The Case for Opera

Classic Arts Features   The Case for Opera
Does the art form have a relevant place in contemporary culture? Lincoln Center Theater director Andr_ Bishop considers the question.

People have been saying for years that the theater is dying, that it has no place in modern life, that it has been replaced by television and video games, that it has gone the way of epic poetry and the hula hoop.

What nonsense! We happen to be living in a golden age of American playwriting (though we don't acknowledge it), and we have theater companies all over the country with wonderfully gifted directors, designers, and actors. Millions of people attend the theater regularly each year. Those of us who work in the theater believe passionately in its importance.

But what about opera? If people think the theater is in trouble, what must they think of this most theatrical and in some ways most rarified of art forms? If opera is theater on the grandest of scales, what is its place in contemporary life? Is it merely an old and expensive art form that is losing its grip on an ever-dwindling public? Or does it still thrill us with its goal of a perfect fusion of music and drama?

As someone who does not work in the opera world but who loves opera, I can unequivocally say, "Yes, opera lives!" Music, drama, dance, a story well told performed by larger-than-life personalities — these elements have been part of the human experience since the Greeks. There is no reason to believe that should ever change. Opera is still vital, still magnificently compelling. But like everything else in life it must proceed with caution as it advances into the 21st century.

I broached the topic of contemporary operatic health with three of my favorite playwrights, all of whom love opera and know a lot about it and, were they not otherwise engaged, would be quite capable of running a major opera house: John Guare (our Britten, because of the lyrical yet unsettling dissonance in his work), Albert Innaurato (our Puccini, thanks to his tender and generous heart), and Terrence McNally (our Rossini, because he moves deftly between light comedy and more serious work).

Together we realized that we value opera for one main reason: it represents the basic human need to sing. It reminds us of every child's impulse to break into song and takes it to the highest level. Music is the art form that comes closest to expressing that which is inexpressible, and its power lies beyond words. Good opera deals with issues that must be sung, and addresses that need with the utmost respect and seriousness. The performing aspects of opera — the athletic requirements of classical singing, so different from the amplified pop world — are the last bastion of rigorous training. And the spectacle, the opportunity for startling visual imagery in front of which one singer or vast crowds of people make a huge volume of sound — none of that can be found anywhere else. Opera is clearly the only art form left where something that is larger than life can simultaneously be so human.

But beware: not all of us are born predisposed to like opera. In fact, there are many smart, sensitive people in the world who loathe it. And if you are not exposed to it, it will not find you, unlike popular culture, which is all around us and from which there is no escape. That is why the live weekly radio broadcasts are so important, and why it is essential that student performances and school programs be encouraged.

There is also the ever-controversial issue of new work. If opera is to cast its spell on future generations, if it is to reinvent itself as all healthy art forms must, if it is to be more than an exquisitely wrought museum, it must focus more energy on the new. We must have composers who understand the theatrical needs of opera, not just the musical ones. We must find librettists who understand the relationship between words and music with stories and characters that cry out to be sung. And we must break away from what I call 19th-Century Thinking: not every good play or novel should be adapted for the musical stage. Most of them should be left alone. My favorite new operas (works like Adams's Nixon in China and Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles) have been totally original; my least favorites have simply taken an old book or play and set it to music, to no real purpose beyond a stab at respectability.

The tension between old and new work in the repertoire of an opera company is exciting and can have wonderful results if the right balance is struck. Are there enough stars to cast in the traditional pieces, at least enough to please the old hands in the audience? Are there new works and new approaches to old work that can please the young and experimental but still give pleasure to those old hands who might be conservative in their taste? These are juicy questions.

Much more can and will be said in these pages about the future of a beloved art form. As a hopeless opera lover from day one, with a father who was besotted with Tebaldi (he even offered to marry her, but luckily — for me — she just laughed), and as a survivor of my first trip to the Met at age six for Strauss's Arabella, of all unlikely first operas, I look forward to many more years of discussion, struggle, and worry. But there is no doubt in my mind, and in the minds of Messrs. Guare, Innaurato, and McNally, that opera is here to stay.

John Dexter, the great British director, who died in 1990, wrote in his memoirs, "Opera and drama are not a drug for the feeble-minded, they are an essential enhancement of our lives from which we can enrich ourselves and from which we can learn." The defense rests.

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