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La Gente Paga: Operas and Their Audiences

By Singingscholar @singingscholar

La gente paga: operas and their audiences

Parsifal and Gurnemanz (c) Pach Brothers, NYC, 1903

Whether through reports on peanut-eaters at an early twentieth-century Parsifal or on bean-counters at today's opera companies, debates on how opera is performed and perceived have been much with me of late, most recently via the stimulating community of fellow opera-lovers on Twitter. In a Munich symposium last week, general director of the Bayrische Staatsoper Nikolaus Bachler claimed that he (in implicit contrast to Peter Gelb, also present) showed the public "what they need to see, not what they want to see." That American opera companies are more dependent on private donors than their European counterparts, with often detrimental consequences for artistic boldness, is a much-lamented truism. But does Bachler's barbed comment not present a false dichotomy? The monolithic (wealthy, aged, arrogant) opera audience has never been more than a myth; and perhaps it has never been further from reality than today.

The priorities and expectations of audiences surely have changed in the century since that sensational Parsifal at the Met. No one attending next season's run of that work will expect to eat peanuts during the performance; but those who have failed to study their libretti will be able to switch on the titles displayed on individual screens in front of them, and many may expect to do so. Personally, I think this option provided by the Met is an admirable solution to the titles-vs-translation dilemma. The internationalization of opera which has taken place over the past half century or so has made original-language performance the norm, which is worth celebrating. But while the ideal audience may study its libretti, real opera audiences will contain many who do not. I've attended opera-in-translation both disastrous and decent, and a Peter Brook masterpiece which seamlessly integrated French dialogues into Mozart's Magic Flute. While minimal distraction may be the obvious goal I'm not sure there is a clearcut "best practice" answer to achieving it. Easy enough for me to say "the music will tell you what's going on," but what of those first-time opera-goers for whom the melodic lines of orchestra and singers are a language as unfamiliar as, say, Polish is to me?
And why do I think this matters? For one thing, declaring that opera should be performed at its highest level and those who don't care enough can just stay away doesn't really solve matters: what does "performed at its highest level" mean? For another: how do you get people to care in the first place? I learned to love opera via studio recordings; then I saw Ponnelle's Cenerentola production and realized that there were worlds even beyond the fabulous music. Inevitably, I've become a tireless evangelist for opera; most friends I've introduced by throwing them in at the deep end of live performance. I've seen people bored by Zeffirelli productions and bewitched by them; thrilled by Shostakovich; drawn into the pathos of an unfamiliar tragedy while I've been sighing over performance inadequacies in the next seat. What "works" may vary based on individual expectations, but I remain convinced that opera is simply too good--too exciting, challenging, immersive, magical--not to share. And the art form is, if anything, more diverse than its audiences; when told by someone that opera is "just not their thing," my invariable riposte is "What kind of opera?"

La gente paga: operas and their audiences

Parsifal and Gurnemanz in Herheim's Bayreuth production (via

What kind of opera we're likely to see, and how we're likely to see it, has of course changed a great deal over time as well. The hoary cliché of stand-and-sing (or, less kindly, park-and-bark) delivery, supplemented by a limited vocabulary of stock gestures, is thankfully passing from the scene. This is not to claim, of course, that the opera world has suddenly discovered acting; to take but one example, this clip of a 1980 Manon Lescaut from the Met shows Domingo acting--and acting through the voice--and Scotto, at his side, is riveting without making a sound. At the Met, where hoary productions abound, I've seen (or rather, heard) bland choreography compensated for by excellent, expressive singing (most recently in Ernani.) I would love, though, to see more productions where passionate, intelligent, creative direction is visible: a stance that says "This is the story I want to tell in/about/through Opera X." Tragically, I think, the quest for theatrical vigor has sometimes been confused, at least by publicity departments, with a more homogenous (or HD-friendly) look for opera singers. But as Jonas Kaufmann once observed (snapped?) "This is opera, not reality television." As an admittedly romantic opera-lover, I like to think of opera as a haven where ageism, sizeism, racism, and other unpleasant -isms can be transcended. I do know that ideal is a long way from reality. But it will remain on my list of quixotic goals as I look forward to a lifetime of opera-going. As my desires, expectations, and priorities have changed over the first years of my membership in opera audiences, I expect that they will continue to do so. I also expect that I will continue to crave productions and performances that make me gasp, make me cry, make me think; that force me to take a stand; that help me see and hear new things, or see and hear in new ways. I look forward to being carried out of myself on waves of sound, and put back feeling the better for it. After all, that's why I loved this crazy art form in the first place.

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