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EDITORIAL | Opera Gets The Limelight On The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, But Does It Matter?

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Last week, opera fans were delighted to find South African soprano Pretty Yende performing an aria from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville on the Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert.

You can check out the video here:

Accompanied by MET orchestra members, Yende was remarkably poised and had no problem hitting the high E on live television.

The studio audience was clearly impressed. The Twittersphere also indulged with a near-universal deluge of positive vibes towards the 31-year old soprano from South Africa.

Colbert is a well-known opera and classical music lover and has featured a number of prominent opera stars on his show over the years. In 2012, he featured Placido Domingo in a memorable episode that saw the two perform “La Donna E Mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto together. He has also invited composer Philip Glass, violinist Itzhak Perlman, conductor Lorin Maazel and classical music critic Alex Ross on the show.

The question is, did the diva appearance foster any new opera fans, or was this just hopeful thinking?

According to our affiliate Norman Lebrecht, Yende’s appearance on The Late Show made almost no impact on her record sales. “She might as well have gone to bed early that night,” Lebrecht jested.

Of course, Yende’s relatively low physical record sales of her debut CD, A Journey, is not unique. Despite the ongoing number of high-quality releases by sterling artists, sales of physical CD’s have all but disappeared. In Canada, a certified platinum record went from 150,000 in 1982, to just 10,000 in 2002. You are lucky to reach 200 in 2016.

While many love to say low record sales are a symptom of the overall decline of classical music, I would argue it’s really due to the recording industry’s decision that streaming and digital-only releases are the way to go. Financial implications aside, what matters is that the music is still being recorded, released, and delivered, en mass – probably now more than ever.

But in terms of the audience response to Yende’s late night TV aria, there was one online commenter that said something interesting.

“The sad truth is that classical music on Colbert’s Late Show helps burnish Colbert, but not really the artists,” someone commented. “The audience gives standing ovations and they love and appreciate the ‘class’ that classical musicians or ballet dancers bestow, just not enough to buy the product or develop an interest in it. When they stand and ovate, they’re standing in appreciation of Colbert and themselves for showing good taste…”

This may be true, but opera has a long history of appearing on late-night television, and the same could be said for appearances between the 1950s to the 80s of stars like Maria Callas, Martina Arroyo, Plácido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Beverly Sills. Each made regular appearances on shows with Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan, and Merv Griffin. This tradition has mostly died out these days, but opera’s moment in the limelight last week was a nod to that era, which judging from the positive response, seems to work as well as it ever did.

Art is not a zero-sum game. As Lord Darlington quipped in Lady Windemere’s Fan, a cynic was “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Whether or not the performance resulted in a potential boom for the business of opera (however unlikely), that’s okay. We loved it anyway. Kudos to The Late Show for recognizing Pretty Yende’s voice and sharing it without apology, or explanation.

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Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Editor at Musical Toronto
Michael Vincent has worked as a senior editor for La Scena Musicale and web editor for Norman Lebrecht. On January 21, 2014, he went to lunch and left as the publisher of Musical Toronto. Later that year he found himself as a freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star, the former employer of his favourite author Ernest Hemingway. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
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