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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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For all its evident vitality, its widespread (and growing) popularity, this peculiarly hybrid form of drama is still often identified by its adversaries as a "cultural dinosaur"—a creature doomed to extinction because its body has grown too big for its brain. But if opera is doomed, it is not because it is intrinsically outdated as an art form, but because it has become so costly to produce. At the busiest and best-known houses and festivals, the production of opera has become so extraordinarily expensive, so archaically labor intensive that—unlike the most extravagant Broadway or West End musical—opera simply cannot pay its own way.

Even after setting top ticket prices at $100 to $250 (in 1990)—and tickets at or near these prices account for a large fraction of the seats in many houses—all of the world's major opera companies are obliged to search elsewhere for a substantial portion of their expenses. "Elsewhere" means either local, state, or national government grants, private philanthropy, commercial broadcasts and recreations, or a combination. of all three.

There is no guarantee that audiences of the future will continue to pay the ever-rising prices of opera tickets, or that future governments and philanthropists will share the priorities of their counterparts today. Should such individuals and institutions begin to balk at the cost of contemporary-scale productions, the end of "opera as we know it," the twilight of the gods and goddesses, could well be in view.

In 1968, and on several occasions afterward, the opera houses in Milan, Rome, and Paris became symbolic targets of antiestablishment protest demonstrations. A series of violent demonstrations in four Swiss cities was set off in 1980 when thousands of students took to the street in protest against the government's 61-million-franc ($36 million) subsidy of the Zurich Opera. A Paris Opera première I attended in 1986 was delayed for an hour by a cordon of demonstrators blocking the front steps.

Personally, I expect that "grand" (i.e., Covent Garden- or Vienna Staatsoper-style) productions of opera will continue for at least one more generation, unless fundamental changes beyond my imagining occur in the Western world at large. The prestige value of opera, and more particularly the symbolic value of opera houses and companies, have become such established articles of political faith that local, state, and national governments (or groups of wealthy individuals) insist on maintaining them at almost any cost. Grand opera throve during the Great Depression. New opera houses were built or destroyed old ones rebuilt throughout Europe—throughout the former Axis countries in particular—after World War II. The reopening of the bombed-out Vienna State Opera (with Beethoven's Fidelio , Karl Böhm conducting) in 1955 was regarded as the single most important symbol of Austrian recovery.

On the other side of the now-melted Iron Curtain, every communist government in Europe has subsidized at least one opera company, often lavishly. (One of


FOYER OF THE PARIS OPERA  (Palais Garnier), 1875. Drawing by A. Deroy.
Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.


the collateral losses of a reunified Germany and of a decommunized Eastern Europe is likely to be the loss or reduction of many of these subsidies.) The Sydney Opera House, the Opéra-Bastille, the recent visits of opera companies to Japan and Hong Kong (which are very costly to the host country), and the more than 200 new opera companies started in the United States in recent decades are all evidence of the symbolic importance, the political prestige, and the public relations value of opera, and hence of its probable survival. Apart from anything else, the investment in operatic real estate around the world, and the predictable resistance of existing groups with a stake in the survival of opera as an institution (companies, orchestras, conservatories, trade unions, suppliers) would make the dismantling of the existing order very difficult indeed—as Parisian authorities learned at the old Palais Garnier.

On the other hand, it seems certain that established gestures toward economy will continue and increase: the sharing or underwriting of new productions by several companies (of the new Los Angeles Music Center Opera's first thirty-three productions, a majority were either rented or shared, or made use of designs originated elsewhere); the sharing of a single company between two or more cities, which is the case in the two Rhine River companies in Germany and France; the recording of productions for sale to television or on videocassette; and an increased fostering of and dependence on less expensive local talent. A few impressive productions in the big houses have made skillful use of inexpensive staging.

But to be properly done, many operas from the standard repertory—Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen , for example, or Verdi's Aida —demand extensive theatrical resources. In the 1870s, when these works were first performed, the low wages of Musicians and theatre staff (and generous subsidies from local kings and khedives) helped make their first performances possible. Today, lighting technicians, stagehands, and costume makers must be paid at the equivalent of union scale. Musicians skilled enough to play such works adequately must have had many years of special training, must devote hundreds of hours to rehearsal, and must possess one-in-a-thousand gifts. They, too, now demand adequate compensation. Singers, conductors, producers, and designers equal to the task of an adequate Aida or Die Walküre may be among a hundred or fewer people available in the world. (Sonic observers put the number of "great" sopranos or tenors performing at any time at no more than twenty, as if some sort of global gene pool limited the available talent.) In a market economy, such people, like star athletes and other popular entertainers, can ask for, and expect, very high wages indeed.

Opera can, of course, be done inexpensively. One can do a Rossini extravaganza without costumes or decors, a condensed-concert Ring , a little theatre Don Giovanni sung in English, with a single set and an amateur chamber orchestra. In several countries, touring versions of small-cast operas are sent by bus and truck


into the hinterland, with advanced student performers and a single pianist. All of these I have seen and enjoyed. Without good, economical productions of this sort, in fact, which may cultivate new audiences for the art form more effectively than televised or recorded "star" performances, future audiences for opera in any form may begin to dry up. But if such performances were to become the norm, we would still be talking about the end of opera "as we know it."

I once thought it unlikely that any city would ever again spend the $130 million (which was ten times the first estimates) that Sydney, Australia, devoted to its opera house between 1957 and 1973—until the city of Paris found itself, between 1982 and 1989, spending $400 million on the politically embattled new Opéra-Bastille. In the last few years, Cairo, Essen, Hong Kong, Houston, and Ludwigsburg have all opened impressive new houses; those in Frankfurt (after a fire), Genoa, and Munich closed down for costly rebuilding. Sometime after 1995—the date keeps moving forward—Covent Garden is to be shut down for at least three years, at a cost of who knows how many hundreds of millions, so that it can be refit to the technical standards of these newer houses. The Metropolitan Opera (which moved into its lavish new quarters in 1966) now has expenses in excess of $100 million a year, less than 40 percent of which is recouped at the box office. Covent Garden operates in about the same range. At the main houses in (West) Berlin, Hamburg, Milan, Munich, Paris, Rome, and Vienna, ticket sales account for less than one fifth of the bill, even when every performance is sold out.

If opera producers and audiences in the leading opera cities continue to insist on elaborate new stagings of each work in the repertory at least every ten years, and if the famous singers these audiences and producers expect to hear continue to command million-dollar-a-year incomes, then "grand" opera, "international level" opera, "world class" opera—call it what you will—may well be spending itself into extinction, except by means of electronic transmission.

If someone were to pull out the feeding tube of public funding that has prolonged the life of opera in all of the countries where it has apparently prospered, it would in fact die a "natural" death. All that public subsidies are doing, argues the antiopera faction, is to subsidize the exorbitant fees of singers who jet from one country to another, along with the archaic and irrelevant tastes and status aspirations of upper- and middle-class patrons.

Whatever the cost of opera, many people opposed to it dislike the very idea, the fundamental concept of the thing. Almost from its inception, they argue, this "exotic and irrational entertainment" was sustained by a decadent love for spectacle and a sensationalist love for unnatural voices. Consider only the 200-year-long vogue of the castrato, the male singer who was kept a soprano for life by having his testicles deformed, even surgically removed, while he was still a young boy.

This odd form of musical drama, invented by Italians around 1600, was patronized early in its history by aristocrats and princes. For many of them, it served


as an ostentatious, court-controlling demonstration of their wealth and good taste. As princes lost their thrones and aristocrats their power, the financial support of opera was maintained by upper-class burghers, first in Europe, then in its former colonies, as a ritual form of socializing, status assertion, and self-display. There were (and still are) large popular audiences for opera who occupied the less expensive upper balcony seats. But most theatres and companies were kept alive by box holders, subscribers, and other wealthy patrons. And in neither court theatres nor civic opera houses, it must be admitted, did many of these patrons know or care much about music.

Critical observers have been making fun of wealthy people who go to operas largely to socialize and be seen in elegant surroundings (and I concede there are such people) since the seventeenth century. But such sneering seems more impertinent today than it may have been 100 or 200 years ago. What matters to most of us is what happens on the stage and in the pit, not who sits in the boxes. Both the quality of the product, and the fact that many of us can be there at all, depend considerably on the largess of these fashionably dressed philistines in the more expensive seats.

What members of the radical opposition really dislike about opera, however, has less to do with politics, society, or economics than with opera itself: with what happens on the stage. (They tend to be more tolerant of what happens in the pit. In fact, they are often willing to hear excerpts from the orchestral scores of operas—Rossini's overtures, Wagner's preludes, Britten's interludes—inserted into symphony programs.)

The people I have encountered who are ill-disposed toward opera fall into several categories. First, there are a great many music lovers who find all of the stage business a distraction, and all but a very few operas second-rate or worse when analyzed on strictly musical terms. They wonder, frankly, how I can tolerate all of the melodramatic nonsense and turgid musical infill, when I could be listening to something so much more consummately wrought, so much less compromised and crude, at the symphony hall or on record. (Actually, I do both.)

Very few works in the standard operatic repertory are judged worthy of close attention by analysts, historians, or theorists of music in general.[7] It seems to be taken for granted that the extramusical compromises the composer of an opera has


to make virtually guarantee that his score will be less "interesting," as music, than that of a good symphony, concerto, or sonata. Among composers who primarily wrote operas, Herbert Lindenberger points out, only Wagner—and more recently, and to a lesser degree, Verdi—is ever granted a place in the "canon" of great composers. "Anyone who included Bellini, Bizet, or Puccini would risk intellectual embarrassment." As Geoffrey Wheatcroft more provocatively, even pugnaciously, puts it, "Surely any music -lover would give all of Puccini for a single Haydn quartet, or even a single Schubert song." (Joseph Kerman typifies such absolute-music purists as people who believe that "Otello is somehow vulgar as compared to a good fugue by César Franck.")

There is no way or reason to answer such people. "It seems the world is divided into two classes of people," writes Gary Schmidgall in Literature into Opera , "those 'poor, passionless, bluntminded creatures' (Stendhal's words) who dislike opera, and those to whom it comes naturally and who subject themselves as willingly to its absurdities as to its compelling expressive powers."

Second, there are the drama lovers who find the singing and the orchestra a distraction—or, worse, a virtual guarantee that the intellectual and dramatic values they love in the theatre will be diluted or lost. To cite Gary Schmidgall again: "In the sheer triumph of vocal beauty, unfortunately, we are often willing silently to sacrifice other more subtle artistic values, among them dramatic momentum, integrity of plot, intelligibility, and balance. For many who like opera, beauty is sufficient. This is partly because, as Shaw pointed out, many people 'have little or no sense of drama, but a very keen sense of beauty of sound and prettiness of pattern in music.' "

Like operagoers in other categories who pick and choose their works, pure-drama lovers may find a place for The Marriage of Figaro, Tristan und Isolde , and Otello (although they will inevitably prefer Shakespeare's original), and perhaps a few other operas that "work," in their opinion, the same way good plays do. But they would still rather have, hear, and be able to think about all of the words.

Third, there are sensible people—or, if you like, "poor, passionless, blunt-minded" people—who find the conventions of opera absurd, the acting unconvincing, the use of foreign languages alienating, the dramatized "history" perverse, the librettos inane. All theatre is built on performing conventions, some more distant than others from a direct simulacrum of life-as-we-live-it. People who are troubled by these distances, these conventions (soliloquies, verse drama, painted sets, the use of dancers or puppets, actors who burst into song), people who are affected, consciously or unconsciously, by what Jonas Barish calls "the antitheatrical prejudice" are likely to be especially annoyed by opera. Whatever ineffable truths about life an opera production may convey, in its onstage action it is considerably farther from life-as-we-live-it, considerably less "realistic" and more "theatrical" in its conventions than most other forms of drama.


Fourth, there are "up-to-date" people who cannot understand why anyone in 1990 (or 1950 or 1970) should still feel the need to see and support such out-of-date displays. To them, even the secondary trappings symbolize a dead and alien world: the swaggering solo bows, the bravos and thrown bouquets, the yards of velvet and satin, the private boxes and dress-up galas; bewigged pages, for heaven's sake, pulling back Great Golden Curtains! They complain, as did Tolstoy and Shaw, of the stand-and-deliver poses, of young and heroic roles performed by overaged and ungainly singers. They scorn the melodramatic contrivances, the "sexist" plots, the conventional formats (long-retired elsewhere) of kings and heroes pretending to be torn between love and duty.[8] They mock the Inauthentic presentation of the past, the ancien régime parades of dutiful peasants, all of the dramatic conceits that other forms of theatre abandoned more than a century ago. These formulaic, old-fashioned dramas, which devotees sit through dutifully season after season, are to them of the most tiresome predictability. In no other form of theatre, they insist, musical or otherwise, could producers get by with such antiquated stunts.

Fifth, there are those who tolerate, even admit to liking, some operas, but agree in denouncing all of the others. The seasons of most major companies nowadays are made up of an eclectic and carefully distributed mix: one Monteverdi or Cavalli every few years, lots of Mozart-Verdi-Puccini-Wagner-Strauss, perhaps a few operettas and musicals, at most one work (already performed elsewhere) by a living—or, better, recently dead—composer. This means that such people—should they be subscribers or regular patrons—are bound to be discontented a good part of the time.

The "I like some opera" people can be divided into four separate camps:

1. The Italian-traditionalist crowd prefers, above all else, middle and late Verdi (except Falstaff ) and Puccini—that is, opera as memorable tunes, as hummable pop music. A good deal of Donizetti will pass, as will Rossini's comic operas; Bellini's Norma; maybe Faust, Carmen, Manon; but nothing too French. Of the German repertoire, at most a jolly Rosenkavalier or Meistersinger , though even those are a bit tedious and, well, you know . . . German. My suspicion is that this group still includes the operagoing majority in North America, Britain, Australia, and Italy, most of whom would prefer a nice Rigoletto or Butterfly any day.


2. There are still many doctrinaire Wagnerites; there were once a great many more. One meets them whenever a major Ring cycle is offered. They fly in from all over the country and all over the world, and compare notes in the foyer on all of the Brünnhildes they have stood for and cheered. To them, no other composer's operas can compare; few of them are even worth listening to. (To the first Wagnerite—Richard Wagner—this was virtually an article of faith.) They will tolerate Strauss, Mahler, or Bruckner. But your perfect Wagnerite believes, in good late-nineteenth-century fashion, that all earlier music was secretly aspiring to the condition of Tristan (or Parsifal ) and will settle for nothing less than the antirational, hyper-romantic, quasi-religious experience that only the Master can provide.

This faction was very big indeed between 1880 and 1920, as much in "advanced" social London and New York as in Germany. But two world wars and a more levelheaded approach to music history have helped to thin it out.

3. Then there are what the British call "canary fanciers" and Americans "voice freaks": people who go to opera only for the singing. Depending on what kind of singing they prefer, such people may seek out Verdi and Puccini, Wagner, bel canto works in general, or any opera that features their own favorite tenor or soprano—as many operagoers did in previous centuries. (Voice freaks rarely get hooked on the lower vocal ranges.) This group, like the larger group of opera lovers in general, appears to include an unrepresentatively large number of gay men, for reasons I don't understand.

A subgroup of (3) is made up of the paid or unpaid claques, the devoted fans of individual singers—Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco, Luciano Pavarotti—and, of course, Maria Callas. They have been with us for many years.

4. Another category of the more selective or specialized operagoers is made up of demanding and impatient intellectuals. A first group of these will ask, Is the music serious enough? This generally rules out Puccini, Bellini-Donizetti-Rossini, Gounod, and Meyerbeer (though scholarly revisionism is always at work); and favors composers like Mozart, Wagner, the harsher Strauss and the later Verdi, and twentieth-century opera except when it's too easy. In Opera and Ideas , Paul Robinson writes an eloquent appreciation and analysis of Berlioz's Les Troyens —a superchallenging grand opera he admits to be all but unper-formable. But still he questions the values of a world that "has appar-


ently unlimited time and money for the workmanlike stuff of Berlioz's fellow-countryman Massenet" (one of the composers all serious critics love to hate), while denying us adequate versions of Berlioz's five-hour doubleheader.

A second group of intellectually critical operagoers will ask, Is the drama serious enough? Or will we be made to suffer through foolish Verdian melodrama, Puccinian sentimentality, Straussian "decadence," or (what is "serious" depends on one's own susceptibilities) the symbolic-idealistic nonsense of Wagner's Ring or Parsifal? Such judgments tend to be based at least as much on the libretto, the plot, and the stage action as on music, voices, or production—as if one were choosing whether to attend a straight play with a bit of musical accompaniment. The three Mozart-Da Ponte operas may survive this kind of screening, along with the two Verdi-Boitos, and modern works with respectable literary pedigrees, like Wozzeck or Death in Venice .

A third group will ask, Is the work sufficiently new and different (or old and forgotten)? This subgroup appears to be populated mainly by music critics and German impresarios (who have already seen the standard repertory operas more often than they wish) and by insistent novomamacs. For such people, a tissue-thin new work by Philip Glass, a piece of Peter Sellars's cheeky revisionism, a L'Olimpiade or a Dinorah is preferable to anything they've seen more than twice before. The one thing opera must not be allowed to become, they insist, is a "museum," a haven for great works of the past—as if museums had suddenly become reprehensible institutions.

Then there are people like me. We (and I like to think we still represent a sizable fraction of opera audiences) remain willing to take a gamble on almost any halfway-promising opera production because we prefer good opera (when it works) to any other form of music or theatre; and because we've been happily surprised in the past by impressive productions of works we had dismissed, or had been advised to dismiss, as second rate. I am almost ready to concede that a good production team—which includes conductor, orchestra, and singers, as well as director and designer—can work magic on any text and score.

Most extended, nonjournalistic critical writing about opera has dealt entirely with texts and scores, just as most serious critical writing about Shakespeare has dealt with the words we read from the printed page. One can go a long way toward the evaluation of a work destined for the theatre by a careful, critical


GERD ALBRECHT  (producer, left) and  THOMAS STEWART  (who played the title role) discussing
Aribcrt Reimann's opera Lear  backstage during rehearsals at the San Francisco Opera, 1985.
Photograph by Ira Nowinski.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

reading of its text. Producers, performers, impresarios, and dramaturgs must do this all the time to decide which works they want to produce or perform.

But coming to opera from the perspective of the theatre (rather than that of the study or the music room), I still regard such texts as nothing more than scripts, to a degree revealing, perhaps delectable when examined in one's armchair (or at the piano): but incomplete until produced and performed, until realized on stage. Read privately, by oneself, they are not yet in my judgment operas.[9]

Three things, I believe, must come together for a satisfactory operatic experience to take place: the right opera, the right production, and the right spectator. And each of the three must be "right" in terms of the other two. I would like, as my contribution toward an "aesthetics of opera," to consider each of these three for the space of a few pages.


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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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