Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

Thoughts on Avatar... and Opera (Part 2 - my opinion)

Yesterday, on my Houston Chronicle blog (reposted here), I wrote a bit about my theory that “opera being long” is not the reason that people have a negative perception of opera.  (I gave as my proof the fact that Avatar was a crazy long movie, but people still sat still through the entire thing).  I said that I would give you my opinion on the matter, so here it is: I politely put forth my theories as to why people think of opera as a boring, old fashioned art form that is solely for the wealthy and does not speak to the general public:  1) costs continue to drive ticket prices higher, so it does begin to seem that opera is solely for the wealthy, 2) productions of opera can tend to be targeted towards the cognoscenti as opposed to the general public, and 3) opera takes time to understand.  I’ll start with number 3 and work my way back.  I will confess right off the bat that I was not an opera fan.  I went into music and realized I wanted to be a conductor, but I did not start out as an opera fan – I just wanted to conduct orchestra.  I went to my first opera and was thoroughly unimpressed, and this was at the Vienna State Opera and a production of Madame Butterfly!  Looking back on it, I will take all the blame for not getting the opera.  I didn’t know anything about what I was watching.  I did not know Italian, so I could not understand the plot, and I sure didn’t get the German supertitles.  I was lost.  There was some pretty music, but I really did not care because I couldn’t tell up from down.

By no means am I suggesting that in order to understand opera you need to go out and learn Italian.  That’s not the case.  It does help to take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with the basic plot.  That way, if you do not understand the language of the opera you can keep abreast of the plot (and I’ll be honest, even with having studied Italian, German, and French – I don’t get ½ of what the singers are singing – it goes by too fast).

It does take a bit to get an idea of how an opera works.  I compare it to going to a Bollywood film for the first time.  If you sit there and expect it to be similar to a western film, you’ll be thoroughly lost after the first dance sequence.  You’ll spend way too much time wondering where all those other dancing people came from!  Opera can be much of the same way – why do they break out into an aria (song)?  What is that silly speak/singing they do?  Getting an idea of each of the components of an opera does help keep you up with the plot and drama.

Finally, the last tip I tend to give people that ask me how to “get into opera” is to show up early enough to let yourself get into the right frame of mind.  Opera (like cinema, good books) transports you to a different sense of time.  An hour can feel like minutes, and (unfortunately at times?) seconds can feel like hours.  It’s tough to sink into the opera’s sense of time if you’ve just run in after work, you’re still mulling over that problem at home, etc.  (Of course, I do think a great performance helps you forget all that and transports you to a different world no matter what baggage you bring with you).

Ahh… the great performance!  This is the one (number 2 on my list above) I put squarely on the heads of us opera folk.  Too often, I’ve seen a production that does something innovative and different simply to be innovative and different – not necessarily because it pushes the plot.  One of the reasons for this is that opera companies are constantly struggling to generate press, so one way to do this is to create something that people talk about.  I’m all for that, but if there is a sound and thoughtful reason to do it.  Audiences know when they’re being pandered to, so simply creating a production that’s “innovative” to create buzz won’t fly.  Audiences are too smart.  The other reason we often see the “innovative” production is that stage directors are constantly being pushed to come up with something new and different to distinguish themselves from their peers.  Again, this can be a great thing if they come up with something truly innovative.  But, there are those times that the production is different simply for the sake of doing something different.

I don’t want to sound like I’m against creativity and innovation – in fact, I think quite the opposite.  I think more opera companies need to truly explore innovation and put a lot of thought in their productions.  One of the things Michael Kaiser talked about in his presentation while in Houston was that arts organizations need to plan far enough in advance to truly develop the production.  I think he’s 100% right.  (And it’s the direction that Opera Vista is moving in its 4th season – we’re finally brainstorming productions years in advance).  I’ll talk more about innovation in the next blog.

Finally, there is the cost issue.  Opera tickets cost a good chunk of money!  I admit it.  (Which is one reason that Opera Vista focuses on keeping costs in the $20 range)!  I wrote quite a bit as to why costs continue to rise in this blog. One of the issues we face is to continue to aggressively fundraise, and develop good marketing to help fundraising to keep costs down.  (This is one reason I think that arts organizations MUST pursue innovative and thoughtful programming – the more press you can generate because of great shows, the easier it is to fundraise and the better job you are doing for your community).

More thoughts on this in the next blog, then back to the Michael Kaiser, Beethoven and Wagner discussions.  If you'd like to learn more about opera, Opera Vista's next Opera 101 is at Boheme cafe and wine bar on January 8, 2010 at 8:00PM.  Come learn about opera in a fun/laid-back atmosphere.