I guess it’s time for another round of the operatic fat fights. In this corner, a culture that places increasingly intense value on youth and thinness. In the other corner, an art form that is slowly being pushed to undervalue its primary unique asset (the glory of the human voice.)
I won’t do a lot of linking in this post, but these two are important for context. First, the catalyst. Second, an important response. Click through if you have three minutes. If you don’t, here’s the tweet-length version:
A talented young mezzo sang the pants off (sorry…) the role of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. The press chose to remark first and foremost on her appearance (“dumpy”) and secondarily on her singing.
This has touched off a small social media firestorm, inspiring responses both professional and highly personal. One might think that this is unrelated to opera’s other recent drama, that of the shuttering of companies in recent years. (Sidebar: This week’s good news is that the San Diego situation is turning around!) But I believe they are both related to a problem to which we are having extremely unhelpful reactions.
The problem? We are losing market share in a world in which entertainment choices are ridiculously abundant. The reaction? We desperately attempt to twist our art form in such a way that showcases only its most palatable pop-culture assets.
Why? We are constantly in recruitment mode, attempting to convince consumers that opera is just like mainstream popular culture music. Look! Shiny sets and flashy lights! Attractive patrons! Sexy singers! We’re just like Beyoncé. Until we’re not, and the bait-and-switch hurts us. It’s not a sustainable long term strategy.
What we do is deep. It takes a long time (to make and to watch), it requires sustained attention, and it pays big rewards for those who invest in it. Opera can be enjoyable for the uninitiated first-time patron, and you definitely don’t have to be a part of the subculture to be fascinated by it. But you do have to be willing to give yourself over for a few hours. And the flashy sets and sexy singers won’t hold your attention for quite that long.
Thankfully, there’s more. And a big part of that “more” is the gutsy glory of the naked human voice and its potential to inspire, entertain, shock, and soothe. Other forms of vocal music share some of this, but they don’t fully exploit it and rely on it the way we do. And the people who embody these voices come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they look like the people whose stories they sing; sometimes they don’t. In a recent social media post, a fabulously talented singer put it this way: We are mesmerized during an opera performance in spite of the fact that there is a grown woman pretending to be a boy in a play where everyone sings, and a man in a pit waves a stick in front of 65 other people blowing into tubes and sawing on strings. And in the middle of all of this glorious mess we are offended because that woman looks “dumpy” in her trousers?
I should quit now, and if you’ve stayed with me this long, I thank you. All of this is personally important and heart-rending because I not only care deeply about the health and future of my art form, I am responsible for playing a role in guiding the young professionals who are shaping that future. They come with a huge variety of assets and liabilities – some have amazing pipes but little artistic curiosity, some have breathtaking musical instincts and flawed techniques, some have natural talent yet little drive, some have great enthusiasm and a poor work ethic, some are compelling musicians and terrible colleagues. And some have many of the assets I just listed, unfortunately combined with bodies that our culture kicks to the curb.
It is one of my jobs to help emerging professional musicians polish up their assets and acknowledge then minimize their liabilities. And I’m torn. Do we value intense dietary scrutiny and time in the gym above internalizing foreign languages and wrestling vocal technique to the ground? To do so would indicate that we buy into the skewed relationship our industry has with pop culture. And not doing so could create a false sense of marketability in our young singers. Of course, we want them to be healthy; to take care of their bodies, minds, and souls. But how critical should it be that they are (in the words of one of our artists who called recently about our organization-sponsored gym memberships) “HD-Ready?”
And now I turn my attention back to our little corner of the opera world, where we are ready to welcome the cast of this June’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. We will soon revel in the sounds of some of the most beautiful vocal music I know, and I sure hope some of you can join us.