The David H. Koch Theater, NYCO's former home
New York City Opera recently ended a 70-year run after failing to raise adequate support from its donors and fan base. In July, BBC Hard Talk presenter Sarah Montague called opera "one of the least watched art forms in the world". Copywriter Marc Sherman still proudly showcases his Baltimore Opera ad campaign on his web site. It caps with an apologetic punchline: "Opera: It's better than you think. It has to be." The campaign won a Best in Show Addy Award but failed to breathe new life into the opera company, which folded a few seasons later.
Many of our major companies are barely keeping afloat these days, and we can't help but ask whether opera's relevance for today's audiences is on the decline.
In my opinion, opera is potentially more relevant than ever for today's audiences. My question is whether it's also too progressive. Opera may be widely perceived as a museum piece, the domain of the privileged and elderly, but in truth it's highly volatile stuff.
I love opera, but not just because I love singing. I am passionate about opera because it is the only musical genre that fully exploits the capabilities of the acoustic human voice.
Therein lies its relevance.
Opera singers must maximize their range, power, resonance, flexibility, spectrum of dynamics and vocal colors. They must cultivate the skill to project unamplified over an orchestra in a 3,500-seat hall. They must develop the personal depth and vulnerability to channel the extremes of human emotion through their voices at will, transmitting them to every individual member of the audience. The naked human voice sets listeners' auditory apparatuses in motion, creating a sympathetic vibratory connection that exhorts them to feel what the singer is feeling at that moment. It's an experience of visceral, as opposed to virtual, reality. It is a potentially ecstatic, cathartic experience of inestimable value.
The Koch Theater, viewed from the stage. The sheer skill, commitment and power to fill a room this size with your voice does not come easily.
Opera facilitates extraordinarily intimate and unifying experiences for performers and audience members. People may mock the over-the-top emotions and implausibly dramatic situations characteristic of operatic plots, but they're simply missing the point. Opera draws on the most heightened, complex human situations possible in order to expand the listener's capacity to feel.
So much in our world conspires to obscure genuine desires and feelings. We're bombarded with powerful messages about how we should look, what we should eat, what kinds of relationships we ought to have, and what careers to pursue. These messages don't come from sources that know what choices will be most fulfilling for us. They come from companies that want to sell us things, organizations with a philosophical agenda, and, often, well-intentioned people who want to protect us from venturing outside our comfort zones.
By contrast, the practice of singing puts us in touch with our desires and feelings and empowers us to express them. It takes us very far outside our comfort zones. To embrace a desire is to risk the possibility of its never being fulfilled. To feel deeply is to give up control. To give voice to all of this is to expose yourself to judgment and ridicule. Singing requires tremendous skill but it also requires self-awareness and courage equal to all of this. Fine singers are able to lure you outside your own comfort zone. They challenge you to give up control along with them, to feel deeply, and to long for heightened experiences. They invite you to consider what life would be like were your own voice so empowered.
This is why I suggest that opera may be too progressive for today's audiences. It's a fabulous ride if you're up for it, but it can be terribly disquieting if you aren't.
Those of you who are enamored of opera already know what I'm talking about. Most people, who have never experienced powerful live acoustic singing, have no idea what they are missing.
I'm occasionally asked to sing something in the midst of a social gathering or find myself performing for a class where the subject is something other than music. It's immediately startling and astonishing for my listeners, not because my voice is so remarkable but because they have never heard anything like it. Until you have experienced powerful live acoustic singing you can have no real appreciation for what the human voice can do or what it's like to be on the receiving end of such raw emotional transfer.
We can and should continue to offer productions of operatic masterpieces that are more relatable for modern audiences. These stories express timeless themes that are usually well-suited to updated treatment. But nothing can make opera more relevant than it always has been.
Opera's true relevance lies in the inherently transformative power of the acoustic human voice - the power to communicate universal emotions and to elicit empathy, catharsis, and a deeper flow of feeling in all who know how to listen. If people truly realized what they were missing, opera would not lack for support and appreciation.