Every few months, there’s a new panic about the state of opera.
We ask a lot of questions. Is it dying? Have we killed it? We attempt to diagnose the problem. Who (or what) is responsible?
Aging donors? Often archaic, over-the-top, un-relatable plots of standard repertory? Overhead costs for lavish productions that might rival the Baroque in scope? Language barriers?
And I suppose these are relevant, important, timely questions. Obviously, people (myself included, duh) have a lot invested in the genre. Performers, directors, designers, creatives of all sorts want meaningful work. Businesspeople want meaningful profits. We care deeply about these things. We want our art form to proliferate, to be fruitful, to multiply.
We don’t just want opera to merely survive, but thrive.
Yeah. I said it. Thrive, even in the face of virtual reality headsets or big-budget Hollywood films. War for the Planet of the Apes (which I probably won’t be seeing in theaters, no shade really, just not my gig), for instance, had a production budget of $150 million.
The LEGO Batman Movie (much more my gig) had a budget of $80 million. It grossed around $310 million dollars worldwide in theaters. Some of that money was mine (you’re welcome, LEGO Batman). I was one of those theater-goers. I saw the LEGO Batman Movie. In 3D. I got to wear those goofy glasses. There was popcorn and Buncha Crunch. And it was good.
A disclaimer: I’m not good at math. I’m really, really bad at it. But I’m going to attempt to crunch some numbers here.
According to a May 2016 New York Times article, the Metropolitan Opera, the United States’ largest performing arts organization, had an operating budget of approximately $300 million dollars. It offered 225 performances of 25 different operas over the course of one particular season.
The gross earnings of the LEGO Batman Movie (in theaters for approximately 117 weeks) could pay for the entire Metropolitan Opera season. A single movie! One film!
And yet the Met projects to fill only 72% of its seats. So we ask more questions.
Over the past few days, there’s been some hullaballoo on Opera/Classical Music Twitter (yes, it’s a thing) with regard to the new Mason Bates opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, set to premiere within the next week at Santa Fe. Both Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera have signed on to give the work performances within the coming seasons.
Before I go any further. Let me be crystal clear: any new opera is worth attending. I do mean any. If I were in Santa Fe, you’d best believe my keister would be filling a seat to see the premiere.
You don’t know what’s going to become the next warhorse of the standard repertory. Two hundred years from now, if we haven’t demolished the planet by then, companies may mount the Steve Jobs opera like they put up La Bohème. It’s entirely possible. Plausible, even.
Barring some pretty substantial and rapid medical advance, though, all of us reading this will be dead, so I guess we’ll never truly know. Anyway.
Back to Twitter. So, a few folks started talking about the Steve Jobs opera. They asked some poignant questions. Questions with no easy answers (or maybe answers at all). Some of them made statements expressing sadness that yet another opera was being produced with the plot of “successful white man is successful.”
And some other folks got wind of the criticism and mused that perhaps these critics were telling composers what to write about.
They implied that criticism stifled the conversation by asking questions.
I’m not going to make this post about what I personally think re: the Steve Jobs opera. I haven’t heard any music from it. I don’t know much about it other than that it exists. I’ve read every piece of related content I can get my hands on about it, because I’m just that invested in opera. In new opera. In every opera. In the state of our art form. Where it’s going. What we’re doing to give it direction, to make it more of a purposeful journey rather than an aimless amble toward survival.
The thing I do know is this: we have to be willing to ask questions about opera.
“Beloved” works, like Turandot or Otello. New ones, like The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.
Without asking questions and critically engaging with the work, the future of opera looks a lot less promising.
You’re going to tell me, “But Georgeanne, are people really critically engaging with the LEGO Batman Movie?” I don’t know. Are they? Maybe there are. Can someone on the Internet verify? If you find someone, let me know. But I think that really isn’t the point.
My point is that asking questions doesn’t lessen the impact of artistic work.
It doesn’t reduce its importance or worth. Questions aren’t a wet blanket. Asking questions about something isn’t going to stop me, personally, from seeing something. It’s not going to stop a composer from writing if that composer feels they have a story tell to tell and it’s that story.
Asking questions about something means just the opposite—that whatever we’re questioning is worthy, that it is alive, that it’s worth cultivating, saving, supporting.
Isn’t any conversation about opera worth having? Like I said before, we ask a lot of questions about the death of opera.
Shouldn’t we similarly be asking questions of what is bringing opera life in the 21st century?
I hope that you, dear reader, will continue to ask questions about everything you consume, opera or not. And more than that, I hope you go see an opera.
If you’re in Santa Fe? Go see The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. And tell me how it is. Maybe you’ll have some more questions after seeing it. Maybe you’ll have some answers, too.
That is how an art form doesn’t merely survive. That’s how it thrives.
PS. If you’re interested in writing an opera (and I hope you are), why not take a look at Four Historical Women Who Need Their Own Opera (because they do).
PPS. If you’re curious about #OperaTwitter, follow me @absolutment