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Thread: To worry about the number of operagoers or about the quality of singing?

          
   
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    To worry about the number of operagoers or about the quality of singing?

    I'll play the devil's advocate.
    There's a lot of talk about the future of opera. The asumption is that we should do everything to get more people to opera houses, etc. That we need many houses and many singers and the question is how to finance this. It rings false to me. Like it's coming from a profit-oriented, not art-oriented mind.
    First, I don't think anyone believes that opera audience can disappear completely, that the day will come when last opera house will close its doors and live opera will be heard for the last time on Earth.

    So, let's imagine a black scenario: 50% of all opera houses close down. Mostly smaller, regional companies. Would the consequences be negative only?
    The surviving opera houses might obtain new audience members who used to go to their local company. The surviving houses might have to go on more tours to get to people (like Mariinsky), but why not?
    They might raise more funds (which is today dispersed on many small opera companies); they might - as shopping malls today - organize railway and bus lines to their venue...

    More importantly, however, is the quality of singing. Do we want to have dozens of thousands of opera singers for diversity, or we want the best singing and productions possible?

    People like heroes, artists who accomplish feats "larger than life". Dozen opera giants instead of hundreds of very good singers might attract more people to opera. In the eyes of audience opera might look more as an adventure towards musical perfection than just a profession.
    I think the average level of operatic singing today is higher than before, but everyone still talks about the legendary performances of the past. However, "the legends" performed less, had more time for preparation and were less exposed to what I call an "assembly line mentality". Today's singers are afraid to refuse too many offers and are tied 5 years ahead because hundreds of singers (often less good) are waiting to jump in. Once the stars are out of the loop, they're not sure they would be able to re-enter.
    We have talents today, I'm just not sure that they have the opportunity to work on their roles enough to make them memorable.
    With less houses and singers, maybe the negotiating power of top singers would be better. They could sing less frequently, go on long trips less and use the saved time and energy on polishing their roles to perfection. And true talents would still find their way to the great houses even without many local companies, as they always did.

    This devil's question for you guys and gals is, thus, what's the advantage of having many opera houses? Or: why should we transform opera into circus (or TV or movies) in order to attract X new operagoers?

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    It's my opinion that if the opera audience becomes much smaller than it is, and the number of performances drop, then it is doubtful that very talented people will choose such a profession and the quality of singing and performing will fall overall.
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Davor, I hear you, but I'm not sure I can agree with you. Your position implies that what is wrong with opera today is that there are too many houses and too many singers, and that one of the problems with that is that the top singers are overworked and can't focus on their roles well enough, and would, if regional opera houses were eliminated.

    First of all, I think the existence of regional opera houses is not as closely related to what contracts the top level singers get. These houses are mostly irrelevant for them, at this stage of their careers. Someone like Anna Netreko only sings at the Met, Chicago Lyric, La Scala, the Mariinsky, etc. She wouldn't come to sing at North Carolina Opera anyway (I wish!). So I'm not sure that doing away with regional houses would unclog their schedule and give them more preparation time.

    But then, like Tyrones underlined, the demise of the regional houses would result in a smaller talent pool. Young singers need these houses to be able to acquire the experience of singing live opera in the theater. They aren't about to be hired tomorrow by the Met and the likes of the Met. It's often after training more "safely" in smaller houses that a singer will slowly climb up the ladder. If anything (like you'll see when we publish the interview with Greer Grimsley who talks about this issue) we need *more* places for the young singers to perform in, not fewer.

    For me, the more, the better. Vitality of opera depends on a multiplicity of houses. It's by attending live opera in their regional communities that many members of the public get an education on the wonderful experience of the live, unamplified human voice, and then get interested in purchasing recordings and traveling to bigger houses to see the top artists perform. The smaller houses are not hurting the art form - they are functioning as steps in the ladder towards the most accomplished shows.

    You worry about the future of opera. I actually don't. I think opera will be just fine. In all eras, people were running around scared, predicting the doom of this art form. Well, the darn thing is resilient. It hasn't died, and it won't. Currently we see a bit of funding problems and some smaller houses failing. I strongly believe it is more linked to the economic crisis than to the art form itself. I believe that once the economy turns around, stronger ticket sales and more generous private donations will pick up again.

    Opera has been around for 406 years and I don't think it's about to die. As a matter of fact, the number of live performances world wide, with some variation given the economic crisis, is, when you look at bigger chunks like decade-long numbers, at historically high levels. There is more opera being staged today than at any other point in the history of the art form. Opera has never been as accessible to the population, with not only international, national, and regional houses spread out around the globe, but also broadcast to cinemas, online streaming, CDs, DVSs, and blu-ray discs. The number of Music Schools in colleges and independent conservatories has never been higher, and the number of vocal performance students is also at a historical high. If anything, it's an exciting time to be an opera lover.

    If the main stars are overworked, it's because there is a market for them; it's because the public wants to see them and listen to them, live and on audio or visual media. It's up to each individual artist to manage his/her career, and make sure that they get enough breaks for recharging the batteries and for learning new roles. In a sense, this more hectic schedule is just opera being a victim of its own success.

    We often look back to the great singers of the past. What we sometimes have trouble realizing is that the comparison to today's singers is somewhat unfair, because in the past, there were plenty of mediocre singers as well - just, we don't hear from them any longer, and only the very best survive. So we look at the current picture and see some mediocre singing in some regional houses and even in some of the big houses, and have the impression that singing is not as good as in the past (that's not what you said; I'm just thinking out loud). But actually, if we think of today's top singers, the ones who will be remembered next century when people look back, they are as good as the past singers.

    A Waltraud Meier, a René Pape, a Joyce DiDonato, a (recently deceased) Luciano Pavarotti can perfectly hold their own when compared to the great singers that were active a few decades ago. It's just that we haven't had a sufficient degree of separation to look back at their careers, but they will be remembered in the future as great past singers, just like we praise today their predecessors. Then in the future people will make the same mistake and complain that singing will not be as good, and that opera will be about to die.

    You know, at the time of Handel, there was already talk of shrinking funding lines (his company actually folded for being commercially unable to survive) and of how the art form would die. It didn't. Richard Wagner's finances went up and down and relied heavily on aristocratic patrons. Bizet died relatively poor and had trouble putting his operas on stage, and so did Berlioz. And so on and so forth.

    Opera has never been a very profitable business. But it endures as an art form because the level of beauty it carries is still important to human beings. Opera will be just fine, and the more, the better.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
    Opera has been around for 406 years and I don't think it's about to die.
    <OFFTOPIC>So you believe L'Orfeo to be the first true opera then and not Dafne and/or Euridice?</OFFTOPIC>

    Okay, as you were...
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
    We often look back to the great singers of the past. What we sometimes have trouble realizing is that the comparison to today's singers is somewhat unfair, because in the past, there were plenty of mediocre singers as well - just, we don't hear from them any longer, and only the very best survive. So we look at the current picture and see some mediocre singing in some regional houses and even in some of the big houses, and have the impression that singing is not as good as in the past (that's not what you said; I'm just thinking out loud). But actually, if we think of today's top singers, the ones who will be remembered next century when people look back, they are as good as the past singers.

    A Waltraud Meier, a René Pape, a Joyce DiDonato, a (recently deceased) Luciano Pavarotti can perfectly hold their own when compared to the great singers that were active a few decades ago. It's just that we haven't had a sufficient degree of separation to look back at their careers, but they will be remembered in the future as great past singers, just like we praise today their predecessors. Then in the future people will make the same mistake and complain that singing will not be as good, and that opera will be about to die.
    This rather old article has a perspective on this.

    I'm not ready to stake out a position on this question, but one can argue the same with regard to opera composers. Just as you can ask, "where have all the great singers gone?", you can also ask, "where have all the great opera composers gone?" My question is, what is your own personal feeling? If we were asking about composers instead of opera singers, would your feelings be the similar?
    Last edited by tyroneslothrop; July 8th, 2013 at 05:29 PM.
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tyroneslothrop View Post
    <OFFTOPIC>So you believe L'Orfeo to be the first true opera then and not Dafne and/or Euridice?</OFFTOPIC>

    Okay, as you were...
    Oops, I meant 416. I set the start at Dafne in 1597.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tyroneslothrop View Post
    This rather old article has a perspective on this.

    I'm not ready to stake out a position on this question, but one can argue the same with regard to opera composers. Just as you can ask, "where have all the great singers gone?", you can also ask, "where have all the great opera composers gone?" My question is, what is your own personal feeling? If we were asking about composers instead of opera singers, would your feelings be the similar?
    Composers, yes, there are many worthy composers in the 20th century after Puccini, and some in the 21st century. Who is to say that operas like L'Amour de Loin, Doctor Atomic, Satyagraha, Powder her Face, The Minotaur, L'Upupa, The Tempest, Peter Grimes, etc., won't be regarded in the future as great operas? They haven't survived the test of time yet (well, arguably Peter Grimes has), and we are too close to them to gauge their true value, but they may perfectly survive this test and be remembered in the future.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Quote Originally Posted by tyroneslothrop View Post
    ...Then it is doubtful that very talented people will choose such a profession and the quality of singing and performing will fall overall.
    You put an emphasis on overall level of singing and your conclusion is true in this regard. I, however, put an emphasis on the top, the best voices and performances that this art form can possibly produce.
    True artists (painters, writers and musicians) psychologically NEED to do their thing; it's often not a rational, but irrational decision. Otherwise, Van Gogh, Kafka and many others who didn't have any recognition (or earnings) from their art wouldn't have kept doing it. So, the artists who have it in them will keep doing it even if it doesn't seem "smart" in comparison to choosing "solid" professions. Almaviva's interviews show that opera singers often come from families where no one listened to classical music or opera.
    I see the argument that many regional houses and music schools convert more talents into singers, but is the top level of greatness in relation with quantity of supply? It seems to me that "geniuses" are simply born, not made. And then they must have time to explore the every little nuance of their roles in order to equal or surpass Caruso et al.

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Davor View Post
    You put an emphasis on overall level of singing and your conclusion is true in this regard. I, however, put an emphasis on the top, the best voices and performances that this art form can possibly produce.
    True artists (painters, writers and musicians) psychologically NEED to do their thing; it's often not a rational, but irrational decision. Otherwise, Van Gogh, Kafka and many others who didn't have any recognition (or earnings) from their art wouldn't have kept doing it. So, the artists who have it in them will keep doing it even if it doesn't seem "smart" in comparison to choosing "solid" professions. Almaviva's interviews show that opera singers often come from families where no one listened to classical music or opera.
    I see the argument that many regional houses and music schools convert more talents into singers, but is the top level of greatness in relation with quantity of supply? It seems to me that "geniuses" are simply born, not made. And then they must have time to explore the every little nuance of their roles in order to equal or surpass Caruso et al.
    IMO, as opera drops in popularity, the probability that a genius will choose opera as their preferred medium, genre, subgenre for self-expression also drops (or if you prefer, the probability that "opera will choose them"). True geniuses can often express themselves in more than one genre, certainly more than one subgenre (opera being a subgenre of music or even just vocal music). We see that today in women's chess. Because the prizes for women grandmasters are so small, one can't make a living wage at this and so many of the top female grandmasters have been switching over to Texas Hold-em poker.
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tyroneslothrop View Post
    Because the prizes for women grandmasters are so small, one can't make a living wage at this and so many of the top female grandmasters have been switching over to Texas Hold-em poker.
    You make good points, and I too feel there should be as many opportunities as possible for potential opera singers.

    The last thing we need is more aria-singing poker players!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Almaviva View Post
    You worry about the future of opera. I actually don't.
    I'm not worried if opera will survive. I know it will. I was just thinking about achieving new heights, moving up instead of worrying about increasing the number of operagoers. I'm not an elitist, I hate elitism based on snobbery ("I achieved a certain socio-economic status and I have to go to opera to show that I'm also cultured"), but I believe (and you also wrote about it in another thread) that opera and other higher art forms can never be as popular as simpler ones. More people will always read Stephen King than James Joyce (at least short-term; it remains to be seen on 5-century basis).

    It's up to each individual artist to manage his/her career, and make sure that they get enough breaks for recharging the batteries and for learning new roles.
    I agree, but is it really up to them? If a great star, say La Bellissima, insisted on much longer rehearsals, it's very questionable that she would get them (and even if she did, nobody else would). Maybe I'm skeptical because I'm in Europe. Opera is heavily or totally state-subsidized here and theater intendants and stage directors don't have to indulge audiences too much. Their houses and careers don't depend on ticket sales, but on state generosity. Hence, they have far more power than singers. (BTW, in my opinion, that's why Regietheater could indulge in such excesses in Germany and Europe; "visionary" stage directors do what they want to do and don't have to care for audience (or shareholders) much. This is a complex subject, radical new things are important too; obviously, true visionaries are always ahead of masses, i.e. only pleasing the majority doesn't bring progress.)

    But actually, if we think of today's top singers, the ones who will be remembered next century when people look back, they are as good as the past singers.
    I do think that some singers of our time are brilliant, but I am worried that their talent will never achieve its true potential because of commercial pressures. Critics and some former opera singers criticize today's singers for not studying the roles deep or long enough. However, maybe you're right. Maybe all this criticism is only due to subjectivity of critics and to impossibility of true evaluation of a contemporary's achievement. For every critic today that says "he/she was excellent but not great", maybe in 50 years a dozen will say "he/she is the giant of the 21st century."

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    Quote Originally Posted by tyroneslothrop View Post
    We see that today in women's chess. Because the prizes for women grandmasters are so small, one can't make a living wage at this and so many of the top female grandmasters have been switching over to Texas Hold-em poker.
    Yes, chess is a good example. Quality of games today is astounding but the significance in popular culture all but disappeared. But, as I said before, heroes are needed. Capablanca, Tal, Fischer and Kasparov were talked about even outside of chess. Today, nobody cares. (Not even FIDE, cynics would say.)

    Long live Judith Polgar!

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amfortas View Post
    You make good points, and I too feel there should be as many opportunities as possible for potential opera singers.

    The last thing we need is more aria-singing poker players!
    Minnie and Jack Rance?

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Davor View Post
    Maybe I'm skeptical because I'm in Europe. Opera is heavily or totally state-subsidized here and theater intendants and stage directors don't have to indulge audiences too much. Their houses and careers don't depend on ticket sales, but on state generosity. Hence, they have far more power than singers. (BTW, in my opinion, that's why Regietheater could indulge in such excesses in Germany and Europe; "visionary" stage directors do what they want to do and don't have to care for audience (or shareholders) much. This is a complex subject, radical new things are important too; obviously, true visionaries are always ahead of masses, i.e. only pleasing the majority doesn't bring progress.)
    You confirm something I've long suspected: that generous public subsidies made a number of Intendanten, artistic directors, etc., feel that they could thumb their noses at their audiences with impunity. Now that the global economic problems have been forcing governments at all levels to look for ways of saving money -- which often results in the aforementioned subsidies being significantly reduced (accompanied by howls of outrage from the theater management) -- I wonder if this pattern may change. Some of these theaters are finding themselves relying more on ticket sales, or looking for public-private sponsorships.

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    Opera Lively Staff Member Top Contributor Member Hoffmann's Avatar
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    I see an additional problem - one that we already face here in the U.S., and the opposite from that cited - that opera companies become so nervous about their audiences and donors that, with the possible exception of the Met, that they end up in a neverending cycle of conservative programming and traditional new productions (with an occasional new composition thrown in to mollify the critics). I, for one, do not lie awake at night dreaming about another 'new' production of La Traviata!

    Unfortunately, as much as everyone's heart's desire is for a surplus of world class singers, maybe even more importantly we also need top of the line world class managers. These would be people who do not succumb to fads, know first rate Regie from wannabees, are willing to take some smart risks and are willing to spend the requisite amount of time wooing donors and governments and are wise about managing people (including singers, directors, conductors and even costumers and other necessary staff), etc.

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