|The Swooning of Esther, painting by Antoine Coypel|
image found on Wikimedia Commons
We may deny it but people like drama. In those moments of fire, anguish, and passion we may claim that we’re being controlled by some outside force and that we regret such displays of emotion. But speaking from experience I think we often find ourselves on the performing stage of life simply because it feels good to express ourselves in such a tangible way. Forget subtlety, forget being demure - just put it all on display.
So here’s what I’m wondering based on those opening thoughts – why, oh why, do so many bemoan the future of opera and the future of singers in the classical music world?
For those of you who may not know me, I am an eternal optimist in addition to being a passionate advocate for classical music both on and off the stage so this whole topic is near and dear to my heart. I believe that classical music can be enjoyed by just about anyone, possibly everyone, because I believe music has the power to affect people without them even being aware that it’s happening. In fact, I’ve observed many times that it’s those folks that aren’t expecting anything that end up being moved the most.
My first experience with this was a year or so ago when flash mobs first started entering the everyday scene. A video went up on youtube of young artists from Washington National Opera singing the famous drinking chorus (“Libiamo”) from Verdi’s La Traviata in the produce section of Whole Foods. That video brought me to tears, not necessarily because of the singing, although that was wonderful, but because their performance in such a random, unexpected location pulled everyone into their drama. Were the singers singing in English? No they weren’t, but that didn’t matter because this scene was bringing live music, sung by everyday people, face to face with everyday people. There were no consumers, no tickets, no costumes, no expected concert attire on the part of the “audience”. It was the music, the drama, the magic that mattered and it worked.
The Swiss national TV Network, Schweizer Fernsehen, has recently undertaken its own projects to make opera a more everyday experience. The New York Times wrote a fantastic overview of its series of televised operas but to sum it up, it has produced four operas, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Puccini’s La Bohème, Verdi’s La Traviata and Aida. Here’s the catch - they were all performed and filmed out in public, with non-paying spectators right there watching and in some cases interacting – in a train station, shopping mall, apartment complex, on a boat. Watching the footage, you can see the mobs of people these operas attracted and their reaction to being plopped right in the middle of intense drama and incredible music. My favorite clip from Bohème is of one of the famous scenes between Rodolfo and Marcello that usually takes place in their garret. In the Swiss production a public laundry room in an apartment complex serves as the set and in the room with them are two little old ladies who are also doing their laundry. I have a suspicion that those two unsolicited opera extras are going to remember that day and perhaps even the music for the remainder of their lives and I have to admit, I’m slightly jealous.
Bringing this all back home to everyday life, I don’t believe we need flash mobs or big televised productions to keep opera and classical music alive and kicking, although they certainly don’t hurt. I don’t even think we need a whole lot of money or resources, although they can be handy too. Right now, what I think we need to do is to get classical music out there and to do so with the passion that we, as performers, feel for what we do. And we can do all this without fear or apprehension for how it might be received because as I said earlier and as I have witnessed in the past few years, music and drama, when infused among everyday people, is powerful stuff.
I’ll never forget an outreach performance I recently did with some college voice students. We spent a weekend traveling around to farmers markets and to restaurants performing scenes and arias from various operas. Living in a small, rural community that rarely hears this literature, some of the kids weren’t so sure how they were going to be received. Their concern quickly evolved into elation after singing “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One of the groups sang in front of a family with a young girl and even though the college kids were singing in Italian, the girl was grinning from ear and swooning with every romantic gesture, with every musical sigh. She got it. She loved it. She lived through opera for those three minutes of Mozart.
Everyone, even a 6 year old girl, could use a little drama in their life so let’s bring it to them in any way that we can and watch the magic of music work its charm.