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Taking Opera's Temperature

by Jerome Weeks 17 Aug 2012 10:16 AM

NPR talks with an Opera News editor and the Washington Post‘s critic, among others, to get their sense of what’s next, good and bad, while the New York Times blames Hollywood.


The cover story of the August issue of Opera News is the one about “Opera’s Next Wave” — the one that features FWOpera’s Darren Woods riding that wave — and NPR uses that as a springboard for a roundtable conversation with ON editor F. Paul Driscoll, the Washington Post critic Anne Midgette and the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (another ‘new waver’). The cover story may seem rosy, but that same issue includes Philip Kennicott’s less-than-happy thoughts about the future of opera recordings and live, hi-def broadcasts.

[NPR Classical producer Tom] HUIZENGA: One of the points that Philip tries to make in the article is that the HD movie theater transmissions — the cameras, the microphones, the very fancy audio mixing, the kind of perfecting of opera — is actually serving to separate us more and more from real live opera.

ANNE MIDGETTE: Well that’s been true of every form of recording since the recording industry began. So yes, you could argue that HD is creating its own kind of experience, which is unique and distinct from live opera experience. But you could also say that type of technology is also why we’re able to listen to Caruso today. I can be very critical of HD because I do think the experience is a kind of slickness like eating potato chips. It’s a very easy access form of opera; on the other hand, I enjoy it and there’s a chance it can be reaching new audiences and certainly it’s bringing opera to a much wider audience than was previously possible — those have got to be good things.

(Oh, and when asked to name a ‘dynamite’ opera from the past 10-15 years, Midgette chooses Moby-Dick — “and I hadn’t been a big fan of Jake Heggie.”)

Meanwhile, the New York Times‘ Zachary Woolfe thinks it’s all Hollywood’s fault. His description of what’s wrong out there certainly sounds accurate, but I find his putting all the blame on two films is so stretched that I actually wondered if it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. It makes the article — and the opportunity provided by Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed film, Margaret, which involves opera a lot — seem like just a long-sought chance to unload some old resentment.  But then, a lot of balletomanes hated  Black Swan for much the same reason: reinvigorating the old stereotypes they’ve spent so much time trying to work past.

But there are problems deeper than financial ones with American opera, and they predated the recession by many decades. As you look across the country, you find pockets of innovation and experimentation, but the landscape is overwhelmingly drab.

The repertory is largely stagnant, focused on the same small group of hits. …  The typical production style is blandly nostalgic escapism rather than vibrancy or relevance. This was the case through much of America in the 20th century, and there hasn’t been much change so far in the 21st.

When I am asked about the reasons for these deeper problems, I say there are two: “Moonstruck” and “Pretty Woman” … In the two movies the vision of opera is the same: lush, static, stale. It is less a living encounter than a trip to Madame Tussauds.