Narrative storytelling sits at the heart of human existence. Professional sports would not exist were it not for the narratives we build around it. History is the narrative of what happened before us. Even the way we perceive our own lives is often through narrative. Sung theatre is just another medium for narrative, albeit one with a legacy of over 400 years. Why is it that opera is treated so differently than other forms of musical storytelling, specifically its closest analog, musical theatre?
In the early days of opera, it was an art form exclusively for the massively wealthy. Rich nobles would commission new works, and then pay all of the costs of production. Then they would present the opera to their court and fellow nobles. It was basically a big watch party. There was food, alcohol, and a lot of talking. This changed slightly when opera moved out of the courts and into public opera houses, but even then, opera was not held to the reverent status it is today. This is a product of the “Great Concert Culture” of the late 1800s, and popular attention being drawn away by vaudeville and cinema. This held up the opera and symphony high on a pedestal above other forms of classical music. These art forms became increasingly associated with the wealthy elite, something the new middle class were happy to adopt as a way of elevating their own status. Gone were the days of touring opera companies selling out rural towns.
This perception of opera as an inherently elitist or wealthy art form is still troublingly present. We see contemporary organizations fighting this on a few fronts. First, there are the educational outreach programs the many opera companies have that send singers out to schools. Research has show this to be one of the most effective tools, as taste is formed relatively early. This can do a lot to set a foundation of understanding before cultural misconceptions about opera can set in. Second, companies like Opera on Tap perform classical works in venues not typically associated with the art form, and in a lighthearted, sometimes silly way, to show how accessible the music can be. Finally, the cinema screenings and livestreaming of performances. This again puts opera in a more familiar place, but sadly seems to be mostly attracting existing opera fans.
Many opera companies’ budgets and number of annual performances are shrinking, as they are failing to replace lost donors each year. I see many cries of “the death of opera” in online discourse, but all is not lost. If we look for guidance in the work of other industries and culture, there is hope. Musical Theatre has a strong following in the United States and abroad. Purely by virtue of this industry existing, we can see that the demand for sung theatre is still present. We can also look to opera in Europe. Germany has the most performances of opera than any other country. This is in large part to the country’s publicly funded art initiatives. There, opera is plentiful and inexpensive; and in the metropolitan areas, a quarter of the population see at least one opera each year! Can you imagine what our industry could look like if that were true in Chicago or New York?
At their core, there are two lessons that I would like to see us take from these examples. First, is the opportunity to fail. Many musicals are written that don’t go to Broadway, and few of those make it to a Tony nomination. Donizetti wrote almost 70 operas! Not all of them were masterpieces. Composers and directors are held to unreasonable standards of excellence, as failure is not an option. Finally, a more casual atmosphere. Opera does not need to be about extravagance, it’s something that keeps away potential new fans. Musical theatre and European opera companies seem to do fine without leaning into the High Culture aesthetic.
Tell me, what do you think are potential solutions to the issues facing classical music that you think would help? Do you agree that opera should move away from its current traditions? If not, why is that? I think this is an important discussion that we have scratched the surface of here today. I would love to hear from you and keep this dialogue going.
If you are interested in learning more about opera’s place in society, and specifically of the discussion of Cultural Capital and classical music, I suggest the following further reading:
Bourdieu, Pierre. "Forms of Capital", Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood, New York, NY: 1986. 241-47.
Coulangeon, Philippe. “Social Stratification of Musical Tastes: Questioning the Cultural Legitimacy Model. » Revue Française De Sociologie 46, (2005) 123-54.
García-Álvarez, Ercilia, Tally Katz-Gerro, and Jordi López-Sintas. "Deconstructing Cultural Omnivorousness 1982-2002: Heterology in Americans' Musical Preferences." Social Forces 86, no. 2 (2007): 417-43.
Katz-Gerro, Tally. "Highbrow Cultural Consumption and Class Distinction in Italy, Israel, West Germany, Sweden, and the United States." Social Forces 81, no. 1 (2002): 207-29.
Leppert, Richard. "Excursus Opera, Monumentality, and Looking at Looking." Aesthetic Technologies of Modernity, Subjectivity, and Nature: Opera, Orchestra, Phonograph, Film, 77-96. University of California Press, 2015.
Peterson, Richard A., and Gabriel Rossman. "Changing arts audiences: capitalizing on omnivorousness." Engaging Art. The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, Oxon e Nova Iorque, Routledge (2007): 307-42.
1. Weber, William. "Did People Listen in the 18th Century?" Early Music 25 no. 4 (1997): 678 - 91.
2. Smith, Catherine Parsons. "Old Competitors, New Opera Companies in 1925." Making Music Los Angeles: Transforming the Popular, 157-65. University of California Press, 2007.
3. Rössel, Jörg. "Cultural Capital and the Variety of Modes of Cultural Consumption in the Opera Audience." The Sociological Quarterly 52, no. 1 (2011): 83-103.