Posted by: operatheaterink | September 2, 2010

Opera: From Elitist to Populist, Sept. 2, 2010

Opera Theater Ink by Carol Jean Delmar

Are Efforts to Keep Opera Alive Working?

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

About two years ago, a friend of mine, Ligia Toutant, presented me with an article she had written for an academic journal. She was about to receive her Ph.D. in Social Sciences and Comparative Education from UCLA. An opera buff, her article – “Can Stage Directors Make Opera and Popular Culture ‘Equal’?” — addressed the relationship between opera and society. It made me think.

Toutant addressed how general directors and stage directors are attempting to move opera from a high culture sport to a more popular cultural activity for spectators. She cited updating opera productions, utilizing the film industry to create more stimulating staging, and making singers more actor savvy as means for making an elitist opera culture more popular.

Although some composers and librettists are creating memorable new operas these days, most are not. Companies are therefore turning to inventive directors and stage designers to devise technologically modern productions to replace the old. But these directors must realize that opera has historically focused on music and voice. They should be creating productions that are born from the music and should not be selfishly staging offensive avant-garde productions to magnify their own self-importance.

Toutant drew attention to the Metropolitan Opera’s live high-definition performance transmissions into movie theaters. Replays have been added to the roster with 1,500 theaters in 46 countries now participating. In addition, the Met offers “Met Player,” which is an online subscription service that enables viewers to watch HD videos on their own home computers; plus they can watch more than 50 Metropolitan Opera telecasts and listen to 200 radio broadcasts.

These latter attempts to draw more middle- and working-class audiences into the opera world are definitely encouraging since many cultural leaders are worried that the art form will soon be extinct.

Opera companies in London, Milan and Barcelona are following suit.

Yet in spite of the inroads made to popularize opera, the ability to turn the elitist genre into a populist endeavor is debatable.

Opera originated as court entertainment and has remained most inviting to the upper class. Opera patrons enjoy attending galas and walking down the red carpet with cameras flashing.

Most orchestra-seat tickets are between $180 and $270 for Los Angeles Opera’s 25th season. Although discounts exist for subscribers, with or without discounts, the prices are higher each season and continue to rise, even in this recessive economy, and even though LA Opera has a $14 million loan to pay and a $5.96 million deficit. Increasing ticket prices may be the company’s capital growth strategy. Nevertheless, the company has recently made two attempts to replenish its coffers.

On Aug. 25, subscribers were offered a one-day 25 percent discount on all additional ticket purchases. And on Aug. 30, LA Opera initiated an “Opera-of-the-Day” promotion: Each day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., until availability runs out, select tickets are being discounted for a specific production, seating location and date.

It seems that more subscriptions would have been sold had LA Opera lowered ticket prices across the board so that such promotional marketing would not have been necessary. The company’s leaders are always stretching and hoping for more than is feasible. Then they come to the realization that they have to devise new strategies to make up for their miscalculations and losses.

It may appear that I have diverged from the topic at hand, but not really. I believe that opera will remain an upper-class sport as long as productions have unwarranted price tags and audiences must pay exorbitant ticket prices to see and hear them. LA Opera is simply keeping up with the Joneses. The elitist mentality is an international phenomenon.

So although I have read that Plácido Domingo and other cultural leaders are worried about the longevity of opera and hope to draw a wider audience into the opera house, I believe that it is the elitists who are holding opera back from becoming a genre for the general public.

Although community performances for school-age children and seniors do exist, these audiences cannot afford the cost of regular performances with internationally known singers. HD transmissions on computers and in theaters are wonderful for various societal groups and serve to raise funds for the participating opera companies, but the experience of hearing live opera in an opera house is quite different and will remain for the upper crust.

Before I became a critic, I attended performances in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for that purpose alone. Then I became aware that at intermission and after performances, many people rush off to various gatherings depending on their societal status. I have often wondered if people are there to hear the music or to display their formal attire and be seen. The volunteers are there to sell LA Opera mementos at the boutique. And even the members of the press gather for a quick glass of wine before they announce their verdicts.

So how can opera become a populist activity when if a prospective board member doesn’t pledge a hefty contribution, that person rarely finds him or herself on the board? I do not have an answer for the question.

Education may play a role in invigorating and demystifying opera, for there were periods of time when opera appealed more to the masses. Giuseppe Verdi’s operas were often huge public events. Thirty thousand people were said to have lined the streets of Milan in 1901 for his funeral.

It is possible that culture has little significance in today’s society since the arts are not prominent subjects taught in our public schools. Nevertheless, the crux of the problem is that opera is currently for the wealthy, and the general public is missing out.

Opera is no longer about the fat lady who sings. Some female singers are gorgeous, and some male singers look like Greek gods. Much of the music in the standard repertoire is melodic and moving beyond words, but so few people know it. They think that opera is simply loud singing. They need to be awakened.

Retired pharmaceutical executive Agnes Varis is attempting to do just that. Varis, 80, has donated $2.5 million to the Metropolitan Opera to subsidize $25 orchestra-seat tickets, which is an extension of the Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman Rush Ticket program she initiated in 2006. She wants elderly people to enjoy their golden years, and she wants “to see a plan for a younger generation” (The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 25, 2010).

I have personally enjoyed some low-budget productions at UCLA more than some expensive productions in major opera houses, and the tickets were a fraction of the cost.

Cultural leaders say that opera is expensive to produce so high ticket prices are warranted. Until they open themselves up to more flexible thinking, opera will remain elitist, will elude the general public, and will be in danger of becoming extinct.

But it really doesn’t have to be that way.

For a different perspective, Ligia Toutant’s article can currently be read at:

Ligia Toutant
Ligia Toutant, 2007