I believe that very few of us make it to adulthood without being traumatized to some extent by the stresses of day-to-day life.
The baseline trauma of human existence can cause us to shut down our breathing so that feelings neither become intolerably painful nor provoke expressive behavior that could get us in trouble.
It can keep us from living passionately and inhibit our natural impulses.
Opera helps us breathe. It inspires us to feel deeply. It restores some of the intensity that modern society robs from us.
We need its restorative power now more than ever.
We are experiencing a fragile moment in the evolution of opera. There are exceptional productions on offer and there is spectacular singing on display. At the same time, we are seeing vibrant companies struggle to fill seats and remain solvent while a multitude of young artists are unable to secure a career foothold. At the close of National Opera Week, I wish to further encapsulate my thoughts on both the value of this art form and the need to find more effective ways to persuade the uninitiated of its value.
The Transformative Power of the Human Voice
The creation of stile recitativo by the Florentine Camerata in the 16th century and the roughly concurrent innovation of deliberate compositional devices intended to express a specific emotional state of a character, thus evoking a similar emotional state in the listener, put opera firmly on the path to becoming the art form most capable of facilitating a shared cathartic response. Later in the Baroque era, opera’s mood-altering mission began to be upstaged by vocal fireworks and special effects machinery. Gluck championed a course correction to reestablish the primacy of emotional expression and dramatic impact over virtuosity and spectacle. When the recitative/aria structure that carried opera through to the bel canto era of the 19th century began to feel predictable, disingenuous and limiting, composers of the verismo movement pursued a more through-composed style in order to create a more natural dramatic flow to the story and its emotional arcs – another course correction in favor of authentic expression.
The history of opera has been defined by periods of innovation and expansion that are then refined and integrated in order to serve opera’s core mission of emotional transference and intensification. The musical and technological innovations of the past century have expanded opera’s musical vocabulary and production values in ways that have enhanced many aspects of the art form but have also threatened to supplant the essential primacy of human vocal expression. I believe it is now time for another course correction to steer opera back in the direction of its essential purpose.
Defining Opera’s Role in Modern Culture
The musical and technological innovations of the past century led to the rise of numerous art forms whose qualities and impact overlap somewhat with opera:
- Musical theatre incorporates music and drama;
- Rock concerts provide visceral musical impact and a unifying social experience;
- Film embodies many aspects of Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesizing drama with ever-expanding visual effects and soundtracks delivered over increasingly sophisticated sound systems;
- Video games provide an immersive, interactive experience incorporating plot, soundtrack and visual effects.
All of these art forms are more broadly accessible and widely popular than opera. They are also highly effective. Opera cannot tell stories with the same level of complexity as film. Opera cannot guarantee a widely relatable experience that can run consistently for eight shows a week over a span of years the way a strong musical theatre production can. Opera cannot deliver the tribal, visceral experience of a rock concert. Opera cannot offer the easy, immediate immersion of a video game; opera requires of its audience a more personal, volitional kind of surrender.
If we want opera to thrive, we must avoid losing sight of what opera does better than anything else. Our efforts to market opera to new audiences must communicate its unique value rather than attempt to compete with other art forms. We must become highly articulate in expressing opera’s particular strengths to those who may have no idea how powerful it can be.
Due to the nearly ubiquitous use of amplification technology for the last 60 years or so, wide swaths of our civilization have never experienced the extraordinary impact of an acoustic vocal performance. As I described in my post “Is Opera Relevant?,” the naked human voice is capable of setting listeners’ auditory apparatuses in motion, creating a sympathetic vibratory connection that exhorts them to feel what the singer is feeling at that moment. It can change a listener’s body chemistry. While singers may take breathing for granted, most people really do not breathe very deeply. Deep breathing is contagious; many members of an opera audience are likely to breathe in rhythm with the singers for the duration of the performance. That alone can have a tremendous impact on their physical and emotional well-being, but if they are really open to the aural massage provided by singing they can depart with their emotional landscape permanently expanded. Most people really do not permit themselves to feel very deeply. We role-model feeling for them and invite them to live larger.
This is what opera does better than anything else. It exhorts you to breathe. It exhorts you to feel. We lose sight of this truth at our peril.
Singers: Raise Your Game
Singers, you are the ones who have to do all the heavy lifting. It is up to you to maximize your range, power, resonance, flexibility, spectrum of dynamics and vocal colors. You must cultivate the skill to project unamplified over an orchestra in a massive hall. You are the ones who must develop the personal depth and vulnerability to channel the extremes of human emotion through your voices at will in order to transmit them to every individual member of the audience.
This is the assignment you raised your hands for, and I challenge you to raise your game. Embrace everything you are and build the coordination and courage necessary to share it with everyone else.
You got into this because you felt you had something vital and passionate to communicate that could only be shared through singing. Then you discovered that it’s a jungle out there. By the time you made it through your Master’s degree and a couple of Young Artist Programs, it’s likely that you spent far too much time trying to get “good enough,” making yourself “marketable,” suffering from rejection and habitually craving validation. I call upon you now to get in contact with the spark that led you down this path in the first place, set your own high standards for your technique and artistry, and take inventory of how well you meet the job description I laid out at the beginning of this section. Because when you do, you will not lack for employment. You must also be capable of communicating these skills to those who are in a position to hire you, but if you achieve that level of mastery in communicating with an audience I do not think this will present much difficulty, and even if it does, your passion will drive you to triumph over whatever resistance you meet.
What I see all too often instead these days are singers despairing about how hard it is to get an audition, how little work there is to go around, and how impossible it seems to secure a decent manager. I see them preparing the aria package they think people will want to hear from them and striving to vocally and visually emulate a Fach stereotype that audition panels will affirm as easily fitting into their visions.
All of this is incredibly disempowering. Focus on your art, what you want to accomplish with it, and the kinds of partnerships you want to foster. Rather than just submit your stuff for every audition notice that pops up, research the kinds of companies that hire singers at your level. Learn as much as you can about each one. Make personal contact with someone who is involved with them, perhaps a coach you might like to work with. Forge relationships, and see where they lead. If you can’t land a manager, consider the possibility that you will need to become a more awesome version of yourself before someone will sign you. Figure out where your skills are lacking, improve on them, and ask to be heard again. In auditions, present your most authentic self through repertoire you love and that suits you well, rather than second-guessing anyone’s expectations. You did not pursue singing in order to become a cog in someone else’s wheel. Never forget why you chose this path and remain mindful of the potentially extraordinary impact you can have.
Who are the artists who most move you with their expressive and musical powers? What must you do to emulate their achievements? While it is true that there is less work to go around these days than in recent decades, I believe that our institutions and audiences will expand to showcase and appreciate great artistry wherever it arises. More truly great artists will lead to an increase in exposure and demand.
Raise your standards. Become transcendent.
Opera Companies: Guide the Next Course Correction
Those of you who are in charge of programming, casting and marketing must focus your attention on what opera does better than anything else and allow that to inform your creative decisions and the strategies you deploy to promote your product. We must stop squandering energy and resources in attempts to compete with other art forms in the arenas where they dominate. Doing so pulls focus from what makes opera uniquely amazing and apologizes for what it isn’t and never can be.
Many opera companies have reacted to the financial turbulence of the past decade by programming safe, crowd-pleasing seasons and focusing their attention on big-name singers. This strategy may curtail short-term hemorrhaging, but it will not lead to long-term growth because it merely cashes in on the nostalgia of existing audiences and the zeal of existing fans. It will not help opera evolve, build new audiences, or expand anyone’s donor base.
We need to invite new audiences to experience the transformative power of great singing. We must also do more to identify and nurture great vocal talent and create conditions where singers are able to consistently do their finest work.
On the face of it, this may seem like an odd admonition. Where singers are concerned, opera has never been more of a buyer’s market. There is an exponentially greater number of young singers completing their formal training every year than our professional companies can possibly employ. It seems as though this would guarantee that our stages would be populated entirely by exceptional artists. But in my view, this imbalance has actually not worked to anyone’s benefit.
A singer’s greatness lies in the uniqueness of their instrument and their individual artistry, but this surfeit of singers has led to their objectification, with audition panels focusing on which singers most closely align with the concept they have already settled on for their production rather than seeking those with the most remarkable gifts. All I need do to prove my point here is invite you to imagine the outcome, given the current climate, were the young Maria Callas to pop up in a field of prospective Violettas. In all likelihood, she would be dismissed in favor of a slimmer soprano with a more consistent, pretty timbre. Opera companies are too often searching for cogs to fit into their wheel. But the artist who is capable of engendering emotional transference and eliciting catharsis is not objectifiable, interchangeable or disposable, and the success of opera depends upon identifying singers capable of such artistry and encouraging their development.
When we objectify singers, we fail to do this. We fail to recognize and reward those qualities most essential for transcendent artistry and focus instead on qualities that are at best, secondary and at worst, tend to encourage mediocrity.
The hallmarks of a great artist include:
- Unique voice
- Strong personality
- Communicative power
- Thorough, thoughtful preparation
- Willingness to take risks
- Polarizing (some will love them while others will hate them)
What companies often instead select for are:
- Agreeable personality
- Pretty voice
- Eager to please
- Consistent sound (not a risk-taker)
- Takes direction well (disinclined to offer creative input)
- Safe bet (established success and recognition)
- Inoffensive (everyone likes them, no one loves or hates them)
- Conventionally attractive appearance
Some of the qualities on this second list are not at all bad to have. A great artist can certainly possess a beautiful voice, be extremely gregarious and conventionally attractive, etc. It’s just that these qualities are treated as primary, and they must be considered secondary. They do not contribute to the ability to create compelling performances in any meaningful way. What ends up happening is that by and large, only those singers who meet these secondary criteria are admitted into the profession. Then if it turns out they also possess (or later develop) the qualities on the first list, they rise to the very top, and we marvel how they are so much better than everyone else.
These stars who seem to outclass their peers deserve our gratitude and admiration for their achievements. But it is vital for all singers to aspire to such greatness and receive the support they need to pursue it. Some, like my imaginary modern-day Callas, are being passed over because we are not rewarding what is most special about our young artists. Many, many others are getting the memo that it is incumbent upon them to downplay their individuality in favor of consistency and malleability. The luckiest get hired but then may never fulfill their true artistic potential, while the rest fade into obscurity, never understanding why they were not the chosen ones.
So when you invite singers to audition for your company, listen to all of them with respect and curiosity and seek the ones who really have something to say. They may not be a fit for your current casting needs. They may not be to your taste. But they are bonafide members of your very small tribe – this tribe of initiates who know how powerful opera can be and have made great sacrifices in order to transform themselves and their listeners. Treat them with respect, and they will continue to be passionate advocates whether or not they have a place on your stage. Treat them dismissively, and we all suffer.
Seek out uniqueness and authenticity. When you find it, and it’s backed up by solid vocal and dramatic skill, trust your instincts and be willing to take a chance on an as-yet unknown artist rather than hedging your bets with an established name every time. The greatest artists are the ones who are willing to take risks. Reward their courage by taking some risks of your own.
The real risk to our art at this point is in trying to play it safe. Opera is not safe. Opera was designed to make us vulnerable and to inspire us to take emotional risks. We must embrace the danger and entice new audiences to come take these risks along with us. Singers must dig deep and strive to reveal what is most truthful and compelling about themselves, and we must value each one’s willingness to earnestly share their passions with us.
Let us work together to show the modern world what it is that this art form can do that no other can.
Let us celebrate the unparalleled power of the acoustic human voice, which, despite all imaginable artifice and future technological achievement, shall never be surpassed.