Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Future of Opera and some short History (Part 2)

It seems people are all too willing to seal the fate of Opera by mindlessly spewing out such statements without fully understanding its implications. Basing the assumption that Opera is 'dying' on the (relative) fact that only 'older' people (as opposed to 'younger' ones) attend Opera performances in a highly westernized and Americanized culture that is so obsessed (or even entrenched one might say) with youth and its respective fluctuating trends  is an altogether faulty and dare I say discriminatory perspective. It seems it is perspective that is blinded by a type of youth-ism.

This notion is especially troubling when there are examples in the "pop world" of 'young' artists whose audience is also a bit on the mature side. Take someone like Josh Groban for instance. His songs hardly get played on top 40 radio stations, nor are his videos showcased on MTV or VH1, yet he has sold millions of albums worldwide and has gone on multiple international tours and many prestigious events including President Obama's Inaugural ceremony.. I would hardly classify his "art" in the "dying" category just because most of his audience is older than he is. Moreover, this phenomenon was not planned, it evolved naturally. His artistic qualities coincidentally appealed to an older audience. Same with Opera. So why should we hold either accountable for that?

Historically, Opera was never an art form that sought the appeal of any certain age-group or even mass cultures. It was mainly a platform for the elite to have their grandiose (and inherently superior) image of themselves reflected back at them. The age range of the audience was never really considered in the way it is being considered (as an issue) now. Traditionally, the audience was just an "aristocratic" one. But this has changed dramatically over the last century with the rise of the middle class and now, Opera's niche audience is one that embraces the musical and poetic 'values' of the art form, not just its aesthetics. We now people who because of their appreciation of the art form enroll in institutions and garner specific degrees based on the acquired knowledge of certain styles of music composition, style and practices. Before all we had were anecdotal letters that did not scrutinize and analyze Opera the way it is now. Going to the Opera was making a  fashion statement more than anything else and even though this still exists to a certain extent, it does not hold the presumptuous position of priority as it once did. This is mainly due to the fact that we now have a larger variety of entertainment mediums to choose from partly thanks to technology and the disintegration of social stratification. People are now analyzing the art form purely from musical and musicological perspectives which I think has been a progressive shift.

 So, how then should the success of Opera be measured if not by its lack of MTV enthusiasts in its audience? 

Well how about the number of people (REGARDLESS of ethnicity, age, sex or gender) that are actually attending the performances. Are Opera houses, for the most part empty? Are Opera companies struggling to sell tickets? Considering the fact that the world is in an economic recession right now and judging from statistics and ticket prices, I would say the (general) answer is a resounding NO. Many if not most Opera houses can seat thousands of people and the mere fact that the world's leading Opera singers perform in theaters that are largely if not completely sold out tells me there is indeed an audience, even if it's not a "young" one. Sure, Opera singers don't sell out stadiums, but Opera was never meant for those acoustically challenged spaces to begin with (although some of the more famous singers do occasionally give performances in big open air stadiums). In Europe (a continent with a much longer cultural history and less influx of immigrants than the US) audiences are more diverse in terms of age especially, in Germany and Austria; people (even though they're dying) wait in lines hours upon hours in the blistering cold in order to attain tickets and if no seats are available they opt to stand for the entire performance. Just this past Saturday there was a premiere in Austria of an opera in which the worlds current leading Soprano was premiering her role as Anna Bolena (an Opera based on the ill-fated wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, who usurped Katherine of Aragon and was later beheaded by Henry) and tickets for the event were going for 800 (!) euros on the black market. She (the singer) performed to a sold-out crowd and received a twenty minute standing ovation from the audience. (An impressive feat given that they're a dying bunch and all). Granted this was in Vienna (where the singers is heavily favored and it was a premiere) yet, at the season premiere of the Florida Grand Opera (which I reluctantly attended) the theater was completely sold-out, despite the lack of A-list performers. Imagine my sincere astonishment to see a substantial number of people either my age our younger at the event. This was when I realized the whole doom-and-gloom prognosis is unsubstantiated and reminiscent of a very ageist attitude currently pervading American culture.  

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