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Opinion: Opera is dead! Long live opera!

By John Terauds on March 5, 2013

Robert Gleadow and Michael Schade in Christopher Alden's Clemenza di Tito, presented by the Canadian Opera Company (Michael Cooper photo).
Robert Gleadow and Michael Schade in Christopher Alden’s Clemenza di Tito, presented by the Canadian Opera Company (Michael Cooper photo).

Yesterday Al Jazeera published an opinion piece by a New York City philosophy professor who declared: “Opera is dead, because nobody can listen to it any more.” It comes on the heels of Terrence Corcoran’s musings on the front-page of the National Post about opera as a moribund artform.

It’s very easy to dismiss these articles as delusions of the uninformed. But my question is: Why do these sorts of opinion pieces keep turning up in the first place? Corcoran and Chiara Bottici are not the first, and will surely not be the last. Corcoran was, after all inspired by former Globe and Mail editor William Thorsell’s 20-year-old declaration that opera was dead.

Given that Corcoran was compelled to write by the Canadian Opera Company’s productions of Tristan und Isolde and La clemenza di Tito, we may as well look at the local state of affairs to answer that question.

I want to translate Corcoran’s beefs about sexuality and silliness on the Four Seasons Centre stage into a conceptual problem where there are two sets of narratives being presented to the audience.

The first narrative is the original, woven together by the librettist and composer and left to posterity in the form of a performance tradition.

The second narrative is the director’s vision, where he or she tries to express to the audience how they see the original fitting in to the time and place where the production is being presented.

When I go to the opera, I get the most satisfaction out of a tight interweaving of these two narratives, where I don’t see that they are competing with each other, or trying to say different things.

If they are saying different things — like a subconscious imagery being projected on a video screen to illustrate the subtext of the live dialogue happening onstage — I and my fellow audience members have to keep an open mind and, if the message is presented clearly and coherently, be convinced of the director’s point-of-view.

If I have to consult the director’s notes in order to understand what I’m supposed to be seeing, I have to consider the interpretation a failure. This is live theatre and, unlike watching Season 1 of Downton Abbey three times, I only have that one fleeting opportunity to get the message.

I am putting thoughts into Corcoran’s head when I write that I believe he was, like me, irritated by the disjunction between the two narratives in both recent Canadian Opera Co. productions.

I’ve expressed crankiness with this sort of disjunction several times before, believing that it comes from a director’s inability to trust the source material — the work and its performance tradition. And if the director doesn’t trust it, isn’t he or she implying that it is dead in some way?

I had a chance to chat briefly with Corcoran last week and, when I suggested his opera-is-moribund declaration was a rhetorical device rather than a statement of belief, he smiled.

Corcoran doesn’t believe opera is dead. But he does believe the actions of directors Peter Sellars and Christopher Alden suggest they think the original is dead.

Which brings us to New School for Social Research prof Chiara Bottici’s declaration that opera is dead on Al Jazeera.

Her argument is so full of holes that I don’t really want to go into it. Rather, what drives her argument in the first place is an accusation of elitism — something that doesn’t become fully clear until her last paragraph.

Bottici doesn’t think opera is dead; she thinks it is stinkingly elitist and therefore should be killed:

If opera has been killed, why is it still hanging around? Who is trying to keep it artificially alive? First and foremost are those who cannot allow themselves to watch soap operas. 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, but maybe this is not such a drama: Let’s Occupy Opera!

Bottici is really saying opera isn’t accessible, friendly, relevant and down-to-earth enough.

The thing is, the biggest opera fans I know are middle-class people who love the artform and its artists, and who couldn’t care less about the experience of being seen at a glittery occasion. In fact, when we look at the popularity of red carpets, receptions and celebrations for everything other than opera or classical music, one might actually feel a bit of pity for anyone who thinks there’s any glamour in hanging out with the art-music crowd.

If we stop to think for half-a-minute, we realise that Sellars and Alden are trying to be honest about this, not attracting audiences who might ooh and aah over an elaborate set and costumes, but people looking for a genuine message. Each in their own way introduces elements they believe will bring the audience closer to the work they are presenting.

But it’s hard to translate black-and-white moral dilemmas into a thousand shades of grey. How does a fatal lovers’ quarrel fit into an age where Facebook shaming can lead to suicide? Are they similar problems, or totally incompatible?

We look askance at the people who govern us, so why shouldn’t we look askance at Emperor Tito?

Chiara Bottici doesn’t get this. In fact, she has no idea what enjoyment of opera is all about. To combat her form of opera-is-elitist prejudice, which is pervasive, we have to keep doing exactly what the Canadian Opera Company is doing: bring productions to its audiences that speak to right now.

Conceptually, I get it. But practice is a lot messier than that, and that’s were we’ll keep reading and hearing complaints from people caught in narrative disjunction.

There isn’t a single composer, painter, novelist, poet, sculptor or filmmaker who hasn’t produced his or her fair share of failures. The same is true for opera directors. But when the adventurous ones succeed: Wow. We can use our own Robert Lepage — the latest laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize — as a model.

Opera is alive, because we can keep declaring it to be dead.

John Terauds

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