A 2015 survey by blogger Mae Mai reported that 260 new opera companies started since 2000 in the United States. There are 80 opera companies now working in New York alone.
Over the past couple months the New York Opera Fest showcased many of the New York companies. For the most part, these don’t look like your grandpa’s operas – just clicking the website confirms that. New opera embraces the multi-sensual experience of performing in unusual places, often under unusual circumstances, and in collaboration with all manner of other creative expression. Earlier this year, Jennifer Rivera compiled a good list of the characteristics of the successful 21st Century opera company.
For a good overview of the offerings at this year’s festival, WQXR’s Merrin Lazyan and Amanda Angel, who write the Operavore blog, went to many of the 25 productions in this first-time event. So who’s the audience for new opera?
If people don’t come to the opera, take the opera to them. This seems to be the modus operandi for a number of companies involved in the festival. And one of the most exciting elements of the festival was watching this in action. It turns out that once barriers of a refined setting and a pricy ticket are removed, audiences who may have never thought to attend an opera at Lincoln Center are turned on by the art form.
And what’s the attraction? We live our lives now straddling two worlds – the physical and the virtual. Many smart minds are trying to figure out how our increasingly online world relates to the real one. The Pokemon Go phenomenon is an early example of how the two are melding in real space.
Opera has always played in the space between fantasy and reality. Early opera offered oversized stories packaged in the kind of spectacle you couldn’t see anywhere else. The kind of music you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Opera has always been an intensely physical and visceral experience. Movies have long since stolen the crown for projecting visual spectacle, but opera still sits at the intersection of physical space and fantasy. Until recently we’ve described movies/video as multi-media. In truth, the real 21st-Century multi-media is opera, to become more and more provocative as our virtual and physical worlds converge.
william osborne says
A first step before a meaningful discussion can be held, would be to define what an opera company is. Would this be a couple singers and a pianist? Shall we call a string quartet an orchestra? Or should we say that an opera company should have a cast of soloists, a chorus, an orchestra of at least 50 musicians, a scene shop, and a theater with at least 20 lights and the racks to hold them. And how many productions per year should be required to be called a genuinely functional opera company? In short, why not just say America has 33 million hospitals because all that is required to be one is to own a box of band aids? Why not come up with more differentiated terms like, for example, “chamber music theater?”
Douglas McLennan says
Exactly the question William. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “A dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists.”
Opera America defines it as: “Simply stated, a play that is sung. In opera, singing is the way characters express feeling; as it often takes longer to say something in music than it would in speech, the action may seem delayed or even interrupted. Opera (the Latin plural for opus, meaning “work”) can involve many different art forms (singing, acting, orchestral playing, scenic artistry, costume design, lighting and dance). Like a play, an opera is acted out on a stage with performers in costumes, wigs and makeup; virtually all operatic characters sing their lines, although there are exceptions for a role that is spoken or performed in pantomime.”
Whatever it is, the definition has been flexible enough over centuries to encompass everything from Orfeo and Poppea to the Ring and Lulu. Obviously the definition has to be meaningful or, as you point out, any closet with a BandAid would quality. And with many companies routinely presenting Broadway musicals, the definition is certainly flimsy, even in traditional houses.
As for level of activity to qualify as an opera company – is Harper Lee not still a writer even though she published only two books? With many traditional “Big Box” opera companies cutting back their seasons to three or four productions a year, does that mean they no longer qualify? LA’s The Industry produces a big ambitious new production once every couple of years. Does that mean it doesn’t qualify?
What defines an opera company has changed over the years too. Was there some point where the definition was locked? Opera has often led in the technology of stagecraft. That today’s opera might include virtual reality, animation, projection, interactive screens and holograms incorporated into live physical performance with music seems in keeping with Opera’s traditions.
So what would be your definition (since you asked)?
william osborne says
During the 20th century, beginning most famously with Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du soldat,” music theater began to splinter into many different stylistic forms. To opera, operettas, and musicals, were added smaller forms like Happenings and music theater in various chamber music combinations like Peter Maxwell Davies “Eight Songs for A Mad King,” Britten’s wonderful Church Parables, Stockhausen’s Licht (which often uses rather modest resources,) and Harry Partch’s highly idiosyncratic music theater productions. One might also mention the many small music theater works by Robert Ashley which he confusingly calls operas. Even in the 19th century, composers like Schumann, Liszt, and Schubert explored smaller forms of music theater they called melodramas – though the works were as a whole unsuccessful.
We see that to speak coherently about music theater we need a wider range of terms for its various genres. The lines between them are often blurry, but some basic categories are recognizable and they should be labeled as such for the sake of precision and clarity.
Benjamin Britten did not call his Church Parables operas. Stravinsky did not call L’Histoire an opera. Schumann did not call his melodramas operas. For various reasons, they understood this would be more than just misleading. We should be wary of composers and ensembles who needlessly inflate musical terms in ways that obviously create unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding.
This is especially important because people use the lack of clear distinctions about the various genres of music theater to evade acknowledging serious social and political problems. America has an extremely poor record for funding the arts, and for opera in particular. While Germany has 83 fully functional, large opera houses owned and operated by the State, the USA only has about 6 or 7 genuinely functional opera houses for four times the population. To get around this embarrassment we’ve taken to calling just about anything an opera company, and in ways that so inflate the term that it becomes essentially meaningless.
This isn’t so much about Americans redefining opera in new and creative ways. All to often, it is much more about laying claim to false comparisons to avoid acknowledging a lack of support for the arts. It is about artists working in desperation with resources so small that their efforts border on the pathetic. ,
Let us at least clarify the matter from the outset by noting that there are enormous and meaningful differences between real opera companies, and chamber groups who do operas with virtually no staging, costuming, or lighting, and with piano accompaniments.
This leads to some important and meaningful comparisons. We see that by the most generally recognized historical definitions for opera produced in the ways the composers intended, the USA only ranks 39th in the world for performances per year – behind almost every developed country in the world. Never mind, we’ll call just about anything an opera company and say NYC has 80 of them. Given our neglect of the arts, this loose language leads to a form of moral obfuscation.
At the same time, it is also important to realize that these smaller genres are perhaps even more important to our future than opera. It is very likely that the most important new developments in music theater can only be accomplished in smaller formats than opera. This is perhaps the most important reason they should be clearly distinguished as new and essential genres unto themselves. We need truly substantial, profound chamber music theater works that genuinely explore new forms of character development; new dramatic structures; new and more complete ways of integrating text, music, technology, and theater; and new ways of using the singing voice outside of bel canto traditions. The focus of this essential work will be sharpened if we begin to use more intelligent and precise language to describe what we are doing.
Carter Gillies says
What are we doing when we define terms? Are we more precisely locating the true nature of the thing defined? Are we doing a sort of science with words such that our terms more accurately represent the reality behind language? Are our current definitions inadequate because they somehow fail to properly agree with objective reality? A better definition is simply the one that is closer to reality? Is that what language does? Does language give the proper names and comprehensive definitions of true things in the world? Can a definition be more right or more wrong simply as a matter of agreement with the facts? Again, are we doing science with words?
Maybe sometimes its like that, but for most of our ordinary language its not. The things we pick out, like ‘art’ and ‘opera’ are not natural objects in the same sense that the hard sciences carve up the world with ‘fauna’ and ‘flora’, ‘reduction’ and ‘oxidation’. Some terms pick out a taxonomy of natural categories within the world. The terms ‘art’ and ‘opera’ don’t. They are wholly human cultural constructs, and so represent entirely human interests. A better definition of ‘opera’ is not somehow closer to reality but rather closer to our human designs for employing it. If we want opera to mean these specific things, that will be how we best define it. We are not plumbing the ‘true nature’ of opera any more than we are getting out microscopes and scales to measure what things really count as opera.
Understanding that ‘opera’ is a convention of use in a human language points to a cultural reality that is not necessarily based on things operatic having a single underlying shared essence. That needs to get straightened out. Wittgenstein introduced the words ‘family resemblance’ to help us understand that certain concepts are united not by a shared mutual continuity but sometimes through overlapping strands that some members have but others do not. We call things ‘opera’ and ‘art’ not because there is some one thread that unites them, but from the diverse usage that lumps them all together. Defining those terms is inherently problematic if we are hooked on the notion that better definitions get us closer to a correct and singular underlying meaning.
So, when you ask what someone’s definition is what you are really asking is what things they would include by their own preferences and rationales. What you are really asking is “What things matter to you?” Its not science. We choose the definition to fit the purpose.
So perhaps the better question is “Why is it important to limit opera to these things and not others?” The definition we have will only ever suit that circumstance. The definition is the least of our concerns. Why we include these things and not others is what needs to be explained. Our own agenda lies at the root of these questions. The definition we choose is only code for being interested in these particular aspects and not others, and the difference between definitions is not a disagreement over the reality behind the words as much as between the ambitions for using the terms. We give power to words according to what we want them to do for us. In the end we are talking about our own designs and priorities for the world rather than some true state of the world behind our words. We need to be as clear about that as we can.
I am curious how many folks in the arts have read Wittgenstein or other of the Ordinary Language philosophers. What I have said is not so far out on a limb.
Douglas McLennan says
My sense is that many of the experimental “opera” people are conflicted about adopting the term itself too. They don’t call themselves opera because they want to inflate some notion that America has more opera activity than it actually does. It’s the opposite, in fact. They’re wary of the label. But they’re creating things that feel to them as though they have more historical connection to opera than to anything else.
So are these efforts “clearly distinguished as new and essential genres unto themselves” as William suggests – in which case where are they located in our culture? Or are they an extension of an operatic tradition of some sort, whatever that means? If the former, does that mean that opera as we have known it has been frozen into a definition, that can only be built on in predictable and specific ways?
Carter asks “Why is it important to limit opera to these things and not others?” I tend to think that artists express or reflect their time, and as our experiences change our artists and their work (and our language for expression) also change. Locating something inside or outside a tradition gives us a way of contextualizing it and our relationship to it.
Douglas McLennan says
And in case you missed it: Anne Midgette debates opera versus musical in her piece about GlimmerGlass this morning.
william osborne says
Witttgenstein spoke about how the limits of people’s language define the limits of their world, but later in his life he acknowledged that the meaning of words is best understood as their use within what he termed a given “language-game” (“Sprachspiel.”) As much as we would like to fool ourselves, we know that three singers accompanied by a piano does not really define an opera company no matter how much we try to “game” our language – or the political realities of our ridiculous arts funding system.
In our postmodern world we are happy to explode language until, for example, we need a house. Then, as Wittgenstein noted, we arty folks are thankful that the vocabulary workers use (blocks, concrete, slabs, boards, nails, hammers) works quite well. Or perhaps we would like to call a chicken coop built with old rotten plywood a mansion, since after all, we don’t want to limit our architectural creativity.
The message is that we should be wary of effete deconstructions of language that paint us into a corner of self-delusion and ultimately silence. At the same time, we should be cautious about definitions with such narrow frames that our consciousness and creativity is blinkered. It is by no means impossible to find a balance. We can use terms to describe some of the basic categories of music theater that to a reasonable extent meaningfully describe what we are doing, while at the same time leaving those forms open for exploration.
But this isn’t to say I reject language-games. They really can open our mind. I don’t want to be a party pooper.
Carter Gillies says
Most of what you are saying makes perfect sense, but I’m not sure you understood what I was aiming at. The problem I sometimes encounter is that when we reach for a more adequate definition we imagine we are aspiring to an unvarnished and agnostic truth. The better definition might be code for “What do we *really* mean by ‘opera’ (or the like).” In science its often easy to determine a best definition because the objects and processes do seem to turn on universals. The difficulty we have is that the ideal of science is not as useful when applied to cultural entities and concepts.
But not finding a determinate ‘thing’ at the center of our investigations doesn’t mean that anything goes. What Wittgenstein asked us to consider, in his later phase of work, is that the basis of meaning is how the words are actually used. You point this out, and you also correctly point out that use is found in constructs of what we might call ‘language games’.
And you are right to point out that people can ‘game’ the language games for their own purposes, but the point I am trying to make is that purposes are the only source of justification we have in the first place. If its not an absolute ‘thing’ that stands outside of language, meaning must be rooted within the field of how language gets used. Now for any whimsical person to come up with their own uses is not to grant them equivalent status. If only one person uses words a certain way, in what sense should we accept them as meaningful? The real ground for meaning is in the way of life that supports our linguistic habits. So a good question might be “For whom do these terms have such and such a meaning?”
Made up uses for words is, in fact, the problem Wittgenstein was addressing in calling out much of Philosophy as spending all its time mistreating the real function of words. Philosophers are often so far afield in their use of language that it rarely if ever touches ground. Wittgenstein was, in fact, attempting to clear up the misuses of language.
So the point I was making is that there can be any number of purposes that are actively used to define what does and does not count as something (like opera). There are different legitimate cultural practices where some things are called ‘opera’ and in other contexts they are not. The difference is not a matter of one group having the right facts and the other not, but that they do different things with the words. The things the words refer to have different, though often related, roles in their lives. The borders of many concepts are under constant negotiation, and this is especially true in cases where the uses are being fleshed out in active investigation. The point isn’t what kind of thing ‘opera’ is, as if that could be settled once and for all, but what we intend to do with it. The point is that opera may matter to some people differently than it does to others, and that because of this difference it will not have the same place in their lives.
Quick example: Are dogs food? How would you answer that? Obviously for some they are, while for others they are not. What is the better definition of food, the one that includes dog or the one that excludes it?
The thing I am suggesting is that a definition at most speaks for an attitude toward the role things will have in a specific way of life. If we are not naming determinate things with our concepts we are naming what and how a diverse collection of things come to matter for us.
When you declare, “We can use terms to describe some of the basic categories of music theater that to a reasonable extent meaningfully describe what we are doing, while at the same time leaving those forms open for exploration.” you are proposing a research program, and the necessary first step in any good science is to define one’s terms. My point is that what we are investigating is not a ‘natural’ object, and that at best we are spelling out our own preferences for what things will count. Which is fine to do, but lets not pretend we are speaking for every active interest. Our definitions are not agnostic or innocent by any means. They have currency when they speak to real roles in people’s lives.
So the thing I am proposing is that we be clear about what those roles and biases are, that we put them up front on center stage, and not hidden behind some fanciful attempt at an objective seeming definition. Humans are interested in things. We tend to spend all our time looking at the things and so little time looking at our own interests. It is fascinating that things matter to us. We peer out at the world as if our interests were embodied in the things themselves when we should instead be paying attention to the roles and function these things have in our lives. Culture isn’t a collection of things but a way of life in which things take on meaning.
Did any of that make sense?
william osborne says
Perfect sense. Thank you for your interesting thoughts.
It is true that we see purposes as the justification for the things we have. And that is what I am suggesting. It is helpful to use modestly differentiated terms to describe music theater according to the basic aspects of its general purpose. A chamber music theater work, for example, that uses three performers would probably not be suitable for the 3800 seat Metropolitan Opera.
In short, we should define our music theater more-or-less according to what we in general intend to do with it.
Only superficial art is definable, but it is also bound by the practical realities of its physical existence. Music theater is often defined in its practical aspects by the spaces and resources best suited to its performance. The nature of music theater can be creatively changed by altering those expected circumstances, but the act of alteration is created exactly because the expected context is a commonly known part of our cultural game.
It is quite true that “culture isn’t a collection of things but a way of life in which things take on meaning.” We see that music theater derives meaning from its history and tradition – a way of life becomes a language. We see general patterns we call genres. We can “game” those contexts by blurring and obfuscating them, but this loses meaning when it simply becomes a cover for a lack of genuine artistic ability, or a lack of support that prevents artists from truly realizing their visions.
Gaming the language-game can be an act of creativity, but all too often it can also be an act of dishonesty or rationalization. This can be a real problem in the arts which have few objective measures.