In the space of two-hundred years, opera has risen from being an artificial, showy art-form made-up of vocal gymnastics and demanding fat old ladies to a business-like, perhaps overly commercial and glamorous art form. In a world where opera managers and producers occasionally simplify opera to the point of demeaning it, where does this so-called ‘minority’ art-form stand a chance of survival?
At the peak of Rossini’s career, the opera house was a place where former courtesans and escorts sought to take their careers to another level through ballet-dancing or singing. It was a place where it was not uncommon for singers to fool around if they were intending on finding an agent, or ever establishing a career. At the same time the public were there not so much for the talent on stage as the gossip that surrounded the happenings off it. At the Opéra Garnier in Paris today, the auditorium is largely made-up of boxes (in contrast to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and the long rows of seats which occupy newer or as yet unreconstructed opera houses). There are a few seats in front to witness the performance, and a separate space for the rest of the box with a bench for chatting, eating and engaging in anything (a curtain separates the two sections). Of course nowadays doing anything except for watching the opera would probably encourage an usher to escort you out of your seat. But does the different attitude mean a better quality of opera?
Opera has spent most of its history being considered as a platform for vocalists to show-off extraordinary technical work; just as gymnasts enter contests and compete for prizes. The 20th century saw a revolution in the attitude to opera. It became a musical art form; a drama that happens through singing; rather than singing with a drama in the background. One of the most ironic problems with opera today is an extreme way of handling this view. Directors have gone to the point where they forget what the drama or the character is. Last year, acclaimed director Graham Vick, who has previously produced traditional and colourful productions, built Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto on the idea that Moses was Osama Bin Laden. The recent production of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Venice opera house La Fenice sees the heroine Violetta, a courtesan who abandons the charms of an upper-class, frivolous and bourgeois Paris for a calm life in the countryside with her lover, Alfredo, inject herself with morphine and roll on a bed heaped with banknotes in a shady, sordid contemporary production. Paul Curran’s production of Rimsky Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride was set in some deserted town in Russia, filled with gangsters’ mobs in black leather jackets and their ‘doll’ wives.
The notion of the ‘director’s opera’ sprung-up from Stanislavsky, who was one of the first in the 20th century to notice that opera had to be a natural art form. The directors Wieland Wagner, (grandson of Richard), Giorgio Strehler, Luchino Visconti, Alexis Minotis and others led opera to evolve into theatre. The later 20th and 21th century, however, brought upon a trend where the director dominates, and the singers hardly have a say. Soprano Angela Gheorghiu spoke in an interview about turning-up to a first rehearsal of a new production of Traviata with the director having to read the synopsis in a CD leaflet at the start of the rehearsal. Theatre directors with hardly any experience of opera now feel they can barge in, and have done so: Melly Still’s Glyndebourne production of Rusalka showed her utter ignorance of music, and National Theatre director Katie Mitchell has made efforts to bring Mozart’s Don Giovanni to life. The same poison which afflicted the theatre at some points in the 20th century – of directors layering ideas which have nothing to do with the text on the text – is now harming the art of opera.
Another trend in opera today is the attitude of the singers, which in some ways has improved, and in others diminished their performances. Until the later 20th century the typical opera singer was a buxom lady or gentleman, usually Italian or in some cases Russian, who could speak very little and went out to sing – in most cases. Now it’s become fashionable for opera singers to be educated (or pretend they are), and have opinions. In interviews, sings such as Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón and Natalie Dessay often penetrate their roles, sometimes even going to far to look into their psychology. Dessay has even stated that she always wanted to be an actress, rather than a singer. The image has also (in some cases) slimmed down: the most popular sopranos and mezzo-sopranos of today – regardless of their quality – Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, Dessay, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato – are all, generally slim ladies who make efforts to look good for the public. It was in 1954 that the opera public first became acquainted with a beautiful lady on stage, when Maria Callas lost thirty kilograms. Ever since, being obese for a soprano when she’s singing a dying woman, or a seductive woman, has become less realistic in the opera world and more of a cliché.
This has brought several advantages to opera, and the revolution of ‘opera acting’ brought about primarily by Callas has made its mark. It is much harder now to become a successful opera singer with nothing but a golden voice. However, where in some instances the art has gained from acting and performance, it has lost in its technical aspects. Many singers nowadays simply lack the technique to sustain a career. There are young singers, some of them among the Royal Opera Jette Parker Young Artists participants, who have firm, controlled voices until perhaps thirty years of age. There are others, however, who start off and continue poorly. One soprano, who from sympathy won’t be named in this article, gave a debut concert at Wigmore Hall last year. Her voice was unprepared for most of the material that she sang, but it appeared with her casual attitude that she expected that high notes would be strained. Yet she’s already been engaged for next year’s Royal Opera season.
It’s possibly because the extreme advances in the media have made music so accessible that many young singers don’t understand the principal differences between singing as an opera singer and singing as a pop or rock star. Many pop stars, even with powerful voices, have never developed their top register. Listeners become accustomed to hearing stretched and strained high notes, and tune their ears into thinking that it’s natural. In fact, the soprano (and other kinds of voices) are obliged to have the full package when it comes to performing a three – and sometimes six – hour opera. Every note of their register should be able to produce the same force as the other. This is where some young singers fail to accomplish an operatic technique, as Joan Sutherland told the Guardian in 2002. The legendary tenor Carlo Bergonzi, also dramatically stated in an interview that in Italy, “there are no tenors left now.”
One of the major changes in opera today is also how it’s presented. At the start of the 20th century, there was never a huge effort to ‘reach out to the people’. The opera houses earned enough from their opera-loving public, and suffice to say that they earn enough from it today. If you go to the opera – any opera – most of the public will be people who have seen the opera, or even the exact production, before. Very few will be first-time goers, if any. But now the opera managers are determined to make opera ‘accessible’, as though Verdi or Puccini didn’t go a job enough of making their music ‘accessible’. The Royal Opera notoriously presented an opera about Texan model Anna Nicole Smith last year, and as Opera magazine noted, replaced the statues they had of great sopranos such as Nellie Melba with busts and images of this American glamour model whose story, most probably, won’t be interesting for anyone in fifty or maybe even thirty years’ time. They thought they were causing a sensation by referring to certain kinds of sexual practices through the music and libretto (a ‘scandal’ first achieved by Thomas Adès in his 1995 opera, Powder her Face).
In fact, none of the music struck a chord, and the attention was focussed on the ‘reality’ story. A better suggestion, if the Royal Opera had sought it, would have been to invest in some television documentary on her life, and leave the auditorium fully well alone. Opera is art for art’s sake, but in no demeaning or primitive way. It is beauty in the finest sense, and won’t function properly when somebody (or several people) try to dilute or manipulate it for the masses’ sake. The non-opera goers who went to see Anna Nicole will never go to the opera again. They went their exactly to see the figure of ‘Anna Nicole’, and not to enjoy a new opera.
Opera is, at its best, an everlasting art form which should not be forced on people. The opera-loving public (and many generous patrons) provide our opera houses with enough money for successful or at least semi-successful productions. It has all the tools and ingredients to survive through modern times where the internet and various unnecessary gadgets occupy the public’s minds: there will always be talented instrumentalists; singers with voices given by fate or by God; conductors abandoning all other aspects of their lives for music, and scores written two-hundred years ago that can still endure time. So if it’s not tampered with, and the opera houses concentrate on opera, rather than the trivial folly and occasional issues that surround it, it should be able to go through a golden age again in the 22nd century – or maybe even earlier than that.