What REALLY happened to opera?

There's a list going around from Buzzfeed called "What Happened to Opera?"

It's a post that really focuses on 1 thing- Hey, look at how the costumes and sets of opera have changed! And how hot all the singers look! Here's Renee Fleming singing Strauss! She's awesome!

And Anna Letrebko doing Lehar! Look at that beautiful gown! AND THE VOICE!

Let's not forget Diana Danrau as Queen of the Night! Holy Crap, how can she even sing in that outfit!

The post goes on through many notables; Joyce DiDonato, Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Florez, Dolora Zajick, and so forth.

It's great that a site like Buzzfeed put together a list of great opera singers doing (somewhat) modern takes on classic songs.

But it does beg the question "WHAT HAPPENED TO OPERA?!?"

I don't mean this in a "oh, the by-gone days of it's greatness are gone," but in the "what the hell does this actually mean about opera?" Does it mean that opera is only about the singers? Look at all these fabulous singers!

Or is it about the sets and costumes? This is cutting edge stuff people!

Ya know what I think this post says?

It says "We can keep finding new ways to do the same song that's been out since 1791!" Sorry Diana Danrau, you nailed it, but GIVE IT A REST!

You can't put a list together of "What Happened to Opera" without even addressing the music! The examples are all classic rep--not one really adventurous aria on the whole page. Not one work by a living composer even!

It's like they're saying "No one WRITES opera, so we have to come up with new ways to do the same thing you've seen a million times before!"

So, here's MY LIST of "What Happened to Opera?" Instead of focusing on amazing singers (mostly very attractive ones at that), and fancy sets, I'm going to look at fantastic singers singing some modern repertoire! Because, at its heart, opera IS music. If you're going to have a conversation about how it's changed, and not at least toss in some MUSIC to show that, then you've failed miserably.


I could choose a thousand thousand operas for this, but I'll go with a man that made English language opera what it is today: hopefully the only dead guy on the list, Benjamin Britten!

And from his rep a million choices. But why not show a scene from the BBC movie version of his opera Turn of the Screw, adapted from the novel by Henry James

2)  Opera changes with the musical times!

Oh man...this is a book in and of itself. but why not show some fun examples?

Let's start with a German guy that even predates Britten...But his style was ahead of its time. Wozzeck, by Alban Berg

Not my favourite scene, but Wozzeck is slim pickings. The story is pretty amazing.

Oh, not a fan of modernism eh? No problem, there's plenty of styles to choose from!

Minimalism more your thing? Let's take a cue from the King of Minimalism:

Love Duet from Ahkenaten by Phillip Glass. Sorry all, just music on this one!

Pardon the intonation in the trombone. hard line to keep going. and, no, that wasn't me. This recording easily predates my trombone days.

The list goes on and one. Why not grab one more, just for fun? Here's one that's even more contemporary

from L'amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho

So, maybe these aren't your style. I mean, it's still art music after all

3) Opera is a form! It doesn't just mean "classical" music!

alright, let's go straight for the jugular with this one. Anyone seen or heard of

TOMMY by The Who

You'll have to skip a little forward, to about 1:00 in. alright, I'll admit it, I don't much like rock operas. or rock musicals. This coming from a guy that's about to fly to Sweden to study heavy metal...but this should give you a nice tell that it's not just "classical" music

Maybe, like me, you don't always want Wagner, but The Who just don't do it for you. Sometimes, I pull out a different sort of opera. Why not head back to the 30s for another dead guy, but one that set a trend, changed opera and musicals

Summertime, from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin

it's from the movie version. And, sorry, Sidney Poitier didn't sing the part. Wonderful actor, but not the best singer.

So far, there's been way too many dead guys. There's nothing wrong with dead guys, and this was a bit of rally against them, right?


how about some living composers? Well, since we ended with some jazz inspired music, let's head for some more jazz inspired music.

from Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie

It's pretty romantic, but with some jazz style extended harmonies. I went with a pretty one.

And, yes, if the title caught your eye, it is based on the book. But we'll get to that in a minute...

Why not look at an opera that just had a US premiere not too long ago. At the MET no less!

Ariel's Song from Thomas Ades' The Tempest (based on Shakespeare, of course)


If you look at all the old operas, they are inexorably linked to their times. Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is no exception. There are no exceptions: even if the opera is based on a different time, say Ades using Shakespeare, or Bernard Rands telling the story of Vincent Van Gogh, the messages are tied to todays world. And sorry, no copy of Van Gogh on the internet yet--it was just premiered last year! SEE, IT'S STILL HAPPENING!

But enough of that. Let's take one example, just one from the myriad of choices. One of my favourite arias of all time

This is Prophetic from Nixon in China by John Adams

This came out in 1987, about 15 years after Nixon's historic trip...but the questions posed and ideas espoused were very much on people's minds in 1987.

Adams is known for these works: Dr. Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer just to name two more.

And let's not forget multiculturalism. Why, since we went to China, why not talk about 2 composers of Chinese descent with amazing operas?

The Shadow Haunts Me Wherever I Go from The First Emperor by Tan Dun. Placido Domingo anyone?

And how about a link to a Zhou Long's opera, Madame White Snake. IT WON A PULITZER, AFTER ALL!

Sorry, no vid, but a link to the WGBH Feature!


opera doesn't necessarily mean giant sets, 3 hour long shows, or the most lavish costumes you've ever seen. I can name three performances/companies that I'm associated with that make opera with much smaller means...and do an amazing job!

a) Remarkable Theater Brigade. If you're in NYC and follow what happens at Carnegie Hall, their "Opera Shorts" program is probably known to you. I participated in what was, basically, the trial run of this format for RTB back in 2009. And it was a smashing success.

Notice that next year they're featuring Ricky Ian Gordon and a name already mentioned as an amazing performer, Dolora Zajick!

Yep, they're producing NEW WORKS by LIVING COMPOSERS, and bringing them to you in 10-15 minute one acts!

b) Intimate Opera of Indianapolis.  You'll notice most of the posts I've made have either been from a coast or Houston (KUDOS TO HOUSTON GRAND OPERA FOR ALL THE WORK PROMOTING LIVING COMPOSERS!). But if you're in the heartland of the US that doesn't mean that exciting opera opportunities aren't there for you!

IOI has a great season running full of amazing works. If you're in Indy, you need to go. Especially in November. I may be in Sweden, but folks in the US will get a chance to hear my first opera, Cake, for the first time in 4+ years! Yes, this is the opera that was on the very first RTB opera shorts, and now IOI has picked it up for its Opera Shots, Black Friday, program!

c) Black House Collective and Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance. Hey, Kansas City, you love the arts. You love new music, jazz, and installations. You even like electronic music! Why not put it together?!?

In a truly adventurous collaboration, Black House and KcEMA teamed up to commission and premiere 6 brand spanking new one act operas! These are all scored for chamber ensembles and electronics! No huge stage, no 50 person chorus, no 50 person pit. Small space, exciting action, and new music!

The program is entitled "Rites of Being" and will run May 16th and 17th. it includes a world premiere of my second one act opera, Till Coffee Do Us Part. Purchase seated tickets in advance (link to brownpapertickets.com event page). Standing room available day of, but don't take your chances.

Alright, this is far from comprehensive. There are tons of amazing operas happening now, all over the world.  Why don't we get the comments rolling?

What contemporary operas do you love? What groups are supporting new operas? Let's spread the love and let people see "WHAT HAS REALLY HAPPENED TO OPERA!"


Anonymous said...

Thoughts on Eric Whitacre's opera?

John Chittum said...

I've only read reviews and seen small snippets--not sure there's a full video or recording out yet. From that, it's hard to say.

Whitacre's music is mostly saccharine to me--the most Romantic melodies of Brahms, early Schoenberg, and Strauss mixed with pleasant pop rhythms, watered down from jazz. It all lays beautifully for the voice, and Whitacre knows how to orchestrate a choir.

The themes seem interesting, and the reviews point to wonderful staging...which is usually a little nod to how the other areas didn't live up. They all spoke of weak plot, poor development, and various other writing pitfalls. Opera is a tough thing, because it combines the needs of great, expressive music, a solid play, and beautiful production. It's easy to fail at one. I railed on someone for that not too long ago...wtfisjohnsopera.blogspot.com/2013/10/opera-as-theater-design-cannot-defeat.html

The general idea of multiculturalism, taking lots of influences, and using mixed media I'm all for. It's something I've done a fairly large amount of (and am still doing).

So, good for Whitacre for putting something somewhat unique out there. Whether it succeeds or not as lasting work, I have no idea. But, I'm happy he did it: it might make the road easier for other composers that are integrating electronics and multimedia to reach a higher stage.