Is opera still relevant?

Aug 19, 2006 3:36 pm
There is an interesting article in the August issue of Opera News by Philip Kennicott where he poses the question “Is opera still relevant?” Here are a few excerpts from the article that summarize his argument.

“Decades before social critics were diagnosing the fragmentation and atomization of culture, and cultural authority, opera was already going down that path. Paramount was the idea that opera could be enjoyed without any particular understanding of the art form. From custodians eager to recruit new audiences, the message went out: opera is a transparent medium, no different in the challenges it poses from the cinema or television.”

“Yet as we look at what has happened in the larger culture, there’s a more sinister subtext to the message. Essentially, the opera world was one of the first places in our culture that said there’s no shame in ignorance. Think of the cultural repercussions of this same message writ large. There’s no shame in ignorance. Turn on the television, or the radio, and you hear people preface political opinions with the statement, “I don’t know much about this, but…” Politicians now eschew displays of actual knowledge, fearful that they will alienate the electorate. An uninformed but folksy intuition is the only safe demonstration of intellectual engagement. Once you separate shame and ignorance, there’s no particular need to hide ignorance, or reduce it, in yourself and others.”

“Within the arts the loss is primarily to the pleasure of the audience. If the basic structure of a piece of music isn’t known, you can’t point to a musical event. You can’t say where the pitch went astray, or an ornament was inserted or a money-note interpolated. You can’t make comparisons, or sustain much of a conversation about the evening. Opera becomes a generalized, generic experience. And people aren’t willing to invest hours at a time in something that can’t be effectively retained, analyzed, compared and argued about.”

“In a sense, opera becomes ephemeral in a way that other pastimes—say baseball—-aren’t. What matters is the ability of the art form to be a forum for human passion. Opera has, in many ways, failed to develop this larger sense of necessity and loyalty in its audience. There’s a great deal of desire to see the established stars but very little sense of duty to hear the new crop of singers. The same is true of new operas. For opera to survive as an intellectually engaged art form, it needs to rethink its identity. Without an enemy—whether it’s apathy or ignorance or moral callousness—opera will stagnate.”

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~ by severalfourmany on August 19, 2006.

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