People & Ideas

Nov 11, 2011

Nothing changes in opera — and nobody seems to care

The reason opera is a "heritage" artform is that its audiences don't want to see new operas. Time to abandon the fiction that it deserves more public funding than anything else.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

Say what you like about the Gillard government’s decision to formulate a new National Cultural Policy — it’s certainly got tongues wagging.

And they don’t come more loquacious and mellifluous than that owned by Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini. A charismatic baritone who has made a name for himself as a persuasive festival director north of the Tweed, he has come to a position at Australia’s best-funded arts company on something of a mission. He wants to shake up things. He wants to win hearts and minds. Ultimately, I think, he wants to see the survival of opera as a living artform.

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25 comments

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25 thoughts on “Nothing changes in opera — and nobody seems to care

  1. Eric Sykes

    “This would mean abandoning the fiction that it deserves, because of its merit, more public funding than circus, or poetry, or new media art.”

    Here here.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with Eric Sykes: at last someone asks why high art warrants more support than other forms of cultural creativity.

  3. Graham Henderson

    It is just not true that opera lovers want only the same old classics, there is a constant demand for new works.

    But modern opera doesn’t deliver the goods, and you are spot on with the reason.

    There are plenty of great singers, plenty of enterprising directors – even if experiment sometimes results in cr*p. Modern literature has all that opera needs for plot and libretto.

    Today’s performers can act the shorts off Melba and Co.

    The problem is the music. It’s not just that you can’t whistle the tunes, you can’t find them in the “plinky, plinky,thunk,whistle” of the modern score.

    Modernist music has become an intellectual exercise in which composers and musicians wrestle with technical difficulty leaving the listener reduced, despairingly, to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

    So the opera companies satisfy the demand for new works by mining the back catalogues of composers dead for two hundred plus years. Vivaldi, Rameau, Scarlatti and a dozen others. The ABC Opera broadcast next week is a Haydn opera not performed since Esterhazy in the 1770’s.

  4. Gavin Moodie

    I don’t like his work, but surely Benjamin Britten wrote melodic operas, yet while they are performed occasionally none is in the standard repertoire.

  5. rachel612

    Even on its own terms, this is an incredibly silly statement:

    This would mean abandoning the fiction that it deserves, because of its merit, more public funding than circus, or poetry, or new media art.

    Is it a fiction that staging opera, irrespective of its merit, costs more to stage than the average poetry reading?

    Is it worth spending money to stage it well? Or should it be staged cheaply and badly? Or should it be staged at all? Should it be staged as a warm-up act to the poetry reading, with a couple of singers and a player piano?

    No doubt Australian film-makers who churn through taxpayer support like circuses on steroids will be quivering in their boots. Perhaps we’ll see them race off to invest their time and energy in new media art instead of their current decadent activities. The average new opera might cost $400-500k, while last time I checked, the stunningly populist Eye of the Storm had a budget around the $14m mark.

    The juxtaposition of high art and low art is always a sure sign that an attack of the drivels is impending, in much the same way that talk of modern music being difficult always overlooks the way that Hollywood movie composers took on all the modernist tricks.

    If opera’s such high art and poetry low, then let them put a poetry reading of T. S. Eliot over the next advertisement promoting sport, instead of that obscurantist tosh Nessun Dorma …

  6. Gavin Moodie

    This is mistaking support for an art form with support of an instance of an art form. Of course staging an opera is more expensive than staging a poetry reading – altho why opera should be quite so expensive is worth examining. But if poetry is worth supporting mightn’t it be worth supporting with more money and asking opera to do with less?

    Had governments spent $14 to screen the Eye of the Storm to 28 audiences in Sydney and 10 audiences in Melbourne then this point might have some force. But of course, this again confuses creating a work of art with its dissemination. The Eye of the Storm will be watched by hundreds of thousands, with a subsidy per viewer a fraction of the subsidy for opera seats.

    Surely no one is suggesting that poetry is low art, unless they are considering Pam Ayers a poet.

  7. John Tevelein

    South Africa’s Isango Ensemble production of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ at the recent Melbourne International Arts Festival was infused with rhythm and life and was stunning. Not only did they move the setting to a different time and place they, “quelle horreur” messed with the music! It has been acclaimed wherever it has been staged. It ain’t even a propa opera company and they still had fat ladies and all.

  8. Mary Rose Liverani

    The best thing that has happened to opera in the last few years has been the production and wide distribution of low-priced high definition screenings from the New York Metropolitan Opera seasons. Never having seen a single opera in my life before, I attended my first opera movie at the Dendy Quay in Sydney, curious to know if di Lampedusa was right in describing ‘opera mania’ as a tragedy for Italians, a response to and a perpetrator of national illiteracy and ignorance – even if ‘art’ in certain instances.

    Lampedusa lamented that while France and the anglophone countries with their high literacy rates engendered the great literatures of the 18th and 19th centuries, works that enhanced their citizens’ understanding of their history, politics, culture and economy, infantilised Italians were revelling in operas that were without exposition or context, duped into thinking that if they knew Otello they knew Shakespeare, or that Sicilian Vespers offered a comprehensive account of the politics behind the arrival of the French in Sicily.

    By the third opera, I was pretty sure I had figured out the genre’s enduring attraction. Not the music per se. Putting aside the famous arias I’d much rather listen to lieder or a symphony concert. Rather it’s the surfeit of raw passion that deluges the stage, naked lusting for sex, money, power and revenge, directed and rallied by the musicians from the beginning to the end of a performance – the total surrender of intellect to the senses by an entire audience – similar, I imagine to that which coheres a great sporting crowd at a World Cup match, or soldiers being pumped up before a battle. It’s a very weird experience to participate in a collective orgasm that has people breathing deeply, looking round at one another and madly clapping a movie musical at its end. And in the corridors off-stage where the camera follows the singers, their own exhilerant exhaustion confirms that they have plumbed depths of emotion in themselves and their audiences, probably impossible to replicate outside the opera world.

    If opera is to reach wider audiences it will have to be through films like those produced by the Met whose stagings, even to the non-financial eye, are breathtakingly costly. If modern composers are to compete with the traditional operas perhaps they will have to concentrate on probing the old lusts that lurk below literacy and allow singers to give unshackled voice to them in word and deed. The formula works every time. It just needs a modern gloss.

  9. Clytie

    Ben, thanks for this series of thoughtful articles. On the whole (and even as a long-time classicist), I agree with your view on balancing our investment in arts and culture.

  10. Stuart Omond

    @John Tevelein, Isango Ensemble’s “messing with the music” involved removing the good bits because they were too hard for the singers. And the night I went it was less than half full; the supposedly poor attendance at Bliss was better, from what I saw at least.

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