Like trends of any kind, trends in opera composition ebb and flow. The form has endured since the 16th century largely because it’s proven to be adaptable and accommodating in its search for an audience. But it’s precisely this search that poses a dilemma for contemporary opera composers.
That the classical music audience in general has been “graying” over the modern era is no secret. Stout-hearted people, this audience. Loyal. There are those, no doubt, who consider it an obligation to attend the opera, just as they attend the ballet and certain gallery openings. We cannot dismiss the notion that within this group we may find the economic backbone of many a festival and municipal arts scene. A ticket is a ticket whether love of art (plain and simple) or a sense approaching noblesse oblige prompts the purchase.
But how do you go about growing that core audience? More pointedly, how do you nurture a new generation of opera lovers? No mystery there, really.
There’s all kinds of blame placed on short-attention spans, the general dumbing down of our culture, social media, the economy, and blah, blah, blah. Much of this highfaluting gnashing of teeth grinds on the ear like a banshee’s wail. And it smells like snobbery. It can be dismissed, more simply, as procrastination. Composers, the minute opera goes back to playing only to nobility in their splendid manses, you’ll be free do as you will. Until then, if you want to fill some of those empty seats, (or some of those seats that instantly empty out at the interval!), here’s some old news.
The prescription is as old as Mozart. Even if it risks banishment as an apostate by today’s opera-loving faithful, let’s say it: Opera composers — would it kill you to tell a story? I mean, an actual narrative. The kind with an intriguing beginning, a developing plot line in the middle, and a satisfying end?
All those words, the libretti of your operas, must contain something. Why not make it a story? (One supposes you can opt to go the route Cirque de Soleil takes: nonsense consonant and vowels, sounds strung together, like a child’s invented language without meaning, adopted simply to fill the air with voices. That works, too. Just be honest about it — you’ve given up or can’t be bothered. Don’t blame the audience.)
Of your libretto, perhaps ask yourselves, would I read this stuff myself? If not, why foist it on me, line by tortured line in subtitles, piling on like three day-old fish?
We’ve seen recent operas reach their libretto’s denouement (such as it is) with the orchestra sweeping into a funnel-cloud crescendo (drama! drama! drama!), but honestly — yawn. I couldn’t care less about that flimsy construct passing itself off as a character on stage. And that emotional reaction undermines the fullest appreciation of any composition. I could sit home, listen to a recording, imagine a (better) story, and perhaps enjoy the music just as well if I were sufficiently motivated to do so.
You want butts in seats? Give us something intelligible, something engaging. Create flesh and blood characters, urge us to connect with their trials, empathize with them, feel their agonies and triumphs.
There are storytellers among you. Seek them out. Which is to say, get professional help. And listen to it.
Side note: I’m seeing the potential of a libretto written by Zadie Smith. With set designs by Tom Ford. Scored by…?
Time to step up, composers. And meet your new audience.