Today, I lend the keys to my blog to bass-baritone David Salsbery Fry. In an earlier post, I tackled the question of what opera is and what it does. What follows is David’s stab at answering the question, “Who is opera for?” He posits that, while opera isn’t for everyone, there may be a way to make an educated guess about whether or not it might be for you. While it is impossible to address this question in a comprehensive way, I think David’s insights are worth sharing. Hope you enjoy!
Two Deceptive Cadence blog entries from 2011 written by Anastasia Tsioulcas have had a resurgence on my Facebook feed this past week. One provocatively asks if opera is broadly perceived as “the bastion of the super-rich, a high-culture outpost only interesting to a tiny minority,” and the other features the counter-proposal that “Opera Is For The 99%.” Apparently, the first of these two posts “struck a nerve,” necessitating the second post. Of course it did. The first post courts controversy, which generates comments, which provides material for the next post, which…
Opera companies would have you believe that opera is for absolutely everyone, come one, come all, please fill our seats opera is cool and hip wait where are you going? This mindset is responsible for ineffective marketing campaigns with cringeworthy slogans like that of the late Baltimore Opera Company - “Opera. It’s better than you think. It has to be.” Google “opera for everyone” and you will get an idea of how vehemently this proposition is espoused.
Opera is not for everyone. It is not for the 1%, nor is it for the 99%. Opera is for those who enjoy that which is operatic. This statement seems tautological on the surface, but I propose that it is possible to devise a litmus test for receptivity to opera based on reactions to another art form: mainstream film/television.
What do I mean by operatic? For the purposes of this blog entry, allow me to define operatic as drama in which the emotions of a character or characters escalate to an eloquent catharsis. This building of emotional intensity, and the resulting reaction, often supported by a musical score, is what I would describe as an operatic moment. Those who react to these moments with apathy or discomfort are, I would argue, unlikely to enjoy opera. Those who react with a powerful emotional response of their own, and seek out such moments in their film and television viewing, are more likely to enjoy opera.
Three examples of “operatic” moments from film and television of the last fifteen years come to mind. Alas, the first two are both spoiler-laden and robbed of their power when taken out of context, so there is little point in viewing them in isolation, but, if these scenes are familiar to you, we will have a common frame of reference.
The first is a six-minute clip from Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma. In this scene, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), already overwhelmed by the task she faces, escalates to catharsis as she is forced by Rufus (Chris Rock) to confront the reason this task falls to her. Her outpouring is met with calm sympathy by the Metatron (Alan Rickman) until she reaches a point of acceptance and resolution. Howard Shore composed the score.
The second clip is from the television series Doctor Who. For fans of the series, this scene, written by Neil Gaiman and taken from his episode “The Doctor’s Wife”, is bursting with emotional payload. Matt Smith is The Doctor, Suranne Jones is Idris, and Murray Gold composed the music.
The final clip is the opening moments of the pilot episode of the HBO series The Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin. Since this scene launched the series, no context is required to appreciate its power. Jeff Daniels is Will McAvoy and Thomas Newman composed the music.
The impact that scenes like these have is, in my mind, the vernacular of opera, especially opera of the last 100 years. While it is not all that opera is, it is what opera does better than any other art form - it has the ability to craft moments in which the emotions of the characters flow forth in an eloquent outpouring of both words and music. The music of opera supports the dramatic power of the scene; it is the emotional weight that stays with you after a sublime performance of opera, not the tunes.
So, if these scenes or other scenes like them have a visceral impact on you, perhaps you should give opera a try. If these scenes leave you cold, or worse, irritated, opera might not be for you. Opera isn’t for everyone, and it is a matter of taste, not sophistication. Marketing departments of opera companies may well improve their campaigns if they embrace this and target accordingly.