Opera Tomorrow: Wolf Trap Today

The question came at the front end of a litany of others — climbing out on that limb was Ned Canty, Memphis Opera’s general director.
It’s fair to say that opera aficionados are resolved about what elements must be present for opera to be named such, lest it be reduced to something unrecognizable. Talks like this one, presented by Wolf Trap Opera, moderated by general director Kim Witman, offer a glimpse into what younger people think about opera and what opera is becoming. In many ways, this talk flew open some crusty old opera doors, letting in fresh air and engaging perspectives.
Any conversation regarding what opera is eventually turns back to an inextricable, though arguable, truth: many of the entrenched attitudes associated with the art form are Eurocentric in origins. Who better then to account for that from an insider’s vantage point than personnel from Vienna Staatsoper?
Vienna head of music Kathleen Kelly says that opera has long attracted what amounts to groupies interested in the separation tied to being part of the art form. Opera once stood for “intellectual achievement, success.” This “high art” paradigm no longer holds, nor is it such a draw. Kelly’s claim seems to be particularly the case in the United States, where “high” means exclusive, exclusive means small, and as Kelly put it, “bigger is better in America.”
Baritone and director of artistic administration at Arizona Opera Ryan Taylor came into this part of the conversation, reminding that opera is relatively new in the states. Another rather bitter, and often dodged, issue that haunts opera is, “there are so many barriers to entry.” Opera can evince very visceral feelings; Taylor gave a cinematic anecdote as an example. A person may dislike a certain film, but does not condemn and summarily abandon the art form altogether. On the surface, this analogy persuades.
Look closer and you will find that it is misleading to compare opera to any other medium; it is not axiomatically flawed to use art forms contained in another as a benchmark for the larger’s value? There is more to opera’s elusive nature. Opera may be the art form that asks the most from its audience. A past colleague that was introduced to his first opera as my guest described it well: “there’s so much.” As if it isn’t enough to be aware that there’s so much, opera intelligentsia pride themselves on accumulating vast storehouses of knowledge and expertise on all areas covered in opera, from singing and technique, to orchestral arrangements and conducting, to stagecraft and theater, and still much more.
This may explain why opera suffers from first impression bias in a way unprecedented. A negative first opera experience could very well be a person’s last. That is to say, if opera is even given a chance. I shan’t soon forget the comment of a prospective friend early on in the getting-to-know-you process. “I’ll never go to an opera,” he stared right at me.
The gentleman, an attorney, said this in a relationship-defining way. Among other things, this struck me as severely astigmatic. It seemed to me that an esquire had much to gain, incidentally by widening his grandiloquence and discourse cache, and directly in the connections and partnerships that can emerge from attending any cultural event.
Baritone James Maddalena flies right by the short-lived fixes that lead to even shorter-term results of marketing schemes aimed at getting bodies in seats. The merchandizing gimmicks, coupon phenomena, and near publicity stunts (“opera at the airport”) taking up a chunk of opera advertising budgets may succeed in getting a person in for a scene, an act, or even an entire performance.
Maddelena wants to “keep them there.” The baritone, of course, means to entice the audience into taking more and closer steps towards the art form, to nurture, guide and produce a new generation of opera fan. For this, Maddelena says the story of the opera is what is needed.
Urban Arias executive director Robert Wood scaffolds onto that notion; a great part of the budget of this “baby company” goes to generating and disseminating media with the express purpose of telling the story of operas it is presenting. When an audience member knows “what the story is about,” their experience come show time is enhanced. It is clear that getting past this primary part of the opera learning curve, the different elements that make an opera special come together.
“We are the original multi-media experience,” David Devan of Opera Philadelphia comes in with contagious conviction. Singing in the classical style is but one part of the operatic experience. Opera requires someone to write the words (the poetry to be sung), music, an orchestra and conductor, sets and the requisite art to create them, costuming, makeup and has stage and theater components.
Devan is eager to answer for the United States and opera being a good match. It may be early on in the relationship but the music genre, and the philosophies that have guided it, are in alignment with American ideals. Entrepreneurship, individualism, capitalism, beauty, freedom and growth are all engrained in operatic culture from its origins.
An operatic production begins with an idea, a single thought set forth by a vision. That goes on to a pre-planning stage, and molds of a production are sketched by individuals trained to perform specific tasks. The whole of this is funded by donors, by their will, for their pleasure.
Artists perform and entertain through and in their roles; they refine their craft with each move, phrase and turn. Each piece is committed to. At show time, artists are on their own to create and beautify, beauty being the ultimate result and the engine that stimulates interest. Opera is produced with the goal to have profits redistributed and funneled into the creation of more opera. Each new season is an opportunity to improve on the one prior.
For Devan, luring and hooking a new audience goes past merely teaching the opera story. The challenge is finding an “X factor.” For an opera-goer to become an opera learner, that particular person in the seats must connect to a particular something. Whether it be registering a high level of personalization in a performance as Devan isolated, or accessing a connection through an already established interest in costuming or staging as Witman addressed, or having the quality of a voice speak to you, or lighting up from colors and images in a set — any one spark can set off a love affair with opera that can last a lifetime.
Devan’s comments could easily be interpreted as a call-to-action for the young artist. Wolf Trap apprentice singers and other musicians, as well as guests, and patrons were assembled on this Saturday afternoon, July 14th. The talk was free and open (quite — the woodsy glen beyond Wolf Trap’s campus offices played backdrop) to the public.
Many topic threads and current professional issues were presented and still more branched out from these, interconnecting with specific concerns and anxieties. From the questions — what is opera, what makes opera, how does an artist market themselves, will there always be an audience, do I have to go to Europe, how does a performer stay current and vital, is there a new audience out there somewhere, how do we keep them coming to opera, what will this art form look like — one theme ran consistent and overarching. What do I do?
“Inspire,” just work your craft, responded an aspiring singer. Another interjected, asking whether that would be enough. To close that thread, another singer said that is what’s important. The pull to keep up with fast times was expressed by one singer. What if we “missed out on an opportunity” by not having material on the internet? The issue of artist responsibility came up either expressly or by implication several times. To illustrate how easily this thinking can get out of hand, the issue of “image,” and its negative stereotypes, was brought up.
Fabricating something from nothing leads to more nothing, a baseless creative abyss. An artist can train in any part of their craft, improving on it, but each has a very personal something to offer an audience. While one response was rather systematic, “if we know our brands,” her ending statement was well-placed: nothing else matters. As an artist, the challenge is to create with a sense of becoming. This ties into Devan’s idea from earlier. Take that quality that shines in you — vocal color, personalization of performance, intimacy in creating a characterization — and feed it, build on it, make it grow.
An apprentice singer turned the idea of story inward, into “the story that I have.” Her testimonial included how she often shares her road to opera with others. In the inner-city streets of New York City, “nobody follows their dream.” This idea works in at least two ways. It can serve as a model, to seek out goals, to forge ahead down the road of most resistance. It can also serve as a way to vicariously live out the heart-swelling inflatus of overcoming odds and becoming all that one can be.
This process is for the courageous, and is always facilitated by a village, outside sources that identify that certain something pleading to be developed and that caution about the difficulties that will be part of the journey. Social networking’s place in the business occupied a good part of the discussion as artists seek counsel on what to look for when navigating the dizzying font of net social outlets.
Budget-conscious advice was offered by Gotham Chamber Opera’s artistic director Neal Goren. Lawrence Brownlee once discussed with Goren how he and his family decided early on to allot a percentage of their budget to marketing. That has remained unchanged for the Brownlees as his career has progressed. Brownlee spends money on areas that distinguish him as an artist and that will improve his career. Witman also encouraged managing costs, by maximizing effective communications and shifting perspectives for the artist, turning the idea of responsibility to opportunity.
Kelly spoke of something that might help starting artists make sense of Witman’s turn on words, stating that degree of internet presence, and the time an artist devotes to that, should be relative to the artist’s place in their career. Publicity at any one place in time must match goals. To start off, musicians need to connect with people in the business that interest them at some level.
“Follow people you find interesting,” and get on track with a message Kenneth Weiss, assistant conductor and principal coach at Washington National Opera, seemed to suggest. A consistent train of thought here, heard in the concerns of performers and responded to by panelists, was one of desiring to keep communications manageable. While it is obvious that for most musicians, a strictly terrestrial presence is like professional extinction, too much or low quality online advertising can be just as detrimental. A slack internet presence makes it “harder for us to find you,” put in Mr. Wood.
To get down to basics, Goren suggests having at least a sound file uploaded and accessible. Goren informed about a program in the works at Opera America, essentially online portfolios with “live feeds” of performances to accompany the resumes and personal information of a performer. This will be available in real time, all the time.
Devan gave this piece of practical advice, ask yourself “what parts of me am I prepared to share?” In keeping with the thread of efficiency in communications, Devan told aspiring performers to do a marketing inventory “twice a year” and to consider it “professional activity” like any other, dovetailing the Brownlee anecdote about attending to diffuse areas to improve one’s career.
Devan sounds like an advocate of outsourcing, a message perhaps a step ahead of this audience and in conflict with Kelly’s. It is still something to communicate, a lesson that can come in handy later. “Management” makes a difference. They “move the artist’s brand out.” Devan said flatly, “build a team.” Both Witman and Taylor gave examples of performers that changed publicists and had their careers dramatically and positively transformed overnight.
Composer Lori Laitman made a case for drawing sharp distinctions between online business contacts and fan base communications. She indicated that, along with making contact with opera administration personnel, artists should get to know their audience. Her message appeared to be about having opportunities advance out of compatibility. Several panelists agreed that finding common ground in interests outside of opera was an effective way to connect with others in online social networking.
These outside interests can be a conduit through which to attract newcomers to opera, a way to “pierce some of those barriers,” as Taylor follows his previous phrase. Providing a clear and direct expression of the story of an opera has already been offered as a means to have a green audience turn evergreen for their interest in opera.
There are other known holes to, or missing pieces in, a neophyte’s understanding of opera. Some of these were acknowledged in this discussion. Witman stated the obvious, the many things happening beyond that first row of seats is happening “live.”
When made to understand this, many are quite surprised and impressed by the mere fact. “Is it the acoustic quality,” when exposed en masse, that will ultimately bring in a whole new generation of opera fans, asked Mr. Canty. A gentleman in the audience, identifying himself as a Wolf Trap performance regular, told us that new audiences are often relieved to find out that surtitles are provided as part of opera performances.
In the HD theater medium that has taken opera by storm, Witman finds a powerful vehicle to transmit “the power of story.” HD, she believes, can provide a closeness that is felt more strongly and is more immediate than an opera house experience. If only to tap into a newcomer’s curiosity, and waning attention span, HD serves a useful purpose.
Information derived from surveys filled out at Houston Grand Opera’s HD screenings suggests that audiences might be calling for a return to the performance practices of “Mozart’s time,” as Taylor put it. In 18th century Vienna, patrons sat and spoke out loud, they played poker in boxes and carried on as a performance went on. Kelly cited that those polled preferred having the luxury of getting up as they pleased, moving around, and eating food in the theater as they do in HD performances.
At about this time, a singer-to-be asked another difficult question of panelists, “why are European theaters attracting youth?” A gush of engrossing information resulted. Kelly came in with little delay, “size of venue.” Most opera houses in Europe were built when orchestrations were rather small in scope and at a time when squeezing patrons together and filling every single seat was not a high priority.
The seat furthest from the stage there is much closer to the stage than its equal standard of measure in the US. The intimacy of that is hard to compete with; the audience has a chance to become more attuned to staging, music, and yes, story. Kelly sees that the communicative opportunities are greater in number and take less effort to receive.
“It’s alive in the culture,” Kelly added, prompting the debate over whether enough is being done in this country to support the arts, through funding its organizations and appealing for its presence in public education curricula. Regardless, opera in the US is experimenting with native forms, taking a road of its own, if not yet a defined direction. It is safe to say that, if successful here, these performance practices will spread out elsewhere.
A young composer in the audience sought to get a feel for what is happening in contemporary operatic composition. He asked whether electronic, dance music, was being integrated into writing for voice and orchestra. That was responded to quickly and affirmatively by Woods who apparently has worked with musicians that are creating this very fusion now.
Maddelena has come to represent the cutting edge of performance practices in opera. His is an insider’s view on, and a voice for, opera stretching past its comfort zones. In Death and the Powers, Maddelena plays Simon Powers, a metaphorical representation of a soul in the throes of technological over-corruption. What role does suffering play in a human life? To what lengths will humanity go in the pursuit of denying and eliminating pain, Tod Machover (composer) and Robert Pinsky (librettist) seem to ask in “Powers.”
The opera delves into man’s quest to conquer nature, and the ultimate fate of all being, battling the circle of life. Powers handles existential suffering by attempting to cheat it, using his bottomless bank account to produce a virtual world with an endless existence. Powers metamorphoses from a run-of-the-mill corporate goon to a computer-enhanced voice-box and cyber-being.
This disfigurement is literally embodied (or disembodied) in singing and through the vocal and orchestral line. Maddelena leaves the stage for the pit, singing into a microphone that digitizes and distorts tones into machine-like stridencies and other odd sounds. His physiological reactions are further caught and displayed digitally as part of the set. To many, this disqualifies the work from it being categorized as opera. It is too great a departure from the traditional structure of operatic practice. But there was also a time when any work under two hours in playing time was considered outside operatic parameters. Whether any of these additions, or versions, take hold and continue as a subset of the art form is a matter of wait-and-see.
For opera in America to survive, most panelists agreed that the art form will have to continue to produce more “American” works with more American flavors. For opera to survive in general there may have to be a loosening of purist ideals of what opera is. Witman called “pop-opera” — the world of such international sensations as Susan Boyle, Paul Potts, Il Volo, and nearer on the outside rim, Andrea Bocelli — “valid.” This attitude makes some in opera cringe.
Singling out academies that pump out opera professionals, some panelists picked out areas that need improvement if the art form is to grow and expand. Composer Laitman spoke of the importance of dialogue on stage, the language component as a primary driving force behind keeping opera vital. Institutions need to place more value on text.
On a side tack, educating librettists and all stage personnel on modern practices in theatrics and acting is on the mind of Mr. Wood. This is to make the most of stage opportunities and to satisfy audiences for whom matters vocal are secondary, or further down the list of matters of interest. Mr. Weiss also sees stage direction, and the evolving of operatic practices therein, as a vital step forward.
“How can we keep this industry alive and thriving?” Perhaps getting absolute and definitive answers to Mr. Canty’s, or anyone’s, questions is beside the point. Perhaps the point to talks like Wolf Trap’s is to create awareness, find that we are thinking many similar thoughts, to poke and prod — knocking convention and artifice off-balance. Perhaps our questions answer themselves.
There are people in positions and circles of influence, poising themselves to find solutions, actualize propositions, and open bridges and avenues of support for the future of opera. There are those that keep tradition alive, the way to keep operatic standards intact for that audience. There will always be those that value voice above all things, and theaters for them to go.
For audiences ready to push the envelope, that constantly ask through action what opera is, whether it must be what it was or become something else, there will be a place. There will be companies that cater to the apprentice and that nurture the questions and exploration of the performer’s craft and of their place in the art form.
There will be venues whose mission it is to produce opera as one holistic spectacle. Other companies will play to specific areas, all in accord with an emphasis and resources. Different companies will have different emphases.
To opera fan and performer, be comforted in knowing your place is secured.
There will be room…
To ticket sales personnel, please announce a curtain time with an hour’s head start to your LivingSocial customers. I beg you this one falsehood for the sake of those of us with public transport to catch, desiring a reasonable bedtime, or partying after the opera.
Make room…
R Carreras

image_description=David Devan [Photo by Opera Company of Philadelphia]
product_title=Opera Tomorrow: Wolf Trap Today
product_id=Above: David Devan [Photo by Opera Company of Philadelphia]