element in her silly little rant but this is surpassed by the elements of ignorance, presumption and hypocrisy. Try accusing her of being a class warrior, a bomb-throwing anarchist and watch her bridle and deny. Yet, without compunction, she delights in sneering at people and things she clearly knows nothing about, but, has no doubt that she is superior to. ‘Brilliant minds’ steer well away from this type of activity.
      It suits the agenda of people like this to tear down and destroy the pillars of a society and culture especially when they don’t further the cause of the masses. We’ve seen this all before.
      Are you still onboard with the ‘brilliant mind’ thing after she conflates opera with soap opera?
      Finally, how dead are such operas, to name just a few, as Zauberflote, Marriage of Figaro, Fidelio, Salome, Peter Grimes? Would the good ‘professor’ like to make a list for us of officially approved works so she can go ahead and burn the scores of the rest? Music, of course, is the element that she is missing and is very unlikely to understand. I repeat, the Music…

  10. I’m sure I saw some “Associate Professorship in Philosophy” certificates hanging from a roll in my WC.

  11. Threeekings says:

    A terrible article – she obviously has no sensitivity to the qualities of opera music, which she more or less ignores in her argument.

    This doesn’t mean that opera performance doesn’t need some reform, however. I personally believe that not understanding the language in which an opera is sung, even with sub/supertitles, is a worse evil than translating the opera to the local language. One of the great things about vocal music is the fusion of ideas (words) and music, and when they are apprehended separately – one by the eyes and the other by the ears – this fusion is broken, and the experience becomes much more artificial. Of course certain poetry will be lost, as will the “music” of the original language, and certain rhythms might have to be changed; but giving such importance to these more incidental parameters of opera seems to me to be a form of decadence – what counts more than phonemes of words is the fusion of their meaning to the music.

    • I completely agree with you, Threekings. And so did many of the composers whose operas now make up the standard rep.

      If only that weren’t such an unfashionable viewpoint these days …

  12. I wonder how many times she’s been to an opera… Anyone asked her? I worked in the Norwegian Opera before and a particularly exciting time was the opening of the opera house in Oslo. It is still virtually impossible to get decent tickets. Performances are so popular. And not just for those with money. Opera is far from dead. Comments like hers will perhaps make people think it is which is a shame.

    • The question is – where did she find a “decent” opera seat for $400!!? This does suggest she has never actually attended anywhere.

      Is there any opera company anywhere that charges that sum? Or did she make it up?

      • La Scala, maybe?

        The more I think about it, the more I suspect that her only frame of reference is the big Italian houses covered in the media, and when she thinks of opera, she thinks of opening night at La Scala (and maybe Metropolitan Opera galas).

  13. Richard Hallam says:

    I have, in the past, spent a great deal of time in Italy, and I was walking down the road (sorry, strada) on one occasion, and had to smile as the the work crew digging up the road were happily engrossed in a rendition of La Traviata. All for the benefit of their own consumption, but entertaining just the same.

  14. Bill H. says:

    Perhaps what we need is a real fusion of these two theatrical genres–a new show! called

    The Real Housewives of Bayreuth [or La Scala, depending on your taste]

    There might be some stories there that would make Tony Soprano blush.

  15. Mark Powell says:

    I think Norman probably hit it on the head in the first line.
    “Al Jazeera, the outstandingly well-informed culture channel…”
    Need anything more be said about the irrelevance of this “opinion as thesis” item?

  16. David Boxwell says:

    Her last paragraph is incoherent. She has no understanding of the medium as a communal social enterprise, nor as an art form, and bases her simple-minded assertions on seeing one production of Ernani at the Met. She would be ridiculed at any major European humanities department for this piece.

  17. Opera is all about the music bringing the drama and characters to life, which Ass. Prof. Chiara seems to ignore. Now we have access to opera through live feed — I have recently experienced Spiegelgrund on and Parsifal in a local theater and am persuaded of the relevance this technology provides.

    It does seem appropriate to ask questions about the validity of opera, or any art form, to the current environment. It was a surprise to me that the theatre in a suburb of Minneapolis was not jammed with operagoers for the live HD stream of Parsifal from the Met last Saturday, yet acknowledge that it may take time for this new use of technology to hit the masses in the boonies (the Met itself looked soldout).

  18. A leftist anarchist at the New School?? I’m shocked!
    Seriously, for those of you who persist in insisting that public funds are the solution to financing the Arts in the US, this article should help explain why it isn’t going to happen.

  19. Martin Bookspan says:

    Prof. Bottici doesn;’t know what she’s talking about. In the United States it’s the soap operas that are disappearing from the schedules of the Networks. I did a 5-year stint on the now discontinued “Guiding Light”, which was able at one time to claim that it was the longest running program on American broadcast media. It is now only one among several other cancelled soap operas whose number will soon be joined by those few still on the air.

    • Mr. Bookspan, True, but the Spanish soaps are sailing on heavenly waters with a very strong tail wind.

  20. Richard Barker says:

    This Bottici person’s article is not worthy of comment. Should be in a tabloid.

  21. ken scott says:

    Academic achievement is not to be dismissed – Professor Bottici should not be disparaged for her personal achievement. On the strength of this essay, her emotional intelligence seems, perhaps, to have taken a back seat to her life of the mind. That’s a sad thing. If she doesn’t understand the art form and the nourishment it provides, then she is undermining herself. Her friends and allies should urge her to widen her frame of reference.

  22. Michael Hurshell says:

    Assistant Professor Bottici’s rant merely proves 2 things: 1. the New School may not be what it used to be, and 2. Ms. B. has not the vaguest idea what she is talking about. I’d guess she is, as far as opera is concerned, utterly unmusical. And therefore, her silly clichés (“opera is dead” has been around for so many decades) are only one thing: embarrassing for her, if she only knew. Why is it that so many “thinkers” feel entitled to voicing their uneducated comments on the arts? Who asked her? I suppose Al Jazeera may have a few reporters who find the recent interest in opera building / orchestra building in the Emirates distasteful, as it does indeed reflect a rather outdated opera model (only the rich attend). But then Ms. B. should address that particular issue directly. Conflating her silly thoughts with soap opera is a mental miss-step just too sad to be even slightly amusing.

  23. In reading her article, I suspect she knows more about opera than soap operas. The point of her article is her call to action at the end- let’s “occupy opera!” She argues that the problem with opera is that the plots and stories of the operas we are likely to see come from a social milieu that is no longer relevant and so it is very hard for a contemporary audience to relate to it. That is hardly a controversial idea. Her call to action is to try to suggest to people writing opera today to make bold statements about our society as it is. This suggests that she may be unaware of much contemporary opera, which often does exactly that, although it may be that the ones she is aware of have not made the type of commentary that she would like. I think she wants there to be a contemporary Brecht/Weill type opera, but one that promotes anarchism instead of communism. She also shows nostalgia for the political importance that Verdi achieved, and I think she wants opera to be relevant the way Nabucco was in the 1840s. Good luck with that.
    She is either unaware or does not care that in general, opera has had increased attendance in recent years. and that the introduction of surtitles has actually brought people in the door, even if the plots they can now follow are ridiculous to contemporary audiences. Of course, this is because, unlike her, the political and social reality matters less to most opera goers than the music, and the reason surtitles help is that a larger portion of the audience now understands how the music is enhancing the words.

    I think she is saying that she likes opera, (or at least the idea of opera), but she would like to use it to serve her political agenda. Of course, the problem she is talking about does not exist, the soap opera analogy is ridiculous, and most opera goers don’t really care about the political or social perspective of their favorite works. This last thing clearly pisses her off, so she insults the opera goers by ascribing to them petit-bourgeois social climbing motives. The New School is pretty close to the Met. She probably can walk by Lincoln Center and have her prejudices affirmed by looking at some of the people hanging outside the David H Koch Theater before they walk up to the plaza to the Met.

    • “She argues that the problem with opera is that the plots and stories of the operas we are likely to see come from a social milieu that is no longer relevant and so it is very hard for a contemporary audience to relate to it. That is hardly a controversial idea. Her call to action is to try to suggest to people writing opera today to make bold statements about our society as it is. This suggests that she may be unaware of much contemporary opera, which often does exactly that

      Excellent point.

      It’s true that she could go by the Met and have her prejudices confirmed. But she could also have gotten on the subway to BAM, where New York City Opera just did Powder Her Face and The Turn of the Screw. Or hopped on a $15 bus to Philadelphia to see new stuff in English like Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters (about fundamentalist Mormon polygamists) or Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (about the famous World War I Christmas truce). And there are other examples as well. (Does it count at all that the Met sold out – in two different seasons – runs of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha? Does she know that?)

    • Actually, I just had a brief listen to her talk. She’s apparently Italian and not Italian-American, so I think it’s quite likely that she’s basically complaining about opera in Italy and has little idea of the contemporary American opera that’s doing more or less what she’s calling for. She’d probably have loved David T. Little’s Dog Days (heaven knows all the critics did) last fall if she’d bothered to hop on the bus to New Jersey to see

      Contemporary American opera is certainly not mainstream (yet), but it it healthier than it has ever been in my lifetime, and probably healthier than ever in history (with the possible exception of Gian Carlo Menotti’s brief heyday).

  24. Gawd, this is like a parody of the worst of old-time New School cultural leftist politics.

    But it will get Prof. Chiara some media attention which is surely her plan.

  25. Marguerite Foxon says:

    I think without doubt she is looking for a provocative topic that gets her some attention – the peril facing so many academics today. We opera buffs of course would probably consider the area of philosophy to be dead. But as for the death of opera – I have attended Met HD broadcasts in two countries and they continue to be sell outs, and this isnt even the real deal of being in an opera house, even if in the US its a direct broadcast (in Australia its screened a month later). There is nothing dead about opera from my observations, and Ive not noticed many red dresses – in fact, I wish people would dress up a bit more than many of them do in their shorts, T shirts and sandals. I suggest she put down her books one Saturday and go to the opera, or at least a Met HD screening.

  26. Reading the many reactions to Ms. Bottici’s presentation has been truly fascinating, and the passionate debate it aroused makes me suspect that she may, somehow, have touched a nerve that, ironically, validates her thesis. Paradoxically, the real issue of this debate turned out to be, not the main thesis she offered (namely, that “opera is dead” — a thesis that, in light of its provocative gesture, should be taken with a grain of salt), but rather her scathing assessment of some of the people who usually make up an opera audience. I don’t believe that Ms. Bottici said anywhere in her article that all of operagoers were just a bunch of snobs (in fact, the word “snob” does not even appear in it); her point was rather to suggest that some in the audience, not all of the audience, might very well possibly be. Her point was that, for such people, opera is not attended for its own intrisic value or message, but is rather treated as a mere occasion for pretense and narcissism: thus it becomes a mere accessory to something having absolutely nothing to do with opera. To deny such a reality, frankly, one would have to never have set foot within an opera house — which she very obviously did. Moreover, her very detailed analysis of the socio-economic, as well as historical, conditions surrounding Ernani makes me suspect that she knows much more about opera than some of her critics might like to believe. Her point regarding the importance of having the necessary background to truly appreciate the message of the work (such as, in the case of Ernani, “pompous nineteenth-century Italian”) was powerful, and sets a higher standard for true, as opposed to merely superficial, artistic appreciation. Perhaps only by revisiting our unquestioned presuppositions, as Ms. Bottici is inviting us to do, can we paradoxically make opera more relevant to our lives, and thus keep it somehow alive. Engaging in dogmatic assertions — such as claiming that she simply knows nothing about opera — and dismissing her argument right off the bat without trying to understand it first is to engage in a very weak form of argumentation indeed, just as weak as is the loss of basic civility and decency in what should have been an honest and genuine dialogue about a matter at hand — both very facile moves that conveniently avoid the much more difficult and challenging task of genuine thoughtfulness and interpretation.

    • On the contrary, I think the passionate debate which ensued merely disproves her theory. Nothing is dead. Not even disco.

    • But what exactly has she suggested that is not recognized by those doing the work of making opera? That part of the audience is elitist or “snobby” or old-fashioned and attends for the “wrong” reasons? Yes, part of it is and does, and this is why opera generally has been reaching out to other demographics. I would suggest that the percentage of elitism is a very small percentage. I also would suggest she is focusing on the exception to the rule and calling it the rule. By doing so, she skews the view of opera presented and makes her article virtually worthless – and possibly harmful to those actually working in the field.

      Ms Bottici seems to stem from the leftish quasi-philosophical school of postmodern deconstruction (Foucault, Derrida, etc.) which considers public institutions as merely power instruments for social classes, disguised with civilizational façades. Also works of art, or artistic creations in general, are – in this closed mental box – not what they seem to be. It is a world view in which there is nothing but power games, and thus, something like ‘opera’ is not an art form but a social construct of power, sucking money from society and suppressing the proletariat. It is a very outdated world view and a very destructive one, distorting reality to a degree as to compare with schizoid paranoia. Since this ‘philosophy’ is often cultivated at universities, it is a vehicle for academic careers, so, in fact, the philosophy is used in exactly the same way as opera is supposed to be used by a social class: to further social interests. So, not to be taken seriously.

      In every art form, there is a group of people who don’t understand the art but like to be associated with it, this has always been the case, and does not prevent serious art lovers to be involved as well. We have to accept this human, all-too-human debris if it helps supporting the art form financially.

      A more serious question about opera in contemporary times is, how contemporary composers can keep the art form alive through really expressive music. So many operas are written nowadays, on very contemporary subjects, and almost all of them disappear after one run, exceptions notwithstanding, since most contemporary musical languages fall short on the point of expression and interiority. In opera, what we see is the outside of reality, and what we hear is the inside of what happens on stage, thus involving the audience in a total experience of reality. It is THIS which is the fascination of opera. Musical languages of the past appear to do this job much better. Writing opera has become very difficult because the musical language that works best, is considered as no longer ‘contemporary’, while the reality of opera is that ‘oldfashioned’ music is effective for contemporary audiences.

      • John Hames says:

        I agree with all that, for what it’s worth. I was hoping that since I was in (philosophy!) graduate school some decades ago, people had grown out of the dehumanised gobbledygook that regards everything as “text” entirely unconnected with flesh-and-blood people — but not so, it seems. When I read the silly article, I just thought of the old “Whores and [associate] professors are always to be had” thing. (I can’t personally confirm the first.) Actually listening properly to some great music would be agood start for her.

  27. “Ms Bottici’s thesis is that opera has been made redundant by its ‘step-sister’, TV soap opera.” Stuff and nonsense. Opera is a musical form, soap opera is not; speech hasn’t made music redundant yet and it’s the safest of bets that it never will..

  28. Michael Endres says:

    “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. Your review is in front of me. Soon, it will be behind me.”

    ( Max Reger )

    • Rafael de Acha says:

      Michael, Thanks for quoting Max Reger’s famous words – so appropriate to this rambling discussion – both Ms. Chiara’s diatribe and many, though not all of the responses!

  29. And for a second there, I thought I’d scooped the great Norman Lebrecht…. one of these days!!

  30. Chiara should be handed a bar of soap to clean out her musty attic of pre-Soviet revolutionary thought. Bakunin, to be taken seriously as an expert in child development (“put the child in a desert” quoted in her above speech), oh come now!?! The simplistic whittling down of humanity to the least common denominator as expressed “this freedom (of equals) wasn’t tried yet” hasn’t been heard in a long time, except maybe in North Korea. Yeah, but while we were waiting for the communist utopia, about 100 milion people were sacrificed on the way to Olympus.
    One would expect even from a non-native speaker of English in such a position (although by the looks of it, her pedigree as the grand-niece of the Italian Anarchist, Belgrado Pedrini, might have had more to do her being appointed as assistant professor of philosophy) some organization of thoughts. Her article and speech were rambling and incoherent. No need to copy the whole plot of Ernani – a summary with the relevant points to her thesis (the soaps replaced opera) would have been enough.
    But what came through was not so much the her dislike of opera, but the values that some of them represent. If opera doesn’t turn humans into Queens and Kings, it makes their emotions larger than life, something to sing about. Sacrifice, loyalty, keeping one’s word, honor to the end and even chastity would elevate some and not others, therefore threaten the utterly dubious freedom of equality’ she is trying to promote and which failed so miserably whenever it was forced on society.

  31. This has absolutely nothing to do with political substance, so right wingers, get over your bad selves on that matter. That said, it is apparent once read, this article was poorly researched, she does not have a handle on her subject, nor did she explore the data at hand with ticket sales Europe versus U.S. Further, she uses Ernani as a comparison? An opera which is dusted off every 20 years by opera companies throughout the World. Certainly tuneful, but not Verdi’s best. Her hypothesis is utter garbage and her ridiculous conclusion indicates that she has involved herself in a subject which is way out of her area of expertise. My hunch is Al Jazeera is the only news outlet who agreed to pay her for this trash, essentially because they do not know a thing about the subject. While I applaud academic freedom, this is a pile of academic manure.

  32. Sophism, pure and simple ! Not worth any response

  33. Paul Unger says:

    She is going to be the keynote speaker at the next League of American Orchestras conference.
    I predict that within the year she will be CEO of an american symphony orchestra, ballet or opera company.

  34. Timon Wapenaar says:

    Isn’t that rather like saying the study of philosophy has been made irrelevant by reality TV?

  35. Whatever her motives and intent to provoke, it’s more than a little disturbing to see a well-educated academic holding forth at length on a topic she clearly doesn’t know anything about. If all you did to prepare for your essay was read the librettos of Norma and Lucia and La Boheme, you might think it was all soap opera too.

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