By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
Many people believe opera is a ‘dead’ art form, a dusty old relic only meant for the ears of affluent senior citizens. I disagree. However, I completely understand why people view it that way. Many people my age have never seen an opera before. This is probably due to the very expensive ticket prices and the consistently fancy-shmansy way opera is marketed. (Diamonds and ball gowns are a non-negotiable, apparently)
As a feminist and a musicologist (a more pretentious introduction has never existed), I am the first to admit that the plots of popular operas are often deeply problematic. After all, the vast majority of them were written by privileged European men during a time where a certain level of bigotry was accepted as normal. Many of these popular operas are like James Bond films made in the 1960s – very entertaining and casually sexist and/ or racist. Vintage Ferraris! Weapons cunningly disguised in household appliances! African servants and sexually harassed women!
During the nineteenth century, European composers set their operas in far-flung locations to give them an exotic, sexy edge. They usually did this without any meaningful research into the cultures of these places and the people who lived there. After all, Georges Bizet wrote Carmen without ever setting foot in Spain.
Despite this ridiculousness, Carmen is actually one of my favourite operas and one which actually fares very well when compared to some of the other operas written in the ‘exoticism’ style (to name a few, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Léo Delibes’ Lakmé, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Sampson and Delilah, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, W.A. Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail). This is probably because the libretto was adapted from a novella written by a Prosper Mérimée, a French historian who actually did spend time in Spain and took inspiration from a story told to him by a Spanish aristocrat. The genuine interest in Spanish culture at the foundation of Carmen sets it apart.
The ‘noble savage’ was also an inherently problematic trope which would appear in operas at the time. Eastern cultures were somewhat patronizingly viewed by Western cultures as seductive, wild, and savage, an example of a baser form of humanity.
Another obvious issue widespread throughout the operatic canon is the treatment of women. It is a running gag among female opera singers that if they successfully forge a soloist career, they will be dying on stage every second night. However, this issue is no longer being treated as a light-hearted joke. To quote Deborah Cheetham OA in her Peggy Glanville-Hicks address last year: “The death of a female character on stage must be an absolute tragedy, not merely an inevitable and strangely fulfilling experience.”
Why is opera so absurdly melodramatic? It comes back to the age-old concern of show-business: to put bums on seats. Composers had to make sure their piece became a hit so they would be commissioned to write another one. The head of an opera house wanted to feature storylines that were heart-wrenching, uproariously funny, scandalous, shocking (or a number of other adjectives). This led to the tropes we see so much: murdered women, whores who are punished, couples going to extreme and illogical lengths for love, and really silly depictions of cultures that the composer and librettist knew nothing about.
If you think your favourite symphony or choral piece has transcended the passage of time, let me tell you something: that’s because the composer didn’t have to find a popular novel and set it to music. You can let the sonic waves of a Beethoven symphony or Bach concerto wash over you, without any of the sobering reminders of how humans used to treat each other. (Not that things are perfect now, of course)
When we stage an opera today, there are many ways we can frame its plot. After all, operas used to be presented in a far more fluid way, in collaboration with the living composers. New arias were constantly being written and old ones were constantly being scrapped. Rossini did this all the time! So why do we feel so chained to the opera score?
We can respect the intentions of composers while exercising an interpretive voice with what is on the page. We can also simply use accompanying material, such as pre-concert talks and program notes, to frame the issues and highlight the themes in these works of fiction. Art is not simply a flashy method of shocking and provoking an audience. Art is a powerful force, which should be used discerningly and consciously. There is no need to blindly sensor any challenging material, but we must confront it openly.
I have discussed opera’s uglier side in detail now. So why do I still love the art form, with all its warts? Why do I believe in its future?
Well firstly, operatic singing showcases the absolute limits of the human voice. I remain flabbergasted every time I listen to recordings of Maria Callas, or currently-reigning stars like Jessica Pratt and Joyce DiDonato. Maria Callas is a unique case- she undoubtedly changed the course of operatic performances forever with her electrifying stage presence. It’s also fascinating that her voice was hardly most ‘pure’ or ‘beautiful’ soprano voice to ever exist. At times it sounded pure, at other times it possessed a fiercely raw power, dizzyingly paired with incredibly precise technique. Many people take the opinion that Maria actually permanently damaged her voice by singing every kind of soprano role, from Wagner to Mozart, sometimes only a few nights apart (again, proving the limits of what’s humanely possible!)
I digress. I could talk about Maria Callas for pages and pages but that’s not what I’m here to do. The point is, listening to opera can be a life-changing, soul-shaking experience. While it might take some getting used to, it possesses something incredibly special that deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.
Secondly, we can look to music theatre for inspiration on how a musical art form can be adapted to a wide range of human stories. There are already many encouraging signs of what is possible. In 2011, my high school singing teacher Angus Grant wrote a one-act opera called Contact! about the trials and tribulations of a suburban league women’s netball team. I saw it performed at the Melbourne Arts Centre when I was sixteen and a complete newcomer to opera. I wasn’t used to hearing operatic voices sing in English, but I thought it was very funny and full of zingy one-liners. (You can read more here)
Last year, I attended Gertrude Opera’s production of chamber opera As One. Through a series of fragmented scenes, As One charts the gradual transformation of protagonist Hannah as she navigates a male to female transition. As One is written for a string ensemble and two voices: a baritone (Hannah Before) and a mezzo-soprano (Hannah After). As One was refreshing in a number of ways- the worthy and underrepresented story, the interest and simplicity of two voices interacting, and a tailor-made video projection which functioned as an immersive set design. Composer Laura Kaminsky worked with librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed to illustrate many moments she had experienced herself as a transgender woman.
I’m not suggesting that opera should replace musicals, rather that the two should happily co-exist. The diversity of musicals is something that opera should take a cue from. Musicals represent a rainbow of genres… the homage to Motown of Dreamgirls, the glorious and affecting Jewish folk of Fiddler on the Roof, the orchestral insanity of West Side Story, the 1950s rock and doo-wop of Grease, the power-ballad fantasy of Wicked… Undoubtedly, some stories are best complemented by more contemporary vocal styles. But the art form of opera gives composers and librettists the chance to juxtapose of kinds of human stories, with the technical mastery and power of the classical voice.
So let’s write some new operas! Write early and write often. As much as everyone worships Puccini, let’s stop programming Madame Butterfly six times a year at the expense of anything else. The best way to guarantee something stays a ‘dead’ art form, is to give up on its future and live in its past. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.