Photo Credit From NYT: "Exit Arias: What Opera Can Teach Us About Dying"
Is opera dead? Like Mark Twain, rumors of opera’s death have been greatly exaggerated over the years. “Experts” have been proclaiming for decades that the art form is at once too dry, too melodramatic, and too elitist for modern audiences.
Up until recently, they’ve been wrong. Despite its many antiquated leitmotifs (misogyny, racism, and class discrimination among them), people still bought tickets for La bohème without fail.
But that was before the coronavirus ravaged nearly every aspect of our lives. While businesses and schools gradually ease back into some vague sense of normalcy, by all accounts, the performing arts will pretty much be the very last thing that opens back up again. That is, assuming they can survive the prolonged absence of ticket-buyers and deep-pocketed philanthropists.
Sadly, many companies will not survive. Even the mighty Met has decided to pull the plug on all performances for this season.
A Message to Our Audience:
The @MetOpera has made the difficult decision to cancel the entirety of the 20–21 season, on the advice of #health officials […] until a vaccine is widely in use, herd #immunity is established, and masks & social distancing are no longer required. #opera
Some performing arts organizations (notably The Met) have released streaming archived performances, and other online platforms, in attempts to engage their rapidly dwindling audiences.
A noble effort, for sure, but increasingly it seems that nobody is really paying attention—there are just too many voices clamoring for our eyes and ears.
And we all have bigger issues of our own to address these days, so it feels almost insensitive to indulge in a patronage for the arts when people's very lives are so uncertain. Especially for an art form that was "supposedly" on its way out anyway.
But before we bid “Addio del passato,” (Farewell to the past) let’s have a look back at the rich history of opera.
Opera History 101
Opera was not an art form that grew organically from a long tradition. Rather, it was deliberately invented by a group of scholars, who named among its members none other than Vincenzo Galileo, the father of the famous astronomer.
The group was formed in the city of Florence during the 1590s, and they were known as the Camerata. They sought to revive the power of Greek drama, incorporating musical features, just as the Greeks did, to enhance the emotion of the story. These experiments led to the development of the stile recitativo, which became a precursor of opera lirica, the opera that we know today.
Around the same time in the same city was another group called Accademia della Crusca. Their main objective was to define and preserve the vulgar Florentine tongue as a model for a standardized Italian language. Within this larger goal was a stated objective to create a language that sounded as beautiful as possible; a language that lent itself to music, even when spoken in daily conversation.
All the pieces were in place for opera to be conceived. It wasn’t long after that when it was officially born.
In 1597, a composer named Jacopo Peri wrote the first opera, titled Dafine, based on a story from Greek mythology. Claudio Monteverdi took the opera concept to the next level, solidifying the art form and propelling the genre into the future. He was the first opera composer whose works, which include Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea, are still performed today.
An opera was originally called “un’opera in musica,” or “a work in music,” meaning that it was different from a play or poem in that the characters sang their lines in order to add a healthy dose of emotional drama to an otherwise common story-line.
So from the onset, this was considered a genre of dramatic acting rather than a musical style, per se. Since it was conceived by the intellectual elite of Florence during the late Renaissance, it remained a form of entertainment for members of high-society for about two generations before it was eventually brought to the general public.
While the high-society sat (and ate and drank and “entertained each other”…ahem…) in the comfortable, curtained box seats, the commoners crowded onto the floor where they stood for the duration of the performance, usually at or somewhat below stage level, making it difficult to see all of the action.
During the recitative parts—the speech-like sections that advance the plot—the crowd would often chat, and laugh, and generally not pay attention to the stage performers. Then when an aria would begin—an emotional reflection on the characters’ circumstances—the crowd would fall silent and listen to the lilting voices with deep admiration.
For several hundred years, audiences were entertained by the operatic works of composers such as Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini, and Verdi. Opera-goers were spellbound, not only by the exceptional skills of the singers but by the sheer spectacle of the grand performances, with their ornate sets and lavish costumes.
The common man’s vantage point eventually improved somewhat. They moved from below stage level to way up in the rafters; to the “piccionaia,” the pigeons’ roost (or the “nosebleed section,” as we call it now in English).
These days, many believe that the true aficionados actually prefer these seats, in some measure as a protest against the elitist perception of opera enthusiasts. They also claim that you can see and hear the performance better from this lofty perspective.
In many modern Italian opera houses, these tifosi (fans) up in the “cheap seats” are boisterous in their fervor; cheering wildly for exceptional performances and heckling even more vigorously when the lead tenor doesn’t measure up to their high standards.
Well... all of that was a long time ago. Like last year. Alas.
Is Opera Dead After All?
So where is opera now at this point in its history? Will it survive the lethal combination of audience indifference and a global pandemic? It’s not an easy question, and it certainly depends on the course of the coronavirus, among other factors, including the delicate economics of funding the arts.
In our era of technological advancements, the impersonal nature of our Information Age, and the forced isolation from Covid-19, perhaps more than ever people are eager for the spontaneity of genuine human interaction. Music, theater, and highly trained voices speak directly to our heart and souls, which is an experience that is found nowhere else.
The company that I once worked for, Palm Beach Opera, has endeavored to find a compromise by presenting a socially-distanced outdoor festival. Check it out if you're in South Florida.
But maybe we’ve already moved past all that. People have grown hypnotized by the glow of their computer screens, and are numb from too much Netflix binge-watching. Maybe live opera is at last a thing for the history books. I hope not, but it's certainly not out of the question.
(Cue Violetta's death aria from La traviata... "Addio del passato...")