I Love Opera: Five Why Nots and Over 15 Crazy Ideas

A poster for the Warner Brothers animated musical short of the same name.  Fun, isn’t it? Maybe opera could use some more of that?

A poster for the Warner Brothers animated musical short of the same name. Fun, isn’t it? Maybe opera could use some more of that?

I have been seriously into opera for about eight years now, and I have been writing this blog for four.  Those are the only credentials I can put forward in making these suggestions – I am led by a strong love of the genre.  I also have an innately curious mind and an inquisitive nature.  Even as an opera outsider looking in, I wonder about opera almost as much as I enjoy it.  What makes it tick?  Why is this done and not that?  Endlessly.  So, let’s get on with it.

One of the first observations I made when I started following opera is that opera professionals have a mostly pessimistic outlook about the survival of opera.  There was and is very little solid data available that I could find, but a general fear pervades the community that the public doesn’t want opera anymore.  Over several years, I have come to wonder why.  Sometimes attendance is disappointing, and companies sometimes fail, but there is also lots of creative activity occurring; premieres of new operas and start-ups of niche, small companies seem to be happening with regularity, and innovations popping up every now and then, such as Opera Philadelphia’s season-opening month-long festival and Wolf Trap Opera’s outside the barns performances.  For the field at large, I personally feel very optimistic about the future of opera. 

I do think opera attendance suffers from competition from the greatly expanded, good-quality entertainment options available now, especially via streaming; this is also true for movies and sports as well as classical music options.  The competition for time and entertainment dollars is massive in the US.  There is also a clear demographic issue.  When I look around the audience at any opera, I see a preponderance of attendees having the same hair color as mine, gray.  I wonder why but will save those thoughts for a different report.  I will point out that every year Wolf Trap Opera offers one of the more popular operas in its open-air Filene Center where picnic grounds and lawn seats, casual dress, cheaper tickets, and free parking abound.  It always draws a much younger crowd than typically seen in the opera houses.  I think the wrappings and logistics of attending opera matter even more to the younger crowd.  Opera companies are working hard to attract that younger, more diversified audience.  I hope they are successful.  But even if they are not successful, the US population is getting older, which augurs well for opera (tongue in cheek).

Here is my first why not?  Opera companies should advertise each other’s performances.

Why aren’t opera companies more supportive of each other?  Contrast that with the way opera performers are supportive of each other – just take a look at tweets of opera companies versus opera performers.  Washington Concert Opera and Opera Lafayette have recently recommended each other’s performances. Opera Philadelphia seems to have a special relationship with the Curtis Institute, as does Baltimore Concert Opera with Opera Delaware, but that is about all that I see in the mid-Atlantic in the way of opera companies advertising each other’s offerings.  I guess opera suffers the same downside of free market capitalism as medicine and news media.  High-minded goals, and the need to earn a living conflict in the real world.  The good of the provider influences what is recommended to the patient.  Opera companies feel they must focus on the good of their own company with some attention to the good of opera, but not directly to the good of other opera companies.  They approach opera fan recruitment as a zero-sum game.  An opposing view is that a rising tide lifts all boats.

It seems to me that it would cost opera companies very little to include in their mailings, or give mention on their website, a plug for a performance of another company, especially a non-conflicting performance.  For example, would it harm Washington National Opera to advertise Wolf Trap Opera’s summer season or advertise the Annapolis Opera’s annual vocal competition?  Here is where I, as an opera fan and the companies, as entrepreneurial entities, disagree.  I don’t think it would hurt their attendance to advertise other opera companies’ performances in low cost ways, and it would grow the audience for opera overall.  Interest generates interest.  Opera needs to make the effort to increase interest in opera for all opportunities.  I think it will increase the attendance overall for opera, which will feedback to benefit supportive companies. 

Here is my second why not, clearly related to the first?  The Metropolitan Opera Company should accept responsibility for being the leader of opera in the US.

Why doesn’t the Metropolitan Opera accept its role as the lead opera company in America?  De facto, they are.  They should be the leader in setting standards for equal opportunity employment and sexual harassment free workplaces,… and assume some responsibility for the well-being of other opera companies?  How you say?  Met Opera has clearly invaded the territory of local opera companies with its Met HD In Cinemas broadcasts, ten live broadcasts during their season with encores presented in the summer.  They offer local companies nothing as compensation for this.  The Met presented some early data suggesting attendance at local opera was not affected by the broadcasts.  I am skeptical.  These broadcasts are very popular in DC and are an easy way to enjoy opera without having to make the trek to the Kennedy Center or other downtown locations, not as good as live, but a palatable substitute for many.  Have you seen what happens to small town businesses when Walmart moves in?  Suppose the Met tried being supportive of local companies.  Perhaps they could offer a discount to their In Cinema broadcasts to those who hold season tickets to local opera companies.  At least they could advertise local opera company showings on the movie screens prior to their broadcasts.  They could even make a stronger effort where it is needed.  Suppose they scheduled a performance at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore to help generate interest there in opera and thereby improve the chances of a staged opera company being successful there.  Perhaps, Opera America could set up a committee to work with the Met to find ways to help other companies be successful.  I think such efforts would feedback positively on the Met.

Here is my third why not?  Opera critics should also accept responsibility for growing the enterprise.

I am reluctant to criticize any journalist given the pressure that newspapers are under these days, and critics’ plates are already overflowing, but this suggestion is in their best interest; their success is linked to opera’s.  I don’t mean they should stop being critical in their reviews or become advertising arms for opera companies, nor start dumbing it down, but I think they should give a greater priority to generating interest in the genre at large.  One recent attempt along these lines is Anne Midgette’s articles on how musicians approach a piece of music.  Anything that stimulates curiosity adds interest, which helps and education works.  When I heard that NSO will play all nine Beethoven symphonies next spring, I thought that’s nice for Beethoven aficionados.  Then I heard conductor Gianandrea Noseda talk about how one Beethoven symphony leads to the other and the impact on the field of music these works have had, and my thinking changed to I might just attend these.  Opera critics need to find and write about interest hooks that might bring people in.  Publish some must see lists.  Hold a live online discussion with attendees of a performance before posting the review.  List some good sources for opera news, entertainment, and reference materials?  Which music streaming service is best for opera? Criticize Apple Music’s opera offerings (somebody needs to)?  Who does the critic most often read other than themselves and journalists on the same paper?  Who are the favorite critics of a critic?  Best reference sources? Have an online debate among critics from different news sources over an opera production – remember Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs up or down?  Have Midgette, Dobrin, and Tommasini go toe to toe on a Met performance.  It takes a lot to get folks off the sofa and into the opera house.  One thing is not going to be the cure.  It will require everything.

Here is my fourth why not? Try some way-out ideas; add an element of fun.

It’s time for opera to back away from its deification just a bit…cue Bugs Bunny.  Going to opera now is just like going to church – dress up, sit still, and be quiet, even reverent.  How can some fun be interjected every now and then? Pittsburgh Opera’s recent Don Pasquale asked for an audience response when the scene called for an encore and the place erupted; I think there was a message there.  Opera Philadelphia’s beginning its seasons with a festival might have been thought of as far out.  Pittsburgh Opera in the Fall will start offering online content during performances for audience members to access via their cell phones, with a view to appealing to younger fans; that’s at least a willingness to take a risk (I plan to attend their first performance in the Fall to check this out).  Opera has a great product, but you have to get people into the opera house.  People want great arts experiences, but they also want fun and feeling involved and connected to the proceedings.  Opera folks like to say opera is for everybody, but it still has for most people the aura of elitism – the rich who want to be seen and the intellectuals who want to feel superior attend opera.  I was surprised when I started pursuing my interest in opera at the hostility I found in some people’s reactions to my new interest; it was like I had joined the snob demographic.  And frankly, opera needs to offer something new to generate some added excitement, and if it is fun, all the better.  Opera companies aren’t just selling opera; they are selling an opera experience (Baltimore Concert Opera’s Thirsty Thursdays are a hit).  Here are some crazy ideas for fun:

  • ·Have local celebs and high-profile individuals from different walks of life open performances with five minutes speaking on their top opera experiences. Start with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and have one by Big Bird and one by a sports figure and a rock star. 

  • Have the opera director come out and spend five minutes explaining her vision for the opera, or the conductor give us five minutes on musical features to be look for.  I was impressed at a recent performance of The Choral Arts Society of Washington that the artistic director spoke in detail about the performance at the beginning.

  • Offer one performance of American Opera Initiative premieres at each of the Wolf Trap Barns and Strathmore venues in addition to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater – engage a more diverse audience; the venues are close to each other, and the operas have light staging to move around.    

  • My favorite – have pizza and beer Tuesdays with casual dress for a couple of the performances each year and make the intermissions long enough to consume the pizza.  Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona does this with Iberian ham and cheese subs at their performances.

  • Hold some chamber opera performances in the round.

  • Have dress-up Saturdays where, during intermissions, a spot light and camera will show best dressed couples on a screen.  Maybe pick a winner and invite them backstage.

  • Experiment with opera two-packs where a single ticket gets you into a concert performance of an opera by young artists and then into the fully-stage version with established stars, or lead off a production run with such a concert performance.

  • In a season of opera performances, for one of the well-known operas, give one performance with a surprise ending (i.e., we find out Mimi is pregnant and dies in childbirth as Musetta vows to raise her child)

  • Have characters from the opera appear on stage during intermissions, and in character, defend their actions.

  • Find a company that will sponsor a free glass-of-champagne-night.

  • Draw seat numbers for prizes, like Francesca Zambello’s least favorite earrings.

  • Borrow from baseball – have bobbleheads and t-shirt giveaway nights.  Make Ruth Bader Ginsburg the first bobblehead.  I want the Renee Fleming bobblehead.

  • Sponsor vocal competitions and show the judges final scores like they do in Olympic competitions.  Give me some opera judges to boo.

  • Opera companies should do online surveys of attendees immediately after reviews are out to see if patrons agree with specific points in the professional reviews or to rate the reviews and reviewers, maybe offer rebuttals themselves.  Risky? Perhaps, but people will appreciate the risk taking. 

  • Send buses to major shopping centers offering round trip transportation to downtown opera houses (especially from Tyson’s Corner for me).  Have an attendant teach the riders a chorus from the opera on the way.

  • Have opera stars do autograph signings of programs and tickets for a few minutes before or after performances.

  • Sell reusable sippy cups with bugs bunny on them at cost in the gift shop that can be used at concession stands to hold drinks that can be taken into the theater. 

  • Offer signed opera star photos to the people who buy the cheapest seats in the house, meant as an inducement to show folks that even the worst seats at live opera are good enough.

  • Elect a president just on the basis of whether they like opera. Again, I offer Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

  • Here is my fifth why not?  Somebody, please start a cable opera channel.

Opera fans need an opera channel like MTV for pop music, with opera news, quizzes, interviews, educational materials, and films (This is what Met Opera should have done).

Simply, the family of opera needs to work together to support each other and look for ways to heighten interest for all opera. I’m not suggesting that opera abandoned its refinement, nor lower its standards.  And, it’s ok if all you want to see is classic operas done as they were intended to be by quality performers, and if a company wants to be that company they should and should announce it.  But maybe add a new wrinkle every now and then - look what Opera Lafayette did recently: they collaborated on La Susanna with Heartbeat Opera.  A company highly focused on authentic 18th century opera collaborated with a company with a mission to alter performances to make them more relevant to modern audiences.  It generated interest.  Some new things, helping audiences feel connected to the event and to the opera tribe, loosening up a bit by adding some fun, and make it more comfortable.  I think audiences respond to that.  Maybe such gateway experiences will bring more folks into the totally serious, strait-laced, attempts-at-the-highest-art performances which we all love.