Why is Opera in Distress?

© Michael Sylvester 2014

This is an opinion piece and the opinions offered are mine. They are not backed up by empirical evidence. These are my observations and conclusions. Feel free to agree or disagree.

I started to title this piece “why is opera in decline,” but it occurred to me that “decline” was too strong a word. It is, nevertheless, in distress. In recent years we have witnessed the closure of various opera companies across the USA and worldwide, and those that remain often speak about declining audiences and donations. The most recent has been San Diego Opera shutting its doors just one year shy of its 50th Anniversary. Maddeningly, they are closing preemptively. They see their incoming funds declining and the audience base shrinking and rather than reformat themselves, they would rather close. It seems a strange choice, but it is pointless to speculate without knowing the details.

There are many possible reasons for opera’s current malaise. But at the heart of most of the probable reasons is diminishing audiences. If performances were uniformly sold-out and additional performances clamored for, we would not be in this situation. So why are audience members dwindling?

Time and time again we hear that the opera audience is dying off (literally) and that younger patrons are not popping up to take their place. So, why is that? As time marches on, young people become older people, but if they are not opera fans at 20, 30 or 40, will they be fans at 55 or 65? Some perhaps, but my guess is on the whole, no, they will not. So why are our current senior citizens more opera inclined than our younger generations?

My conclusion is pop music. At 62, I’m in that so-to-be senior citizen demographic. But I’m at the younger end of it. When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, whom did I hear singing on the radio? Singers like Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Pat Boone, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday…I could go on, but do you get the picture? These singers used their voices in a classical to quasi-classical way. Many of them were probably classically trained to some extent. Even the King himself, Elvis Presley, knew how to sing in a more classical way. If you don’t believe me, listen to the very end of his “It’s now or never” and you will hear a beautifully sung high Ab on the word “love” that many young tenors would love to emulate.

By hearing these voices in the pop music, it was not a big leap to hearing them in classical music. There was a familiarity, a continuity that made listening to opera not so strange. The generations older than me heard even more of this. They were even closer to the source. When we went to concerts by local groups or artists, it was classically oriented quite often. When we went to church or the synagogue, the singing and the music were classical in nature. High school choirs sang classical music mostly.

But as the late 1960s gave way to the 1970s and 1980s pop music began to diverge. Rock music strayed from its acoustical roots and became more and more electronic and then more and more digital, bringing with it the ability to “create” sounds and voices in digital sound processing. Now voices don’t even need to sing on pitch, software can tune them up. Instruments are synthesized eliminating the need for human players (and the humanity they inject). The sound of a pop artist is tightly controlled and managed, it seems. So much money is on the line that record producers are afraid of anything natural, and therefore not easily manipulated.

Since our younger generations have grown up in this vocal climate, is it any wonder that operatic singing would seem just totally strange to them? They have no models of classical singing. It would be stranger if they did accept classical singing! It is so foreign to them. I have heard many westerners deride the sound of Asian and Middle Eastern music. And why? Because it is so foreign to their ears. Just as classical operatic singing is foreign to so many of our western younger generations. This is not a mystery.

So whom can we blame for this? Music education—or the lack of such—is often labeled as the culprit. And there is no question that music education is important for children for many different reasons. But exposing children to classical music or opera—while a good thing—will not turn most of them into opera fans any more than making them read Dickens will create a nation of literati. Yes, exposure is a good thing, but it won’t solve the problem. Let’s insist on good education that includes the arts, but let’s not blame bad education for opera’s distress.

This is not a conspiracy theory. There is no collusion or behind-closed-doors agreement to blame.  Nothing especially nefarious, just old fashioned money. The blame, as I see it, goes to the record labels and record producers. The entire recording and entertainment industry. This has been a long-held belief of mine. Just as so much of our culture does, this comes down to the lowest common denominator. If it has a beat and is catchy, it is good because it will sell. Classical music and opera, like reading Dickens, or Hemingway, or Salinger, takes effort and education. Additionally producing classical music and especially opera is expensive. If your job is to produce music for consumption, it’s a lot easier to produce something that will appeal to 80% of the public than something that will appeal to a smaller subset. And so year after year what gets produced and promoted is further and further from the classical model.

As I see it, the popular music and entertainment industry has killed classical music, including opera. Not intentionally or with malice. But by pushing easily ingested and highly manipulated entertainment, they have denied most people any model of classical music or operatic singing and made it a foreign sound to their ears.

Things change. That is the only thing we can count on. While I love the art form that was opera during most of the 20th century and I hate to see it diminished, opera will either change or die. The MET with their HD Theater broadcasts have either permanently harmed or saved opera, depending on your point of view. Certainly these movie theater performances are nothing like being in the actual theater live. The visceral experience of hearing a voice projected over an orchestra cannot be captured by a microphone attached to a singer. Traditional operatic singers train to project their voices out into a theater, which, if the house is good acoustically, will reinforce and embellish the sound, just like the sounding board on a piano or the body of a good violin. This cannot be captured and reproduced by a body mike or the sophisticated sound system of a movie theater. You have to feel it live to appreciate it. But the HD performances have exposed people to opera that might have never had the opportunity and allowed fans to see performances that they could not have gotten to in person.

This may be a possible future of opera. It is not a future I would appreciate, but if others become accustomed to the recording studio quality, then even live theater can use—as is already the case in musical theater—microphones to project the flimsy, but pretty voices of beautiful opera stars, who are able to do all manner of theatrical activity that traditional operatic singing, by nature of its athletic quality, would not allow. If younger audiences find this appealing, then this may be the future. Again, not one I would relish, but I’ll be gone or senile by then anyway. Which is where we started, with declining audiences as the older generations die off.

What would the audiences of Handel’s time—or Mozart’s time— think of a 1950 performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or Verdi’s Otello? They would have been scandalized, I imagine. Times change. To stand in the way of change is to be trampled by its inexorable march forward. My wish is that opera goes back to what I love, but my most sincere hope is that it thrives in some form. I would prefer that over its demise.

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