Opera: What’s In A Name?

Shakespeare contends that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but does opera in any other form than a full opera, live in a theater deserve to be called opera?  I read a letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post defending cinema broadcasts of opera as opera.  In remembering the article to which the letter writer was referring, I recalled the opera critic’s reference to opera HD cinema broadcasts as an “opera product.”  It kinda bothered me at the time, and I wish to return to it now.

Referring to opera broadcasts in this way as a “product” to distinguish it from the real thing denigrates cinema broadcasts and thereby those who enjoy it.  The intent of the article was to encourage fans, especially young fans, to engage the full experience of live theater opera; this is praise worthy.  However, when expressed as disparagement of alternatives, it carries another message.  “Product” used in this context to me carries the connotation of “byproduct,” as in cheese product rather than real cheese, which sounds like something to eschew.  It subliminally creates a class divide, those who attend opera in opera houses and concert halls and those who settle for opera byproducts.  Ok, a bit of an overreaction perhaps, but this tempest in my teapot has boiled over.  I can’t get away from the fact that it bothers me.  It puts live opera performed in a theater on a pedestal and anything else is well, less than that.  It’s all very nice for those of you who like to watch the cinema broadcasts, who love Met Opera radio Saturday broadcasts or listening to CDs or streaming opera audio, etc., but you realize you are not enjoying the real thing.  Class division is one of opera’s lingering problems.  A new acquaintance recently asked how I got into opera and said he always thought of it as something for academic types.

On the other side, does not the real thing, the full-fledged live, acoustic, in the house performance deserve some special distinction, its own designation?  I just read a charming affirmation of live opera in an interview with Mr. Aaron Blecker, a 105 year-old opera fan.  In it, he describes his first opera.  He saved up for tickers and took his wife to their first opera (noted in Slipped Disc and published in Met Orchestra Musicians).   Mr. Blecker’s comment on live opera:

“We loved it. It’s 80 years later and I still remember it. She was happy that I got it and we were both happy that we saw it. To go to the opera was a great treat for us. To be able to see it in person and hear the splendid voices…with the records you had a lot of static, and to hear the voices live was a much more thrilling experience.”

With a testimonial like that no one should be worrying about the demise of opera.

Recordings are better now, but virtually everyone still agrees that live opera in theaters is the best experience of opera.  Should we give that experience a new name?  Maybe so, or maybe I should just try to forget about “opera product.”  Let us encourage anyone interested in opera to pursue their love of opera in any form available to them (I do personally), which means we need to embrace all avenues to enjoy opera including, but not exclusively, attendance at live theater performances. 

What do you think?  Do we need a new name for opera performed live, acoustically in opera houses and concert halls?  Or should we adopt the term “opera product” for everything else?  Or should I just pipe down and let it go?