Why I Don’t Care About Opera Singers

Very sorry about not reviewing an opera like this week — work and video games unfortunately got in the way. But I definitely have a few lined up, so some reviews will be on the way soon!

But this week has forced me to think more and more about opera as a medium. And I’ve come to this conclusion: It’s a really really weird medium. Sets have gotten more and more extravagant, partly due to the fact that opera has moved onscreen. People know less and less how to handle classic operas, because they’re afraid (legitimately so) of scaring off younger potential patrons by showing stuffy works. Operas written in the last ten years are either extremely classical or would make Puccini shake his head in bewilderment.

Einstein on the Beach

These are all signs of opera in transition, and are in no way bad things. I’m actually very excited to have stated writing about opera during this time, because a lot of really cool stuff is happening. But there’s one characteristic of modern opera that has ripened in recent years that I absolutely cannot stand: The worship of individual opera singers.

Luciano Pavarotti

Yes, yes, I know he’s a legend. He should still put his f**king arms down.

All the weirdness that comes with working as an singer, from having your own website to selling CDs of yourself with awkward cover art, has not only leaked into opera culture but has created a heinously awkward culture of singer worship. And I say awkward because nothing else in the arts really resembles it. For the most part, I don’t see people deciding whether or not they should attend a local play solely based on who’s in it. If they are, it’s because it’s their family. And you can count on those tickets even if the play sucks.

That’s the problem with modern opera: No one’s willing to say anything sucks. It’s always “fabulous,” “astounding,” or that a performance is a f**king “masterpiece.” Such a culture breeds complacency, and eventually no one other than the compliment distributors attending shows. And once those people die, what are you left with? Art that has lived in a bubble, and diva singers to match.

Prima Donna song from Phantom of the Opera

Don’t get me wrong, if Plácido Domingo was starring a production of something up in Portland, I’d totally go up to see it. But if he was no good, I wouldn’t make any bones about it. And I would hope to Wotan that the show was well cast and well produced enough that it would be a quality show without his star power. For a while, that’s all that was keeping opera afloat and attracting new people to shows. The very audaciousness of an opera singer being something of a rock star was new again. And it drew a bunch of new people into the scene.

But no art should depend on stars to be successful. That is a wholly unwise business model, and it sets up artists for an existence with no real feedback from the public. Companies should instead focus on the shows themselves, erecting beautiful sets and ensuring everyone in the company can work together. And that begins with not making one person a god.

 

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Care About Opera Singers

  1. LisaCF May 28, 2013 at 10:55 pm Reply

    Interesting post. I have a few points, though.

    I agree with you that worship of the individual singer shouldn’t support the entire genre, but when a very special singer comes along, it’s sort of unavoidable. Pavarotti was that special. Same with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Diana Damrau, and Renee Fleming. We also look to them as masters of their craft, just like we look to Meryll Streep as a master of acting. If she’s in a movie, that means it could be a very, very good movie. Same applies to opera.

    I wouldn’t mind more opera singers becoming so worshiped that they’re household names (like Pavarotti) because right now, people think being in opera means I must like Il Divo and Josh Groban. Or that Phantom of the Opera is opera. (Once I told someone it wasn’t opera, and they said “Of course it is! It’s Phantom of the OPERA.” No joke.)

    Also, the idea that we’re going to see opera purely for the production as a whole is a relatively new way of thinking. Previously, you went to the opera to see singers sing. With this new wave of viewers wanting to see everything come together (singing, music, acting, sets, etc.), the age of the recital died. Because recitals were purely to hear a specific person stand there and sing for ages (which is inherently boring).

    We should also consider that hiring Diana Damrau to sell tickets is only a great way to make money for the Met, La Scala, etc. What about the thousands of smaller houses who can’t afford those singers? They’re certainly not staying afloat by relying on big names.

    While I also go to see the production as a whole much, much more than to see the individual singers, I can’t say I’m completely thrilled that more people share my opinion. More and more, we’re losing opera-goers who are appreciating the art of singing in and of itself. Directors who know zilch about singing are being hired to make the shows accessible or artsy, many of whom make the performer sing while moving in ways that are not at all good for singing. When given two singers (even of equal attractiveness), they might pick the less talented singer because of their hair colour or height. I was cast in a mezzo role once for Opera Nova Scotia (I’m a coloratura soprano) because I’m a tall brunette. Thankfully it was Beggar’s Opera and no one cared if the music director transposed my pieces up so they’d be singable.

    To somehow sum up this novel, I’m glad people are moving away from pure singer-worship because it means opera is now more than just fat people in costumes standing in one place, but I’m also apprehensive of the direction opera is going.

    Sorry, I really didn’t mean for that to be a novel.

    ~Lisa

    • The Opera Snob June 1, 2013 at 7:23 am Reply

      NO shame in writing novels! I’m just thrilled that an actual opera singer actually saw fit to respond to something I wrote. 🙂

      You bring up some very good points, such as the wealth disparity between opera houses being directly affected by Star Potential. I saw “Madama Butterfly” at the Board Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin, and it was a brilliant performance as a whole. But there were no big names because the opera had just been refurbished and there wasn’t much money yet. It was a stunning show, but I still wonder how financially successful it was because so much was new at the same time.

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