This essay was prompted by my thoughts after attending a tremendous production by MN Opera. The following words are my reflection on some cultural traditions and are not specifically directed towards MN Opera, for whom I have great respect.
When I see 66,000 people going to US Bank Stadium for a Vikings game I understand why. Live sports are exciting and it’s thrilling to be in the room where it happens. When I hear that 320,000 people attend the Minnesota Renaissance Festival each year I understand that too. It’s fun to be immersed in a different world – kind of like going to Europe but cheaper or going back in time without a DeLorean. When I see 2,206 people fill The Ordway for a new piece by the Minnesota Opera I love it. Most years MN Opera presents one new full-length work in full production – a tremendous feat made possible by the collaboration of perhaps a hundred professional artists. When I see 2,206 people fill The Ordway for an opera from 1843 whose original Parisian reviewer called it “…in short, a pleasant opera, albeit of no great importance…” I am very confused.
Why do audiences love mediocre works by famous composers? MN Opera knocked their production of Don Pasquale (get there while you can) out of the park but the whole time I was watching the show I was thinking about the potential of those artists if they weren’t constrained by their audience’s expectations.
What if they didn’t have to tell that petty story? What if they didn’t have to exist only in the ‘bel canto’ style? What if they were allowed spoken dialogue or the English language? I know I’m stirring up a lot of opera stereotypes and I’m happy to discuss them all but think about it… If the 25 members of the cast, 50 members of the orchestra, and 13 members of the creative team were allowed to fully spread their wings I can’t even fathom what they’d create. Those singers are tremendous, those players can perform any music that’s set on their stands, those designers are on the cutting edge of their craft. I believe those 88 people are some of the most talented artists in the world right now. I believe Donizetti has got nothin’ on them. So why do we keep asking Donizetti what we should sing instead of asking living artists? Because he’s Italian? Because we grew up with his operas on stage? Because it’s tradition? Perhaps I’m wrong but if that’s tradition, then tradition is holding back a lot of tremendous artists from creating new work.
There’s a concept called the ‘Abilene paradox’ in which two groups of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of either group. That’s kind of dense, let me rephrase: the Abilene paradox is when two people each do what they think the other person wants to do and no one ends up doing what anyone wants to do. I think that’s what’s happening in the world of opera.
I think many of the shows in the standard operatic repertoire are tired and obsolete. I think they could easily be replaced by newer, better works. I’d even make that same statement of musical theater, sorry Rodgers, sorry Hammerstein. Here’s where the Abilene paradox comes in… I don’t think artists enjoy producing these tired shows and I don’t think audiences enjoy going to them (as much as they would enjoy going to different shows). I think many audience members attend these ‘classic’ shows to experience a work they’ve heard about in order to be a more cultured person. Or perhaps they went when they were young and want to reminisce about that performance (or perhaps they see something in this saggy repertoire that I don’t, in which case I would love for someone to explain it all to me). And if that’s what audiences want then that’s what artists will present, we all got bills to pay.
But what if we abandoned our usual ‘standard’ repertoire? We’d need to come up with a lot more original work (or re-discovery of unknown work) and I bet a lot of it would be great. I bet all of it would be relevant to our lives in 2017. And isn’t that what all of our ‘standard’ repertoire did in its own day? Didn’t Donizetti compose work because audiences wanted new work? Didn’t Mozart get so famous because audiences valued his compositions and not just his violin playing?
If we applaud the conductor every time she or he walks to the podium but don’t ask them what else they’re working on, we’re jerks. To value one evening’s performance is short sighted. If we place a higher value on irrelevant work than on new creations we’re dooming ourselves to be remembered as an era devoid of substance. We’re digging our own graves for making opera (or musical theater - or anything really) obsolete.
Another way to say all this would be a thought I’ve had for a while now (and haven’t yet been able to turn into a song): If you were Shakespeare’s child, what would be the best way to honor your father? To promote his works, ensure their publication, and create a future that remembers his name? Or to write your own original works, to do what he did? I think you know my answer. To be clear, I'm not saying we should outlaw Mozart. I'm saying we should expect every show to be clearly relevant. We shouldn't feel bad if a once 'standard' show gets forgotten. I'm saying we're capable of having seasons that are 50% new works and artists who are in the habit of premiering new roles. I think audiences would love it, even if they don't know it yet.
If you love Donizetti, I say do what Donizetti did – create new work. If you love Rodgers and Hammerstein, do what gave them an audience – support new work. Our culture and our world is changing. I suspect that in the not-so-distant future we’ll be faced with real questions of ‘does art matter?’ ‘does musical theater matter?’ ‘does opera matter?’ If opera is an occasion for an elite class to show off their wealth and knowledge, then no, it doesn’t matter. If opera functions as a cultural thought leader that is relevant and accessible to everyone, then yes, it matters.
As I conclude, I realize I never answered my question that titled all this: How do you dress for the opera? Which is what I was thinking before I went out the door for the evening… I was wondering how to best support opera culture as it currently exists without examining whether its traditions serve it well. I was wondering how to most perfectly avoid presenting people with anything they don’t expect. Which is a dumb thing to wonder.