This is the first week of the last month in a year that has changed us all. Some of those changes are profound and some are permanent. Today, I sang for a socially distanced graveside funeral. I watched as the six attendees tried to demonstrate to each other from six to ten feet apart and through masks their love and support for one another. I stood under a tree next to my car until it was my turn, and then I walked to my position, unmasked behind my face shield and twenty feet or more from the congregants. I stood alone next to the AstroTurf draped mound of earth and tried to sing audibly, in a safe direction, and in a way that would matter as the traffic crackled and honked in the distance. As I sang, I saw out of the corner of my eye that those who had arrived together were reaching for one another’s hands or arms. I relaxed, knowing that, in spite of all of the awkwardness and the barriers we are all navigating in order to live through these days, I was still able to do my job. Live music was achieving in that moment what it was invented to deliver; it was making people reach for one another.
The experience of live music in any setting is at its core communal. An opera audience is a community that forms and dissipates on the appointed day, but is forever part of the world created by each performance and production. A year without theater and live music has brought home more than ever the specificity of the need for community and catharsis that the performing arts fill. I think we use live music and theater to wake us and shake us into feeling more human, and in turn more connected to other humans. We reach for each other in the dark, we arrive together in the moment. We heal, celebrate and communicate under a common roof. We make common memories.
I have covered in previous posts how opera brings people together. I have unpacked how regional opera companies in particular both feed and enrich the communities they live in, not only culturally and socially but financially. I have compared locally produced and funded opera to the joys of locally sourced epicurean offerings. I have worked to dispel the misconception that the excellence of an operatic production is not determined by the real estate on which it occurs. I write about these things because I regularly feel the resistance of a kind of force field of misconception that surround opera, classical music as a whole, and regional opera in particular when I engage with my peers in other professions.
I often wonder, when the reaction to a classical vocal technique in settings that are not cloaked in the opera house mystique are so reliably positive, what the source of that resistance and antipathy really is? This is especially perplexing when a regional opera company, that reflects and caters to a specific community, stands ready to close that gap. Have we really done all we can to make every kind of audience member feel engaged and welcome, or are we telling ourselves a self-defeating, or worse, a self-serving fable about being misunderstood?
I am regularly struck, for instance, by the common assumption that one has to be an afficionado of classical music in order to enjoy it or seek it out. “I would love to go to the opera one day,” an associate recently said to me, “but I really don’t know anything about it.” I felt so sad that an art form that I am certain she would enjoy had caused her to feel so unqualified. And yet, I thought, no one need be an afficionado of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” to enjoy its triumphant gravitas when graduation day comes along. By the same token, no one seems to need to study up on the bridal march from Wagner’s Lohengrin before they weep through it on their best friend’s wedding day. Carmina Burana by Karl Orff needs no explanation when it is used to make us laugh at mournful dogs getting their nails clipped on Tiktok or gasp in anticipation at a new action movie trailer. You see what I’m getting at here, right? Opera and classical music are already part of most lives, not a pop quiz or an exclusive club. You already know a lot about opera and classical music, and I guarantee it has already touched your life. We as a society regularly call on classical music masterpieces when we need to feel big feelings, sell big ideas or mark life defining occasions. So, the question becomes, why are the classical arts still perceived as such an ill-fitting garment in the regular cultural wardrobe of the American zeitgeist?
I believe that the force field of misunderstanding around opera is perpetuated by a noxious short hand of stereotypes that have come to represent this art form in the regular absence of any stronger messaging or defining experience. It is pretty frustrating, for instance, to have to explain over and over again that Phantom of the Opera is NOT an opera. You can’t fuss, however, when “opera” is in the title and most folks seem unmotivated to access a clarifying definition, even if it’s one click away. The performing arts consumer is perfectly capable, however, of discernment given a clear message and the empowerment to participate. Stereotypes are powerful, however, and they will keep winning if we don’t work at dispelling them.
The fact is, there are precious few modern, affordable and accessible ways to encounter opera in an environment that is both welcoming and undiluted. Opera itself, up until very recently, has also been loath to dispense with its implicit pedestal. It has also not been at all diligent in defending and defining its product in the media. Opera has allowed itself to be either a shorthand for elitism or the butt of the joke in everything from TV Shows and movies to commercials for cars, pizza and pasta sauce. Opera singers are always portrayed as annoying, shrill, hefting spears, being morphed into something cooler by Alexa or eye rolled at by sitcom stars on a bad blind date. Some films have beautifully featured opera, but this is not the norm. Notice how every serial killer is a classical music fan for instance? This messaging in the greater media space is so pervasive that no matter how the boots on the ground like me work to dispel it, there is a default setting that simply clicks opera back into the position of “antiquated, incomprehensible, sinister and just not for me”. If opera was a movie star or a brand like Nike it would have a battery of lawyers sending cease and desist letters and suing for libel! Listen, good marketing strategy has changed the public perception of everything from the British Royal Family to pharmaceuticals for conditions we could barely whisper about in polite conversation ten years ago. This image problem could be remedied, if we deployed the necessary will and modern expertise.
Now could be a truly groundbreaking window in which to rewrite the scripts that have disenchanted a segment of our audience for generations. When live venues are safe again, I believe that there will be a new hunger for live musical experiences the likes of which we have never seen in our century. Regional opera has a unique opportunity to make hungry audiences not only feel welcomed in the classical music realm, but also involved and represented. Regional opera has the embedded community position and can mint a newly advantageous message of accessibility, if we choose to lean into it. Now is our indie film/indie rock style opportunity to rebrand community opera as an asset and not a stigma, and to roll out new strategies of authentic and excellent engagement. Now is our Sundance and Coachella founding moment. Now is also the time, in my opinion, to encourage the exfoliation of our elitist edifice. Let’s move closer and trust the power of good art to bloom in a climate of authenticity. If we expect new audiences to be vulnerable to us, we have to strive to be more vulnerable to them. Opera may have been invented by idealists and intellectuals, but it was meant to take up where Greek tragedy left off. It has always been designed to make us reach for each other, and heal.
Community is what has gotten us through the wilderness of this year, and will continue to be what we lean on as we struggle forward. There is nothing second rate or sub-standard about that realization. It may in fact be our saving grace. Our community is, after all, our personal galaxy. Nothing makes the stars shine brighter than darkness and a clarifying wind of change to blow the clouds away.