Is the Opera Really Dead?

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Tales of Hoffmann.  Photo credit: hyundaicardweb/flickr/cc by-nc-nd 2.0

The title should ring an echo in your brain of Paul Simon’s Dangling Conversation:
Yes we speak of things that matter, With words that must be said, ‘Can analysis be worthwhile?’ ‘Is the theater really dead? That is, if you’re not too young to remember or appreciate it.

The Theater may not be dead, but The Opera is dying. You see it in the desperate panning of an HD camera over a Metropolitan Opera audience to pick out the young faces smattered in a sea of old, to unconvincingly proclaim that Yes, We are relevant to the young, We are viable and vibrant, Yes, we still matter. My wife and I and our two friends see it in the many bald seat backs of the remote auditorium we’ve come to occupy for one of these High Definition Broadcast performances, unoccupied by the people who did not come, by those who do not care surrounded by the scattering of old who do. We sense it when we read about the bitter money battle between MET management and its artists and workers—stage crews, orchestra, chorus, dancers— over how to split dwindling resources. We know the possibility when we learn of the closing of the New York City Opera, the close call of the San Diego Opera, and hear the understated pleas from MET HD hosts for contributions to fill the shortfall of ticket sales and other income.

Is the opera really dead? . . .
. . . words that must be said. It shouldn’t be, but it is on the cusp even as it reinvents itself, even as it strives for relevance after years, decades, perhaps centuries of ossification in the minds of those young people the MET desperately wants, those passionate youths who see no passion in nineteenth century performances of small figures seen from the backseat rafters of an enormous auditorium, listening to the non-understood words of foreign languages emanating from wooden characters woodenly emoting from a stage a world and a century away.

We’ve come to our local Sedona performing arts theater to see Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, produced by the MET. Definitely last century. No! Two centuries remote, premiered in 1881. How is this relevant?

The broadcast is on a wide, high-definition screen and top-notch sound system. There is a pre-performance introduction about Offenbach and his last opera by our own symphony conductor Russell Fox, perhaps the best and most interesting presenter with the best selection of visual and audible aids I have ever seen or heard. (The MET could do much worse than have him kick off their broadcasts.) We learn that E. T. A. Hoffmann was a German Romantic author of the 1800s whose influence is far-flung, including Poe, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Kafka, and Hitchcock. One of his pieces is considered the very first detective story. Wikipedia calls him “satirical and self-parodying . . . in a tradition that includes Cervantes, Diderot and Voltaire.” Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was based on one of his works, and Hoffmann’s musical critiques of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and other important works were both admired and influential. For someone so little known today, Hoffmann cut a wide swath through the books we read and the music we hear. The piece we will see today is based on his tales; Offenbach renders Hoffmann as his own central character—both guided and followed by his muse in the form of an attractive woman creatively costumed.

The action is close-up and intimate, not at all distant, and the broadcast format brings the singers to acting as well as music. The acting is dynamic, passionate, and engaging—not at all centuries and eras away—and the actor/singers love what they do; we can see that both in their performances and their between-acts interviews by the hostess. The music is profound, the trio of the third act so exquisitely beautiful and emotional as to nearly bring me to tears. The words are understood because there are subtitles, but even if there weren’t, their intent is manifest through the art of the actors.

I am neither opera aficionado nor expert, had never been an opera lover, and never would be except for the MET HD performance of Carmen a handful of years ago. My sister, who is a performer, convinced my wife and me to see it because she was in it. We went, we saw, and have never been disappointed since, whether my sister was in a performance or not. The Carmen actress of that occasion was tempestuous, seductive, beautiful, wicked, impulsive, charming, and we could practically see the fillings in her teeth from the front row perspective of the camera. That Carmen I will never forget!

And there were others, equally engaging and indelible, some set centuries ago, some hauled—costumed and acted—into modern times, but all sharing one thing to high degree: Passion! Some were more dramatic than others, some more comedic, some tragic, some thoughtful, and some, all of these things, but I have never regretted the time to see any of them, and have seldom found anything but the highest degree of performance from the actors, singers, directors, musicians, chorus, and dancers. Even the stage workers perform for the camera in their between-act set changes. There was “The Merry Widow” this year, an operetta very much in the line of a Broadway musical, a high-energy production in which the actors ad libbed, hammed, and obviously enjoyed themselves. There was Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) last year, a serious drama to which was added unexpected elements of comedy that somehow created an extra dimension without hijacking the performance from its original intent.

There were Wagner, Mozart, Bizet, Rossini, all made accessible through the magic of subtitles. And now there is Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann) with its Prologue, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Epilogue structure, based on actual stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann, including his style of writing with prologue and epilogue bookending and integral with his tales. I credit my friend, Ivo, with pointing out that, while the story plot of most operas is far second to the music and passion of the characters, in Tales of Hoffmann the plot and structure are just as profound as the other elements, preserving Hoffmann’s genius at weaving critical elements and symbols throughout, like echoes or rhymes in poetry. The female muse—both a real and surreal presence—guides and follows Hoffmann through three ill-starred romances until the end, finally urging his romance with his own art as symbolized by herself.

Is the opera really dying?
It’s in danger, but may be revived if we’re lucky. I think the HD format and the changes it wrought—requiring the performers to act as well as sing, bringing new accessibility to foreign languages with subtitles, updating and bringing of the art into the present age (some of the productions, not all; as my sister says, sometimes historical continuity should be preserved)—may lift it back to the land of the living. But only if the young can be brought on board. Only if they come to realize that the modern art of the opera has become dynamic; is not A still life water color; that the tales sung and told are not superficial sighs In the borders of our lives, but live in the present day among the things we’re passionate about.

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