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  • Blake Hill-Saya

Stereotypes, the Culture of Suppression, and Hearing Your Own Voice at the Opera House

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” The genius of this quote is that it not only elucidates relativity, it’s darned relatable. It even has an element of impish Charlie Chaplin style humor to it. Einstein is a household name because he was a game changing genius, but also because his branding and public image was both compelling and reductive. Most people can rattle off “E = mc2”, tell you what Einstein looked like and many people even have a favorite quote they attribute to him. Very few can tell you the difference between Special Relativity and General Relativity or even what the above formula stands for. Most people are content with the label of Genius, the wild white shock of hair, and the German accent. Most don’t know he never even delivered the witty quote above. It was attributed to him anecdotally, but in quotes, by a New York Times article in 1929.

So, what am I getting at here with this opening example of a man whose name is synonymous with mad scientist? It is this: When complex subject matter is given a relatable and funny brand short hand it can become a household name for reasons that have very little to do with that thing, person or product.

How do these cartoonish ways of thinking about complex systems serve us? Our brains have a lot going on, and, if it isn’t an emergency or about survival socially or physically, it can just decide we know enough about something or someone and keep moving. It can become very hard to push past the perceived “work” of learning something new, when our tired brain wants easy stereotypes to relax to. The thing is, our brain plasticity doesn’t benefit from this junk food learning landscape, nor does it serve us to live by stereotypes. We have certainly learned a lot about our inner shorthand of stereotypes about race for instance this year and how they are sustained and fed by lack of authentic representation and interactions.

So, what pushes us through the discomfort or “work” of getting to know more than a pop culture reinforced or reductive brand image? I think it’s a combination of curiosity, personal stake in the outcome, and the ready availability of elucidating material. For instance, have you ever learned about something overnight that a person you wanted to date or work for is really into? That doesn’t feel like work, because suddenly it matters. Curiosity, stake holding and the empathy we gain from filling in the empty spaces behind reductive branding can spark a new awareness of all stereotypical thinking. Don’t get me wrong, stereotypes can tell a story or a joke quicker than most things, it’s why the advertising world loves them. I am arguing that a whole new world of nuanced understanding opens up behind the short hand of the stereotype if we delve into their origins and usages. Einstein’s household name status, for instance, made Star Trek possible, and every science fiction comic or novel or movie with a time machine in it or a spaceship passing through a worm hole part of our collective imagination. He catapulted us beyond Galileo and Newton into a world of thought that is only being substantiated by actual research and technology in the last ten years. His creative imagination and his limitless curiosity were the foundation of his genius.

Ok, so you may be getting by now that Opera has also been the victim of reductive branding in our nation’s cultural landscape. The average non-opera-going person, in fact, comes up with the following Pavlovian responses when asked about opera:

Opera is only for rich old white people

Opera is too loud too boring and too long

Opera is Phantom of the Opera

Opera is incomprehensible and always in a foreign language

Opera is not sexy

Opera is not about modern life

Opera is over when the “fat lady” sings

Opera is always expensive and only happens in big cities

If people had to pick a cartoon image for opera they nearly always pick a corpulent blonde woman with horns, braids, a breastplate and a spear.

Where did these images and assumptions come from?

Step into my time machine…

First, we need to remember that the United States of America was born during the Rococo or Late Baroque era. Imagine Gluck, Bach and Mozart and the most ornate and gilded period of art and aristocracy as the backdrop for the American Revolution. Our rugged American colonial sensibilities pushed back against the frippery, excess and tyranny of the English Sovereign. The classical arts became a symbol of that excess and the depravity of the European aristocracy in contrast to our more puritan sensibilities. After the formation of The United States, however, northern states in particular launched a campaign for literacy, and public schools were established. Educational resources, were focused, however, in town centers and the rural population tended to have less access. This trajectory of education also includes large numbers of people of color because after emancipation there was a similar push toward literacy fueled by largely northern philanthropy. There were also literate land owning free people of color, even in colonial times, and they often taught others in their own community. It was a rocky journey, but literacy and education have been prized for generations among communities of color because it was for many years the gateway to respectability, even during segregation. By the 1800s The U. S. had developed a little aristocracy of our own in the Cotton Plantations of the south and the Railroads, and shipping barons of the North. The European Tour became the finishing touch on the education of any upper class young man and the purchase of the coming out wardrobe and the ensuing Bridal Trousseau in Paris were the making of any eligible young lady. By the 1870’s (post-Civil War) and early 20th Century, American upper class society, like the kind you find reflected in Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”, (written in 1919 but set in 1870) were largely responsible for claiming the classical arts as exclusive to their social circles. This era was very aptly titled The Gilded Age. Where else could they show off their jewels, dresses made by Mr. Worth in Paris and their social associations and machinations, if not at the opera house, the museum and the concert hall. Artists became their own sub class and were permitted to move in and out of polite society based on their popularity and patronage, bringing news and gossip from the “demi monde” or the “real” world that the respectable dare not enter. Wharton perfectly captures the emptiness and constriction of this echelon of society as well as the dependability of it to those who profited from it’s rules. The exceptionalism and culture of both turning a blind eye to but also being delighted by the eccentricities of artists was born in this era as well.

The Vaudeville halls and Circuses were billed and priced “for the Common Man.” P.T. Barnum, however, still persuaded the Swedish Opera sensation and fashion icon Jenny Lind to go on an American tour with him, briefly blurring the lines of the social ranks to the delight and titillation of all. The operetta and vaudeville eventually gave birth to the movie house. Mass produced commodified entertainment for the masses, no matter how lavish or condescending, became preferable to the hoity toity opera house. It was certainly more affordable and available to a hard working public.

Marian Anderson’s extraordinary operatic contralto voice broke race and class barriers in 1939 when she stood proudly at the Lincoln Memorial (she was banned from any indoor stage) and sang God Bless America at a time of horrific racial strife. Her voice mattered in that moment and her classical technique and queen like carriage belied her status as a second class citizen in a nation who needed her to help keep the peace.

When the movies started to offer a cartoon with every feature and advertising started to pick up speed in the 30s and 40s, a disdain for anything foreign began to be fashionable, as we were at war first WWI, then WWII. The stereotypes began to be assigned: French was naughty and wanton, German became the eternal accent of the villain or the comic relief. British accents became the voice of reason. The American cinema and TV became the engine of propaganda, stereotypes racism and xenophobia of all kinds. Simplified heroes and villains were calming in times of war and depression, and the glorification of the American plain dealing working class hero soothed the public consciousness. Neo classical and art filled environments became synonymous with the greed of the wealthy. William Randolph Hearst, for instance, brought half of Europe home in crates, everything was for sale in the wreckage of war, to adorn his San Simeon mansion. Opera became the fairly exclusive domain and social patronage of the very wealthy.

Still, when the Bugs Bunny cartoon of Wagner and the Barber of Seville came out in 1957, most people were still aware enough of classical music and opera to be in on the joke. Classical musicians like Leopold Stokowski had pop culture value on par with movie stars, he even married Gloria Vanderbilt! Van Cliburn had a ticker tape parade in NYC when he arrived home from winning a piano competition in Moscow in 1958. In many ways the 1960s and 70’s were the golden age of opera stars and great singing, not to mention social change. The Met broadcast found its way into many homes starting in 1977, and it built audiences as well as memories for many who are loyal opera fans today.

If you think about it, the people who have been branded as opera’s demographic audience were children or young adults during that golden age of opera that stretched well into the opera star system of the 80’s. Their generation still had arts and music as part of their public schooling and the movies and cartoons and TV they grew up with thought that when Bugs Bunny had his ears slicked back and was wearing a tux everyone would get the joke if people whispered “Leopold” (meaning Stokowski).

As a final point of reference, look at a graph (here are several) outlining income inequality in the American 19th and 20thcentury. The gaping chasm of income inequality that defined the Gilded Age is back, and has been our reality since 2008. The eroding of the social and educational programs and the taxation that acted as levelers between the classes begins right about the year 1970. This also marks the beginning of the decline in popularity of the classical arts in the mainstream consciousness.

Culture always suffers when life is too hard for people to have the time to think about, consume and build it. The more stressed you are about the cost of living the less you want to learn new things in your down time. The more the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, the more the poor resent anything that indicates old money wealth, leisure or gilded age luxury. Can you blame people for not feeling welcome? The current backlash in our society against the educated or the excellent in favor of a circus or reality TV is not surprising. Life is exhausting, fame is more lucrative than excellence and diplomas seem to be for sale to the highest bidder. Advertising has capitalized on mainstream disillusionment with higher education, classical music and opera to sell with repetitive stereotypes, jokes and tropes. Cue the howling lady with the spear. Cue the pizza commercials. Cue the mad genius who eats livers with fava beans and also happens to air conduct Mozart while he does it.

Exit time machine.

So, here is my list of what Opera isn’t:

Opera isn’t only for rich old white people, it was written, in fact, for the youthful, restless, hungry spirit. Opera is written mostly by the outcasts and misfits of society. They wrote about their pain, their lives, their hopes and their loves. They were writing for you.

Opera isn’t too loud: it delivers a more complete sound profile than any of your digital devices or recordings, most of which damp off all of the lower partials. Opera can seem loud because it is engaging more of your senses, your little hairs stand up on your arms, your ears feel “full” because they are receiving complete spectrums of sound. Opera is much less loud than any feature film, or pop concert, or your average bar.

Opera is very rarely boring, and most are pretty action packed, we really do worry about keeping you engaged. Opera can be long, but opera can also be only 40 minutes, and these days One Act operas are being single billed.

Opera is NOT Phantom of the Opera. It’s just not. However, Sir Andrew “quotes“ (steals) a portion of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West aria “quello che tacete” as the Music of the Night theme, so that part is. The rule of thumb is, if it runs seven nights a week, and everyone is always on a mic, it’s not opera. No disrespect intended here; music theater show people are incredible artists, but they don’t have to project into a theater over an orchestra acoustically, that requires operatic technique. It would be like comparing a gymnast to a ballerina, they can do similar things but they are two very different and very valid art forms.

Opera isn’t incomprehensible, there are always supertitles even in the smallest houses. If you can follow a foreign film, or a silent film, or a Korean Soap opera you can follow any opera. Opera is not always in a foreign language, there are many truly wonderful operas in English.

Opera isn’t sexless, it’s extremely sexy! Opera is mostly about sex, romance, war, social intrigue – where do you think Game of Thrones got it?

Opera isn’t antiquated, it is very much about modern life. There is nothing more modern than love, murder, lies and power dynamics. Tosca, for instance, is about police brutality, sexual assault, espionage, torture, class warfare, religious crisis, murder, execution and suicide. Sound like 2020 to you?

Opera isn’t over when the “fat lady” sings, it’s usually over when everyone sings together or somebody dies. Opera is sung by every size, shape, gender and ethnicity. Stay tuned for even more diversity in the years to come. “Fat lady” is frankly a mean spirited and outdated term. Let’s make the “fat lady” trope go the way of the racist lawn sculpture, shall we? The amazing thing about opera is that the gift happens in every kind of human being. Finally, I will say that opera is a sport and, no matter what your body type, if you are not physically fit the costumes, lights, action, and musculature required to get over an orchestra into a 3,000 seat house is a killer. I have always trained like an athlete to be an opera singer and the first question asked on many first days of rehearsal by most singers present is “where is the gym?” We simply would not survive the schedule, the stress and the travel without fitness.

Opera isn’t always expensive. Most houses have rush rates, senior rates, student rates and many special packages for your organization, school or social group. If an opera company knows you have a group that wants to go to a show, chances are they will find a way to get you there. Be inquisitive. Ask the box office, look for groupons, or pay what you would for dinner and a movie for a one of a kind, irreplaceable experience. I can guarantee you that opera will never cost what Hamilton did.

Opera isn’t just in big cities. Chances are there is an opera company near you. I have sung in towns that have populations only slightly larger than the size of the audience present. Those were incredible nights.

So, how is your sense of opera relativity coming along? Do you see your own journey reflected in the changing image of the classical arts in our culture? Are you curious about what the classical arts might have to say to you?

What if I removed the “fat lady “cartoon along with the Einstein mad scientist caricature and replaced them with a beautiful gilded mirror, and the glorious fabric of the space-time continuum? Would you see yourself, the stories you have loved and your dreams mirrored there?

Now close your eyes, and press play… and listen like it was written just for you.

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