Western opera

Opera’s position in society has changed over the centuries. Originally an entertainment for princes and courts, it found a place in wider European society during the nineteenth century: where once its stories, its structures and its musical style had appealed to educated and sophisticated connoisseurs, it now found ways that appealed to much wider audiences. In the modern world, its audience is once again a reduced one. In that respect it can be seen to be in decline, and therefore possibly under threat. At the same time it has spread across the world, and modern technology provides new ways to access it.

But it faces important challenges. Because it presents several art forms simultaneously, opera has always been an expensive activity, yet it has recognized power as an agent of artistic communication and offers potentially transformational experiences to audiences. Who should pay for opera? Entertainment can be paid for by those who are entertained, but even that income may be insufficient. How are potentially transformational experiences to be funded? Is there a communal (governmental, charitable, ‘public-good’) responsibility to support them?

It faces internal challenges too. The repertoire focuses on ‘old’ works. They can be presented in new ways, but these elicit both positive and negative responses. New works are rarer, not because they are not being composed, but because companies are unsure about their reception.

Professional training for opera singers (at the centre of the art-form and therefore of this investigation) is undertaken in Conservatoria or University Schools of Music. The important role of an individual vocal teacher cannot be underestimated. Voice training is built around a master-apprentice relationship rare in undergraduate training in other disciplines. Students with some experience are as careful to select appropriate teachers as teachers are to select promising students. The voice is a fragile instrument, and inappropriate teaching can have a deleterious effect. One-to-one lessons are much more expensive than other forms of undergraduate teaching, and while this has, until very recently, been accepted as a sine qua non for potential performers of Western Classical Music in all its forms, it creates financial challenges for institutions: most Schools of Music and Conservatoria are heavily dependent upon support from benefactors or from their university. In the case of opera, the financial challenge is magnified when opera productions are presented. The opportunities for trainee opera singers to perform in opera may be limited by these considerations.

The effectiveness of training is disputed in the profession. Three years is commonly deemed insufficient, and graduate study or an internship with a professional company is considered by many to be vital. In the modern age it is necessary to have more than vocal talent: stagecraft is essential, and being good-looking is a definite asset.

The training establishments are clearly producing more opera singers than are likely to obtain full-time professional employment. This is the result of a combination of factors: the dreams of aspiring singers, the need of the profession to admit for training singers whose voices have not yet fully developed, and the need of educational establishments to show they have a high percentage of graduates from their courses. Competition to sing roles in professional companies is fierce. Many self-identified opera singers have very few opportunities to share their skills.

Art-forms combining storytelling, theatrical presentation and music can be found in virtually every culture. ‘Opera’ is the term given to the version that emerged in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century and is now found on almost every continent. Nowadays it is formally distinguished from two allied practices: ‘the musical’ and ‘contemporary music-theatre,’ though in practice the distinction is blurred. ‘The musical’ refers usually to works including spoken dialogue, although Schonberg’s Les Miserables, for example, has continuous music. ‘Contemporary music-theatre’ or ‘New Music Theater’ uses sound, space and physicality in experimental ways, and often eschews narrative. Some works of this kind call themselves operas – for example, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1976) – and others do not.

The focus here is on the more conventional kind of opera, which forms the typical repertoire of the genre. It is presented in live performance, normally by self-defined opera companies, and usually in indoor theatre spaces that are often designed for the purpose. Its content is commonly a tragic or comic narrative involving identified characters, and the story is told in words and music. The music is the most important ingredient: opera is often performed to audiences who do not understand the language of the text, and who do not mind. While the text and even the story can often be modified without causing irreparable harm, the music is usually not tampered with in any significant way. It is usually performed by professionally-trained singers, accompanied by professionally-trained musicians, although performances by skilled amateurs do take place. While performances are live ones, they may be recorded and accessed in audio or audio-visual formats.

Most of the operas performed today come from a canon of works composed between 1720 and 1920, and are presented by professional companies in opera houses built for purpose. Smaller opera companies can also be found with more flexible arrangements, often performing other, non-canon. The performance of newly composed operas is comparatively rare, although they are being composed.

Like Western Classical music concerts, opera performances tend to appeal to an older age group. While this might be reassuring, since, in many countries, that demographic is increasing, there is widespread concern. It is widely felt that ways should be found to make opera more attractive to a wider audience, wider in socioeconomic position, in cultural background, and in age. This may be partly driven by the need to show funders, particularly government funders, that opera is not just for an elite, but it is also motivated by a conviction that opera deals with basic human issues through a medium, music, that is recognized to have wide appeal. Many companies therefore reach out into schools, or perform in places other than dedicated opera houses.

While Western opera was born in Europe, it has expanded across the world. In the nineteenth century it migrated to the Americas, and to European settlements in the southern hemisphere. More recently it has moved into Asia, and has now been enthusiastically adopted in countries such as China, Korea and Japan, becoming better supported, perhaps, than in the region that gave it birth. This has happened while the countries in question have their own forms of opera, some of them under threat. How this will play out in the future remains an open question.

Western opera nowadays focuses on a small range of repertoire works, which have come to epitomize the art-form so strongly that traditional audiences are drawn almost exclusively to them. To perform an opera outside this canon is, for many large professional companies, a very risky business, and a new opera must have a particularly attractive element to it for the gamble to pay off. This has a double impact on the renewal of opera: not only are few new works being performed, but composers who wish to write new works are unable to build the skills and experience that will help them write successful ones.

The large companies have found ways to renew opera by performing traditional works in new productions. This practice, called Neue Inszenierung or Regietheater, has led to controversial and stimulating presentations of classic opera. While the intention is at least partly to draw in new audiences, it is recognized that there is a danger in alienating old ones. Many in the profession find these new productions disturbing because, while the music is not significantly altered, its meanings are misunderstood or perverted by the stage directors. Others are enthusiastic, noting that such productions are able to make ‘old’ works more relevant to the audiences of today.

The large opera companies are also impeded by their responsibility to maintain an old opera house and to employ the army of musicians and technical staff necessary to present the large operas of the nineteenth-century canon. They cannot be as flexible as they would like. The small companies are in a better position to experiment with operatic forms, venues, presentation techniques, and repertoire.

Large opera companies are industrial, and even small ones are subject to a range of government regulations: health and safety in opera houses, copyright in media distribution, taxation laws in respect of public and corporate donations, and employment laws in relation to personnel. Training in opera is undertaken in institutions, most of which receive government funding support, and such training takes place within a framework of quality control. As noted in the previous section, the infrastructure of an opera house can be a serious financial burden for a company.

Finding ways to fund opera companies and opera productions is an ongoing struggle for all. Opera is expensive because it includes a combination of sophisticated art-forms and technologies each of which has its own sets of advanced skills. It cannot easily be funded through its direct consumers, and almost always needs support from elsewhere. In Europe, this has traditionally been supplied by central and/or local governments, and in North America, by support from foundations or private or corporate sponsors. In other countries there is often a mixture of these two modes. In nearly all countries, however, the Global Financial Crisis has made it more difficult for these sources of funding to be maintained. Some companies have completely closed, and others have been forced to reduce their seasons, with implications for the employment of singers and others.

The infrastructure of education has a part to play in the sustainability of opera. The downsizing of arts education as a whole in most Western countries, and the downsizing of education in Western Classical Music within arts curricula, has had an impact. Opera is more of an unknown in the lives of young people, which means that opera practitioners must themselves develop education programmes, at a time when money is scarcer than ever.

Opera companies use contemporary media in several ways: in marketing, in productions, and in providing access to the art-form. The smaller companies are particularly enthusiastic users of the internet in marketing their productions, and indeed in their administration structures. Many companies have produced CD recordings and DVDs of their productions and marketed them successfully. Live radio broadcasts are not uncommon.

Recent years have seen the availability in cinemas across the world of HD movies of New York’s Metropolitan Opera productions. These have the potential to bring the work of the company to enormously increased audiences, and opera in the cinema may make it a more acceptable experience to many people. At the same time that experience is a mediated live performance, and not quite the same as a truly live one. Opinions are wide-ranging. Some believe it makes opera more attractive and will therefore increase audiences for the live experience of opera; others wonder who would pay to see a live opera given by a local company when for half the cost they could see in the cinema a opera given by a company of the level of the Met.

Some companies are introducing the live streaming of opera on the net. As audio-visual technology and net speeds develop, this will become a more common way to access opera. Clearly the arguments about the impact of movies and television on live theatre come into play as these new media develop in the world of opera. Given that live theatre survives, there is every reason to assume that live opera will too.

While financial constraints have had their impact, and in the past ten years to 2015 there have been closures of large and small companies, there remain hundreds of companies and individuals across the world involved in ongoing productions of opera. While the future of Western opera does not seem, therefore, to be under immediate threat, four issues can be identified that have a real impact on its sustainability: funding, audience development, renewing the repertoire, and adapting to the new media world.

Funding is a basic challenge, requiring ingenuity and the ability to recognize opportunities. Neo-liberal economics, now widely accepted across the world, favour ‘personal benefits’ over ‘public benefit’, and this has an impact on all arts and culture funding. Opera can no longer rely on a commonly accepted understanding of its importance, but must use the power of the experiences it provides to persuade funders to support it. Audience development is therefore vital, and education programs are equally necessary.

Renewing the repertoire, in one way or another, is a challenge everyone seems aware of. Opera companies can present the canon in a traditional way (old wine in old bottles), or the canon in innovative ways (old wine in new bottles), or new works in a traditional model (new wine in old bottles) or new works in a new way (new wine in new bottles). Each of these will appeal differently to audiences, and possibly to funders too. The last three are all ways to renew the repertoire, or at least to re-present it. The new media provide a further opportunity to share opera, for those willing and able to use them.

Survival for any species depends on its ability to adapt. The question of the sustainability of opera comes therefore in two parts. Firstly, how can the traditional, nineteenth-century opera houses and their large-scale companies and productions sustain themselves? In continuing to present the canon they are faced with the challenge of renewing the repertoire: the two options of deconstructed presentations and commissioning new work are both risky for them. In other words, the longer they continue in their present mode, the more they may be adding to the museum image of opera, and making its sustainability questionable. The second question is a wider one: how can the cultural practice of Western opera sustain itself? Here the question is not just tied to the traditional companies and traditional opera houses: the nimble smaller companies have an important part to play, and it may well be that the longer-term sustainability of the art lies with them.


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