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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.

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.

All of these motivations were on show in a recent speech he gave in memory of Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Terracini didn’t mince words. “Very little in opera has changed since the 19th century,” he argued, “and in many ways the form has become captive to its own traditions and peculiarly unaware of the changes that have taken place around it.”

What’s worse, it’s not just the opera company, it’s operatic subscribers and audiences who are partly to blame. Terracini singles out a “sense of patrician entitlement” on behalf of a small club of Opera Australia subscribers. This sense of entitlement, he argues, “is not only at odds with what we regard as the Australian way of life, but it is also completely at odds with contemporary Australia”.

It’s not just opera, by the way. Terracini slates the broader sector of major performing arts companies, which he argues “are in real danger of creating an elitist arts community and an audience which is not representative of contemporary Australia”.

Wow. I’ve often found myself at odds with Terracini as a critic and writer, but here I find myself in complete agreement. What’s astonishing about Terracini’s speech is that he articulates most of the criticisms that many of opera’s most strident critics have long been making. Opera is unrepresentative. It is elitist. It is hostile to new work. It is sclerified, rigid and out of touch.

Unsurprisingly, Terracini’s address quickly evoked howls of outrage. When The Australian‘s Matt Westwood rang around, he found plenty willing to differ. “We are doing new work regularly and audiences are coming,” Victorian Opera’s Richard Gill told him rather triumphantly. “Opera Australia, dare I say it, has been sitting in the 19th century for some time.” Canberra composer Larry Sitsky said that “if the audience [for contemporary opera] is small, it’s because people like Lyndon have failed to educate the audience”.

As usual, the most considered and substantial response came from Radio National’s Andrew Ford, writing in Inside Story. He thinks Terracini’s address should be read in the context of the National Cultural Policy, arguing that the trouble with discussions about relevance and “telling Australian stories” is that they can be “easily hijacked by people whose real agenda is to marginalise or destroy certain art forms”.

“And as for opera,” Ford continues, “it’s a sitting duck for those cultural warriors who use expressions such as ‘heritage’ arts (you can hear the sneer, can’t you?) and would prefer that opera didn’t exist at all.”

Unfortunately, the problem for opera lovers is not so much the barbarians at the gates, but the fifth column inside the walls of the ivory tower. When two of the leading figures in Australia’s musical establishment agree that opera faces critical structural problems, the argument that the criticism mounted against it by outsiders is merely a disguised form of philistinism can be seen for the hand-waving that is.

Much hangs on that word, “heritage”. If it means anything, it means a tradition from the past worth preserving. And it’s this whiff of the archaeologist’s embalming fluid that so unsettles many musicians and opera lovers. After all, a great work of Bach or Mozart lives anew every single time it is performed.

But the uncomfortable truth for opera — and indeed classical (or “Western art”) music in general — is that its audiences and institutions have by and large turned their backs on new work. Terracini himself points out that “since 1973, when the Australia Council was founded, more than 160 operas … have been commissioned and presented. Not one of those 160-plus operas has entered the repertoire.” Ford goes further: “I am struggling to think of any opera in the world that has become a staple of the international repertoire in these 38 years. Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre? No. Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach? No. John Adams’s Nixon in China? Not really.”

There are any number of possible reasons for this, but the most persuasive is that audiences don’t want new additions to the repertoire. They’re quite comfortable with seeing Verdi and Puccini and Wagner. They’ve never quite taken to Philip Glass. The reasons for this are historical, and in my opinion have much to do with the failure of modernism in music — as opposed to modernism in visual art or the novel — to win any kind of popular audience in the early-to-mid 20th century. No one can really be sure why, but orchestras and operas simply can’t stage blockbuster shows of mid-century figures such as Stockhausen, Adams or Glass in the way that art galleries can draw crowds for Warhol, Pollack or Beuys.

There’s nothing wrong with audiences wanting a certain repertoire, to the exclusion of newer work. Opera programming is no more rigid than an easy listening format on AM radio. Or, to use another analogy, Old Masters paintings. If an unknown Caravaggio was discovered tomorrow in a church basement in Naples, you might convince an art collector that this is a new example of Caravaggio’s work. It’s more difficult to convince that collector that Damien Hirst is the new Caravaggio. Contemporary art has its own audience, just like contemporary music.

Opera audiences demand many things: great tenors and sopranos, sumptuous sets, magnificent acoustics. What they don’t want, on the whole, are new operas. There’s nothing wrong with that. The desire for a set repertoire of classics is no worse than the obsession with novelty evinced by the denizens of contemporary art galleries, or the love for robots and explosions by the teenage boys who form the audience for big Hollywood action movies.

You can see the outrageous point I’m suggesting here: opera is just another artform like any other. In which case, perhaps its time we started treating it as such. This would mean abandoning the fiction that it deserves, because of its merit, more public funding than circus, or poetry, or new media art.

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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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