Monday, March 4, 2013

Wait, what? Opera is dead?

Are those two soap opera
stars trying to kill me?

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: you can’t always believe what you read! 

Shaking my head after reading Chiara Bottici’s article from March 3, 2013 on the online version of Al Jazeera’s opinion page, I’ve come to the conclusion that either the author is drastically misinformed, or she has fallen victim to a horribly trained editor. I have every confidence she has no ill intentions.

“Check your sources,” my journalism teacher would’ve said!

If this article had been written by a junior staffer at my high school newspaper, for which I was the Features editor, I could’ve excused its lack of depth and deadline-on-a-school-night inaccuracy. But it was written by an assistant professor of philosophy and published on a reputable site. Somebody should’ve known better. 

In her article “The death of opera: a funeral eulogy” (as opposed to a birthday eulogy, a wedding eulogy or perhaps a bar mitzvah eulogy? ... Oh, dear. Where’s my red pen?), Ms. Bottici claims the assumedly dying art of opera has been replaced by the soap opera. 

The author leads people (who might not know better) to believe that Ernani is Verdi’s most successful opera. It may have been in its time, but it’s hardly well-known now - I’d bet most opera singers couldn’t even tell you its plot. And even people who’ve never been to an opera can whistle the refrain of the famous “Libiamo” chorus from La Traviata, the tenor aria from Rigoletto, or the trumpety triumph song from Aïda heard at soccer games across Europe. Although she goes into massive detail about Ernani, she fails to mention which soap operas succeeded in wiping out 400 years of operatic tradition.

Assuming she’s not talking about As the World Turns or Days of Our Lives, shows which have been around since the 50’s and 60’s and are therefore not newsworthy (again tipping my hat to or pointing my finger at the editorial department), let’s  surmise that she’s talking about more recent dramatic television series such as “Mad Men” or “Downton Abbey.”

Whereas Mad Men successfully explores American themes through plots comparable to the literary works of Saul Bellows or Dorothy Parker  (talk about “sophisticated intellectuals,” Ms. Bottici), what is Downton Abbey other than a thinly-plotted daily soap with exquisite sets, costumes and good actors? And just for good measure, they throw in the occasional historical reference like the First World War: Oh, Mr. Crawley was paralyzed in battle, but it’s more convenient for our plot if he can walk and make babies...It’s a mircale! Then, oops! He died, how sad, the end. (Sorry for the spoiler if you haven’t finished season three, yet).

Ms. Bottici purports that soap operas have replaced opera because they’re alive and affordable. Granted, tickets to the opera can be expensive - the author cites decent seats as costing around $400. Later in the comment section to her article, however, she claims to go at least once a month. While I’m thankful to her for supporting my art form, I wish she would have spent part of her apparent fortune paying someone to put her thoughts into a more succinct article. I think she has sabotaged her own intentions, confusing us with stories of the actual Risorgimento rather than illustrate opera’s resurgence that is happening now.

For someone who supports opera, she’s not doing society any favors by resuscitating the stereotypes: opera is long, boring, expensive, elitist, incomprehensible, whatever. In New York City alone, where the author evidently lives, one needn’t pay $400 to go to a performance. There are standing room tickets for $20 - maybe not the best idea for a 5-hour Wagner opera, but there are shorter pieces. Tosca is only about two hours long, for example, and you get a break after just one hour. Many Hollywood blockbusters are clocking in around three hours these days. Incidentally, I sat through Django Unchained and Lincoln back-to-back (which would’ve cost me more than $20 in NYC) -- six hours, and you don’t hear me complaining. Many movie-goers have been subjected to Wagner without even realizing it. Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan, so it seems. There are free opera concerts in the park during summer months, bi-monthly Opera on Tap events in Brooklyn and around the country (yes, as in beer on tap. And opera. What’s not to like?).
Lastly, the fact that 3 million people across the globe gathered in movie theaters to watch last weekend’s simulcast of Wagner's Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera for six hours (my ticket cost 29 Euros, by the way, and we had a better view and acoustic impression than even the most expensive seat in the Family Circle), is just further proof that opera is relevant, accessible, affordable and far from dying.