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Until the Fat Lady Sings: Can Opera Survive the Twenty-First Century?

Everywhere you go you hear music. Itís in clothing stores and supermarkets, and itís what you listen to on the phone while you wait twenty minutes to speak to a customer-service representative. Music surrounds our everyday activities, as more and more people plug into iPods, MP3 players, or even archaic Discmen. But what are they listening to? Whether it's the new Shakira album or the hit Gwen Stefani single, pop culture has taken over, and this has pushed "serious" music like opera out to the margins as a form of entertainment. The widespread lack of interest in operatic music among the younger generation of listeners has left some people worrying that the death of opera is imminent, and scrambling for ways to revive it.

"A burden that opera companies now have is to not only produce the operas, but to educate the audience to what they are listening to and seeing," said Mark Moorman, the New York City Operaís Manager of Institutional Gifts. "Younger people don't know how to listen to music." Moorman, an avid opera enthusiast who handles charitable contributions to the NYC Opera from corporations, government agencies, and foundations, also said that an issue to look at is what people are doing with their disposable income. Consumer studies show that many people would rather buy a bottle of Calvin Klein perfume or a Gucci clutch then spend money to see a live opera performance.

But while opera appears to be a vanishing art form, many new productions are being staged, and there are still plenty of people wanting to learn the skills of the trade. According to the non-profit organization OPERA America, in the past fifteen years there have been over two hundred new operatic productions in the United States; last year alone, the U.S. hosted fourteen world premieres of operatic works. Still, attendance is dropping and, worse, audiences are getting older--in essence, they're dying off. The average subscriber to the NYC Opera is now about fifty-five years old, and the average age for New Yorkís Metropolitan Opera Company is closer to eighty. "We are like a museum preserving ancient music for ancient people," said Moorman.

The most common operas produced in American today are Tosca, La Traviata, The Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, The Magic Flute, La BohËme, and Turandot. All of these are classical operatic assemblies, the most recent production being Puccini's Tosca, composed over a hundred years ago. Though new operas open every year, Moorman said that more people are coming to see the older works than the new ones. "Composers are not writing operas that people want to hear; they are very contemporary and they don't generate enough interest." New operas often do draw crowds initially, but they don't have a follow-through. People simply donít have a desire to revisit them.

In the past five years the NYC Opera's sales have dropped to the point where the house is on average 60% full, a vast difference from the 97% attendance that the Metropolitan Opera could boast in 1959. One reason for the decline in opera attendees, according to John Dizikesí Opera in America: A Cultural History, is that today "opera matter[s] less socially because other forms of entertainment [have] surpassed it as occasions for ostentatious display, because 'society' [has] virtually disappeared." Today, social status is measured by the designer apparel that you wear or the kind of car you drive.

Another reason opera has been in decline is that, especially compared to television, movies, the internet, and other forms of entertainment, it remains pricey--a problem that some companies are trying to fix. The NYC Opera has been using the slogan "Opera for Everyone" and promoting $16 tickets and low-priced viewing areas in the hopes of generating higher interest among the less affluent and younger people. They have also started a half-price ticket program for students. But there are also over a dozen smaller opera companies in New York (including the Amato Opera Theatre and the Bronx Opera Company) that charge lower admissions than the NYC Opera and the Met.

Opera is changing and, for better or worse, trying to adapt itself to contemporary audiences, who are steeped in modern consumerism and often without the cultural background that at one time would have been taken for granted. Subtitles are now offered over the stage, whereas in the past patrons had to either know the story in advance, buy the libretto, or go into the performance blind and take their chances. Attendees today are as likely to wear jeans and sweaters as elegant evening wear and satin gloves. And the new operas are being geared to different crowds, like Rachel Porter's The Little Prince, an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-ExupÈryís children's book. (As a children's production, this was one of the biggest sellers at the NYC Opera in the past fall season.) Opera is even getting some (arguably dubious) attention from contemporary pop culture-oriented magazines: Last December, Time Out New York did a brief two-page layout of good-looking opera stars, including Barbara Frittoli from the Metropolitan Opera and Beth Clayton from the NYC Opera. Will a new representation of "opera as sexy" boost the appeal of this art?

Still, the question remains what to do about striking genuine interest back into the community and, ultimately, whether it is worth it. Opera is something that has been misunderstood for a long time. Associated with the upper classes and hence snobbery, it is generally assumed to be expensive, boring, and beyond normal peopleís intellectual grasp. Sitcoms and movies are rife with scenes showing someone being bored to death at the prospect of, or in the actual settings of, the opera. Yet the art of opera--and not as a punch-line--crops up in many unexpected places: In the movie Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts's character is taken to see La Triviata, a story whose plot parallels the film's. Opera can also be heard in a few recent film soundtracks: Man on Fire featured the song "Nessun Dorma" from the opera Turandot, and 40 Days and 40 Nights used "Recondita Armonia" from Tosca. And of course no one can forget the classic Looney Tunes cartoon What's Opera Doc? (including the climactic number "Kill the Wabbit"), where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd act out Richard Wagner's opera Siegfried.

It is not as if the opera will ever truly die. But whether or not the houses are filled, there is something in the enchanting idea of what this art is. The feeling among experts in most operatic circles is that productions and compositions will change to fit the society that now supports the arts. "Opera for All" is a slogan that will grow, and maybe even the elitist Metropolitan Opera will adapt to it. As the days of grand theatre patrons' costumes, expensive box seating, and airs of refinery continue to dwindle, a younger, more carefree opera will emerge. People still want to write and perform operas, and new ones are being produced every year. Opera is not deadóit is far too unique an art form to just disappear. It's not true that "it ainít over till the fat lady sings"; the reality is that it isnít over till the fat lady stops singing.


Linnea Covington

Linnea Covington is a senior in the journalism program at Brooklyn College.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

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