We Are All in This Together

This is on the mind of a lot of singers right now.  There have been follow-ups, flame wars and responses, all of which I will let you google on your own. And there have been discussions aplenty, on both social media and in hallways. I tread here very cautiously, and I have written and rewritten this post in my head dozens of times in the last 2 days. I don’t imagine that I’ll escape more flames, but that’s the price of engagement, I suppose.

Summary: A regional U.S. opera company recently posted an audition notice that states they’re searching for age-appropriate and attractive singers to fill roles in an upcoming popular opera.

More disclaimers: I am decidedly not a fan of this approach, nor do I support or excuse the increasing prevalence of “visual casting.”

And yet…

We will get nowhere with this discussion if we don’t unpack it a bit further. This most recent snafu is just a symptom of a more invasive disease. And that malady is bigger than the misdirected practice of casting to body type and appearance instead of voice and artistry. The root of the disease is the panic, stinginess, conservatism, and narrow-mindedness that sets in when we are threatened. The threat? The fear that the only way to keep away from the death spiral of classical music is to play the popular culture game and pander to the shiny superficial qualities with which the 21st-century is so besotted.

Again, allow me to repeat that I do not support what is happening here. But until we see it as part of a bigger picture, we will never stand a chance of fighting it. Opera companies are up against a terrible wall, and when people are in a defensive posture, they grasp at straws. The temptation is to look at the successful for-profit popular sector of the entertainment business and try to employ its strategies. The challenge for those of us who have the privilege of producing opera is to find ways to not get lost in the cultural melee while remembering that our only integrity is contained in the essence of our art form: vocal power and beauty, storytelling writ large and bold, the risk and reward of real-time live performance without a net.

Yet it seems that focusing on the true beauty and value of the operatic experience is somehow dangerous in this economically challenging environment. So we succumb to the temptation of playing the pop culture game to hedge our bets and lure those elusive new audiences. It can work, but in only the briefest and most tenuous ways. If a potential buyer comes to the opera because she believes that it’s primarily surface-level shiny entertainment with conventionally “beautiful” people, odds are she won’t come back. And spending an increasing amount of our resources chasing after revolving door patrons who ultimately resent the bait-and-switch is exhausting.

OK, now I’m going to turn the tables and talk to singers. Hold the flames for just a few more minutes.

I am a producer, but one whose main mission is to serve singers. We also serve our audiences well, but truly only as an extension of the care we lavish on our singers’ development and artistry. My main goal here today is to elicit a small measure of singer empathy for the dilemma in which producers find themselves.  (Oooh, it’s getting a little warm in here… but I shall persevere.)

This pandering to pop culture values is a misdirected solution to the larger problem of making sure we can sell tickets, stay in business, eventually thrive, and continue to offer jobs to artists. At the heart of this solution is the desire to break down barriers, get out of our ivory tower bubble, and present what we do as relevant, important, vital and interesting. And singers, you must help us do that. In spades.

(I feel the flames licking at my feet, so I must note that many of you are already doing this. If you are, thank you. But if you feel that the efforts I’m about to describe are beneath you or irrelevant, then I am taking on the task of converting you.)

Let’s go back to the top. One of the inflammatory words in the description that launched this discussion was “attractive.” Instead of just railing against this, I hereby urge you all to become attractive.

Not in the way you initially think. Other than general concern that all of you are as healthy and vital as you can be, I don’t care a whit about your dress or pant size. I don’t care if you are conventionally pretty. But you need to attract us. To be irresistible in as many ways as you can muster. Be bold, striking, interesting, charismatic, thoughtful, daring, memorable, engaging. Do not hide behind a beautiful but blank sound. (Oh, and in case you think that I’m encouraging you to do all of this for us, the same advice will serve you well in your individual career.)

A surface-level negative response to the current dilemma (“But it’s all about the beauty of the human voice!”) is dangerously irrelevant and extremely unhelpful. The former statement is largely true, but allowing it to cut this discussion short is doing ourselves a disservice. Let’s please not allow this conversation to stop there.

Beyond making yourself “attractive,” I charge you to do whatever you can to help companies showcase you. If you can stand it, get your professional social media presence revved up. (If you can’t stand it, see if you can get someone else to do it for you.) Be available for and charming in interviews. Word of mouth through social media is a juggernaut, accounting for a freakishly higher percentage of ticket sales every year. Savvy audiences increasingly don’t care much about paid advertisement. But if a friend of theirs shares one of your interesting social media posts or updates, they will be intrigued. This is audience-building, 21st-century style, and it involves all of us.

I know this last bit is tough and controversial. After all, you are paid to perform, not to market yourself or anyone else. And in a different kind of world, that would be enough. But now here and not now. We need to fight our way back out of this defensive posture that leads to wrong-headed strategies, back into a place where we can afford the luxuries of generosity of spirit, smart risk-taking, and beautiful diversities of all types.

We are all in this together.

21 Comments

KPsoprano

Kim, this is a wonderful post and I do agree with many of the sentiments. BUT, some of the things left out were singers coming forward saying they had been denied auditions or even jobs because they “needed to slim down.” I had heard it in the halls at other opera companies as well. It’s not a helpful comment. If a general director has concern over their singer’s health, then send in a doctor but they are not in a place to tell them to lose weight and hold a job over their head for it.

S

I am a young artist who has never performed with your wonderful company. I do not know you. But I want to applaud this articulate, well-reasoned, and passionate response. I’m sure it will be picked apart by the insecure few who find their true passion in argument, not in the music. I read your response as “we as producers don’t condone this shallowness, but neither should you singers become shallow in your art.” You get at the difficult truth that has been obscured by the VERY poor choices that led to the original audition notice being posted. Opera is a holistic experience and when audiences do not feel that magic, how can we blame it entirely on the productions, if we as artists are failing to engage their imaginations? The voice is paramount to the performance of this art, but this intangible magic is just as vital. This is a tremendous response to the furor of the last few days. This soprano thanks you.

Claudia Siefer

I saw my first Opera as a standee when I was a teen . It was Das Rheingold and transformed my life forever. I am now 40 years into a career as a professional chorister and am deeply disturbed by what is a growing tendency to pander. The privilege of being in the rarefied world (ivory tower if you must) is that it IS separate and apart from the mass=produced entertainment. I am NOT an entertainer, I am a craftsperson. It has been humbling beyond description to have been onstage as “support staff” to great artists too numerous to list here. I’ve seen what happens when technology takes root: “sound enhancement” provides a slick, unfilfilling sensory atmosphere, projections instead of real stage craft , intermissions where a “host” greets the audience and invites interaction via hashtag, all destroy the allure of what used to make Live Opera uplifting and life-affirming.

Bill Harshaw

As a geezer in the audience who limits my opera to Wolf Trap Company, I agree. To be honest, I’d say looks do count, but only a little. After the first 10 minutes it’s the singing and stagecraft which matter. People are adaptable and quickly get used to many things: a short tenor and tall soprano, an African-American mezzo and an Asian-American baritone? That doesn’t count, but are they singing well and enjoying themselves while doing it If I’m enjoying the singing and music, the acting, the opera, then by the time the opera ends nothing else matters.

Paul Appleby

Hi Kim! Thank you for your thoughtful post…of course you get it better than anyone since you operate as both a producer and a someone who has devoted her career to developing artists and therefore the very art form of opera in our time. I have been troubled by the knee-jerk reactions of outrage I’ve seen from fellow singers and felt this exactly: “A surface-level negative response to the current dilemma (“But it’s all about the beauty of the human voice!”) is dangerously irrelevant and extremely unhelpful”

Of course artistry must be first and foremost and total commitment to that is everything. Hedging or apologizing for opera as an art form is the fastest road to extinction. But who can honestly say that looks are completely irrelevant to that artistry? If you as a producer had to choose between two equally abled artists to play a character—especially if that character is explicitly identified as young and attractive in the libretto (as happens not infrequently)—are you not going to let the tie go to the hottie? Isn’t that the artistically responsible decision and the one that serves the piece best? Looks must not be the priority but they are certainly not irrelevant. We can’t pretend that the modern paradigm of theater—whether on Broadway, Television, or other—does not leverage its audiences’ desire to look at attractive people to its artistic and commercial benefit. And everyone who comes to the opera almost certainly also consumes other forms of live theater, film and television. We cannot demand that they suspend or ignore this pervasive, largely unconscious and not-unreasonable expectation that the performers they are paying to perform and the producers they are paying to produce do everything they can to make the theatrical experience as meaningful and authentic as possible. I worry that the outrage I see from other singers is a deflection of part of their responsibility to serve their art as much as possible. I personally struggle with this everyday, so I appreciate your call for us singers not to view these kind of incidents as personal attacks, but as opportunities to work together as a community to make our work excellent and to provide the best art we can to our audiences.

Countervail

One thing I’ve said over and over is that opera is as much a visual art as musical art – it’s staged, sung-through drama. Yet what has been neglected for decades, I think to producing’s detriment, is the visual element. Casting was prompted by the vocal abilities and star power of main leads. It’s one of the reasons why opera had become such a curiosity by the end of the 20th century – older leads playing young romantic lovers, military heroes played by flabby singers, plant-and-sing stars with no acting ability, ad nauseum. Audiences were asked to suspend belief to the limits of their ability, and only those that decidedly loved what they heard over what the saw formed the core subscribers.

I am fully excited there is a visual trend in opera casting, especially in a golden age of such breadth of appropriate singing talent. Mostly because I think it will reinvigorate composing new works on more contemporary subjects and actually create a future for opera that’s more than institutionalized museum pieces. And a brief, unpolitically correct word about weight. No one would or should ultimately expect singers to have bodies slim and toned like trained athletes. However, as artists that their bodies on stage, you have an obligation to train and exercise it like your voice and use some restraint in eating. It’s unfortunate if anyone is passed over for a role due to weight, but it comes back to the responsibility of a producer to cast at least somewhat believably in a visual medium.

So let’s all get off our high-horses about “art” and “craft” and remember that opera was, at it’s height, popular entertainment. If you simply want to “hear” the opera – not actually experience the live, staged drama – go to your recordings catalog for the rarefied voices of the past you all denigrate modern singers with in the first place. I’ll be getting a ticket for a new, interesting production of appropriately cast artists.

Nathan Granner

Kim, your addition to this global discussion is well-put. You are at the forefront of this business and art of opera and continue to give everything you have for it.

After having been in that crossover world for more than a decade I have to wholeheartedly agree with you. The real art is in the music and the individuals performing it. The glam and superficiality can get people to stadiums and arenas, but they do little to bring those crowds to the opera house. We lose the context of the arias. The setting, the story are integral to the works’ larger picture. Instead it is the gimick that hooks and many time gives nothing to pull in. (Basically like you said).

But look at the gimick that is selling now… Real people. Real people getting up and being (to the general population) amazing. It’s the same as watching Mary Garden emerge from being a goddess on stage to the regular woman with a predominant nose. We rise from our humanity and sing as deities and devils. After it is all over we go back home.

I don’t think the answer is simply to give the hottie the part. The answer is, who is going to impact the story more fully. Discrimination happens to us all. It hurts when it happens to us, but sometimes we aren’t sensitive when we ourselves do it.

Large, short, ethnic, tall, plain these character traits can all be utilized to more fully tell a story, or hide one I think. And more power to those that DO hire/cast for interesting… Or amazing, or in some cases future-amazing. ;)

We are only human and are all still just kids trying to make a go of it in our constant struggle to survive and thrive.

Let’s sure, do glam. But let’s also whack our audience with serious art in the process. If producers are producing stuff that they think is awesome and are passionate about; if singers and the plethora of other artists are creating work and reflecting that passion as something cool, genuinely cool and genius (like Mark Campbell libretti) we ALL win. And…there are a lot of producers doing amazing work that DOES this very thing.

Innovate and captivate.

Thanks for writing and for letting me ramble on.

Kamal Khan

Thanks, Kim! I know that down on my end of the world, it is the specificity of a singer’s personality and the depth of immersion in a role that a singer may offer which builds them a following. The best way to be attractive is to be your truest self, and I think the general guidelines of “attractive” and “age appropriate” seemed to indicate that a cookie cutter sort of appeal was the goal. This may be why people exploded. Nobody ever complained because Carol Neblett, Franco Corelli, Virginia Zeani, Ettore Bastianini and many others WERE attractive and age appropriate. Didn’t limit their artistry one bit. Fortunately, they had quite a hit more to offer as well..

MrBliss

Ah Kim you are a wise and eloquent asset to the braintrust and ‘art-trust’ whose modern identity we are all trying to help forge. Thank you for your clarity, encouragement and most of all for bringing us together.

Michael Rogers

Kim, thank you for choosing to address the larger issues for this discussion and not just the inherent cruelty of the importance of looks in our culture. After all, I cannot sing and might be led to believe it is an unfair advantage for those of you who can. I’d like to add one point as a man and as an opera fan, not a singer, which I think bolsters your case. Attractive is a much broader term than physical beauty. Over the years I have been attracted to many women who were not physical beauties. If you can win my heart with your heart as displayed by your singing or acting or personality, you are attractive. If you can convince me that you are the character you are playing, I will love you or hate you as is called for and cheer your performance. Exciting performers will draw an audience.

willie Morales

The posting is middle of the road, safe, but ineffectual. The modern day arts consumer is not concerned with the appearance of artists! The modern day arts consumer is concerned with productions and programming that fit their life styles. In other words
season subscriptions and programming that over commits a consummer will under perform. What companies face is the trade off between alienating older crowds or attracting new audiences. I find a lot of trouble with the oversimplification and casual consideration for the
contextual meaning of the word “attractive.” It is clear that you do not consciously endorse said practices, but what you have done was address opera singers as though we were crying children throwing a tantrum at life’s hard
realities. I do not enjoy being patronized nor do I need “Daddy” to help me cope with a hard time. The issue here is the slippery slope that is created when a company thinks they have the right to seek “attractive” artists when said language is not clearly defined and barely legal. The company should not get a pass, singers should not be blamed, and empirically supported models for new
audience generation should be implemented verses the older fossils that keep audiences small to say the least.

Ann Baltz

Wonderful, Kim. It’s so nice to read a well-thought out response that encourages each of us to look beyond knee-jerk reactions and defensiveness. I also appreciate that you offer suggestions to move our art form forward towards sustainability, i.e. to have the long view.

Michael Foster

Thanks for the post. I think it’s on target and something I share with people all the time as a producer and director. The harsh truth is that if audiences wanted purely great vocal quality, they’d be happy just with a recording. And of those who go to a theatre, they aren’t looking for real life. They are looking for a heightened version of it which often means looking for someone that is more attractive than what you notice around you in your mundane life. Unfortunately, singers confuse “attractive” with “beauty”. Attractive can mean that you have something to say as an artist that is compelling, but the truth is that most singers aren’t artists, they are still students stuck in their sophomore year mentality seeking approval. Audiences want to live vicariously through the artist, not prop them up…and living through them includes feeling as attractive as what they see.

Grace Jones

As an audience member, I think you identified key qualities for “attractive” – charisma and engagement. I would add joie de vivre. Am I engaged and absorbed in the story? My engagement is the result of your definition of the singers’ attractiveness.

And then I buy more tickets. . .

Molly Hickok

I am a member of the audience. I don’t go to the opera that often, but some of the most memorable performances I have seen were at the opera. The human voice is an incredible thing – and when it comes to you without amplification – it just hits you in a way nothing else can. It vibrates your whole being. I don’t go to the opera much anymore because there is just too damn much to see and look at. Attracting people to live events (that aren’t rock concerts) in this overstimulated age is a challenge and my heart goes out to all of you grappling with this.

I have recently been looking at You Tube videos of Beverly Sills and I find her so inspiring. She did straight ahead opera, and she did opera mash ups with Danny Kaye and Carol Burnett. And the combination of high and low was the best of both worlds, instead of what we often get now – the combination of popular culture and the high arts just dilutes the artistry of the artists. However, when you look back a few decades people were figuring out how to combine genres in ways that didn’t pander and got the art out there.

Here is one of my favorite clips of Beverly Sills https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmEFfeYRWeI

to me her incredible joy and generosity are as enthralling as the music and singing. She is creating an event for everyone to enjoy – herself and us.

Here she is with Danny Kaye https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZEzVbGzbNg

I don’t know if this kind of thing is possible anymore, but reading this blog post reminded me of my Beverly Sills binge.

I wish you all good things and for opera to flourish.

Rick Davis

Beautiful argument. Robert Edmond Jones makes a similar point in “The Dramatic Imagination” writing about the actors of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre: “As one watched those players, one saw what they knew. I kept saying to myself… Who are these rare beings? Where did they come from? How have they spent their lives? Who are their friends? What music they must have heard, what books they must have read, what emotions they must have felt! They literally enchanted me. They put me under a spell. And when the curtain came down at the end of the play, they had become necessary to me.” They were, in short, exactly what you mean when you say “attractive.” And therefore necessary. Thanks for opening this door.

Musical Toronto

[…] Trap Opera’s Kim Witman wrote a great blog post from the point of view of an opera company, where the urge to “pander” and take a cue […]

Paul Appleby

Countervail, I take offense to your chastising us to “get off our high horses.” I don’t think any one involved in producing opera whether it is executives, directors, designers, conductors, singers or stage crew take your condescending dismissal of our genuine desire to grow and evolve as artists and make a meaningful experience for our audiences will find your words helpful. Clearly everyone in this thread has different opinions as to how we should think about this issue, but all these comments come from the desire that Kim has encouraged us to adopt to discuss and address this issue as a unified community that recognizes we share the same goal. Yours do not.

Darcy Walker

Kim – you are so spot on. It is about the voice first
For that is what distinguishes opera. I fell in love with opera watching Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne sing Norma – hefty souls in duets that stirred the soul. Recently it was Stephanie Blythe
at the Met Singing Freida sitting in a CHAIR and totally capturing the audience OMG. The rise of video, opera in the movie theaters and the use of theater directors have all lead to the greater visual emphasis, often at the cost of good vocal
Quality. In addition, many companies do no vocally balance their productions, bringing in one superstar and the rest are almost filler. So visual wins. Finally the singers themselves become
Anonymous with small voices dependent on amplification, taking roles they are no where ready to sing, homogenous social media personalities,
Star quality when they walk in a room is missing.
Passion in the singing is dulled. Maria Callas
Swallowed her consonants and went off pitch – but her performances grabbed you and made you listen. Singers should be respectful of their bodies but also be able to support the sound they want to make. Opera is about the imagination and suspended rational reality. It is grand and glorious and glamorous and totally over the top ( how many modern operas get in regular rotation?) opera reveres the voice and it’s athleticism and variety and nuance. A beautiful presence can not compensate for a dull, technical, emotionally uninspired voice. Even Mozart’s bawdy operas for the masses always put the voice first. There were no compromises. Although I go to the movie
Broadcast – there is no substitute for a live performance with all its in the moment risk taking.
The visual of the full stage versus perpetual close ups and constant camera movement “to keep it interesting” rather than to sit back and stare and let the music drag you in. Ah well – I also think
Virtual reality play is a poor substitute for actually doing. Keep up the good work.

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