OPINION: In praise of the modern opera

The average audience age at the Metropolitan Opera — one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world — was 57 years old in 2011, according to The New York Times.

The truth, no matter how much music purists want to deny it, is that opera is struggling to stay relevant as an art form in the modern age. Opera houses are facing constant financial struggles and a steep decline in viewership and are now relying more on a small pool of loyal donors to sustain operations, according to The New York Times.

Opera is often times faced with apathy or even animosity as it is perceived by many to be an outdated, elitist institution that’s resistant to change and modernity.

Much of this attitude is shaped by the operas that are performed regularly on the big stages of the Metropolitan Opera House, LA Opera or La Scala. While it would be difficult to reject the astounding artistic and musical merits of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” or Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata,” these classics are often characterized with one-dimensional plots and archetypal character development that do not engage well with modern audiences.

The art form also falls out of love with modern audiences because there are elements of implicit or even overt racism and misogyny within many of the most iconic operas. Up until the past five years, the practice of wearing blackface makeup in opera had been widely accepted at the Metropolitan Opera and other large opera houses; in fact, in 2017, world-famous singer Anna Netrebko wore blackface for a production of Verdi’s “Aida” at the Salzburg Festival, according to Van Magazine.

Opera houses around the world still stage productions of Richard Wagner’s operas, even though he was vehemently anti-semitic, and elements of anti-semitism seeped into many of his major works, such as “Der Ring Des Nibelungen.” Puccini’s “La bohème” and “Madama Butterfly” purport orientalist stereotypes in the portrayal of Chinese and Japanese characters. 

While it’s important to acknowledge and treat operas as a product of their time, it’s understandable why modern audiences are apprehensive and critical toward the genre.

However, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini do not make up the complete picture of the opera. Modern classical composers have made incredible strides to reinvent the opera as a dynamic and accessible art form that reflects on contemporary social and political issues. 

Modern opera productions have adopted multidimensional, engaging story lines, complex character development and have utilized technology as a part of stage design. John Adams was one of the first composers to give new definition to the opera with “Nixon in China” (1987), which is centered around Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. 

The opera portrays the palpable tension between Nixon and Mao Tse-tung, as they and their wives engaged in elaborate political theatrics. The opera features extraordinary stage design (there is a whole airplane on stage!), and some of the best music written for singers and orchestra — see Madame Mao’s fierce aria “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.”

“Nixon in China” was revolutionary in its use of a recent historical and political event and paved the way for many more in the years to come. 

Since “Nixon in China,” composers have continually pushed the limit of the opera. Philip Glass’ opera, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” based on the namesake novel by J. M. Coetzee, portrays a fictional Empire in which the Magistrate of the Empire falls in love with a “barbarian” captive and subjects himself to a life of torture and pain for the woman he loves. 

The opera is a sublime work of political commentary on civil liberties and the dynamics between the oppressor and the oppressed. Philip Glass juxtaposes minimalistic, melancholic music with grand orchestration and haunting stage design. 

Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” tells the story of a Confederate soldier’s return to his lover Ada, as he begins to question the cause that he’s fighting for and laments on the sorrow of war, resulting in some of the most heart-wrenching opera duets.

Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel” is a “horror” opera in which the guests at a dinner party are locked in a room together with no way of escaping. The opera chillingly chronicles their gradual descent into madness and savagery

These works, and many others that are being composed everyday, demonstrate the limitless possibilities and the evolving nature of the genre. 

For opera to become relevant and capture the interest of the modern audiences, opera houses must make a more significant effort to premiere the works of contemporary composers and not just recycle the same productions of “La bohème” or Georges Bizet’s “Carmen. 

However, for modern opera to truly become widely recognized, audiences, both old and young, have to become more open-minded toward it. For the avid opera goers who love Verdi and Puccini, this might mean taking the time and effort to discover the works of Glass, Higdon or Adès. 

For people who have reservations towards the genre, go outside of your comfort zone and listen to some opera music (linked in this article). New operas are frequently composed, and we should give them the credit and recognition they deserve.

Nam Do PO ’23 is a huge music nerd. He still can’t get over the fact that John Cage went to Pomona (even though he dropped out).

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