I Give a Figaro! Why Opera Is Worth Caring About

Opera is ailing! Here is why it must be saved.

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By Shirley Tan

If opera dies, fate core—be brave—and plunge your sword into my heart! If not that, I’ll go the other “Così fan tutte” route and just find myself some arsenic. Or I will bury myself alive in the tomb of my beloved. Or jump off the parapet of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Or march to the guillotine while belting the “Salve Regina.” Or self-immolate on my lover’s funeral pyre. And if I have the patience for a slow burn, the tuberculosis will probably take me in the end, “La Traviata”-style.

As any opera character would, I come to desperate measures out of love. I first encountered opera when I was three years old and my mom brought home the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Magic Flute” on DVD. In Sarastro’s kingdom, no one can resist the sound of Prince Tamino’s magic flute. Even the huge white bears living nearby can’t help but come onstage and do a jig. On the other side of the TV, I, too, must have perked up my cub ears and begun to dance.

But I worry now about opera’s future. Because of the pandemic, opera is in more danger than ever. COVID-19 has cost the Metropolitan Opera over $150 million. Approximately 1,000 members of the chorus and orchestra have been furloughed without pay since April.

Opera was ailing long before COVID arrived. In 2017, the New York Times reported that the Met had taken in only 67 percent of its potential box office revenue from the 2016-2017 season. This is a huge plummet from as recently as the ‘90s, when the Met consistently took in over 90 percent of its potential box-office income. The ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were the golden age of opera. Now, that’s just the age of opera-goers. These goers, many of whom are older folks, also tend to be white (78 percent) and college-educated (93.4 percent). It’s easy to see where opera gets its stuffy, eau-du-something smell.

Making opera relevant to a wider audience is difficult particularly due to the parts of opera that are not just benignly stale, but rotten. The character of Monostatos in “The Magic Flute” has his origins in the libretto as a lecherous “blackamore” lusting after the pure, beautiful, white Pamina. Monostatos is an outcast even in his name, which is Greek for “standing alone.” In the original libretto, Monostatos sings an aria called “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden” that includes one of the most hateful lines in opera: “I am supposed to avoid love. Because a Black is ugly.” The Met’s English language version sanitizes this with something more innocuous: “I’m despised and ugly, too.” Nevertheless, knowing the origin of this character makes loving opera, or at least “The Magic Flute,” more complex and difficult. And for some, it may make it impossible.

It is also common for libretti to be sexist. In Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” there is a coquettish village girl named Zerlina who sings an aria, “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto!” or “Beat me, dear Masetto!” to the sturdy peasant bloke she’s about to marry. The chance to wallop a woman may be just the thing for Masetto’s rattled masculinity—he has just seen Zerlina get seduced by Don Giovanni, and a day before their wedding, at that. “I’ll stand here meek as a lamb,” sings Zerlina. “You can tear my hair out, put out my eyes, yet your dear hands I’ll gladly kiss.”

Opera is trying to move forward. But it’s difficult when characters like Zerlina and Monostatos cling to opera’s legs. I recently had the opportunity to speak to one of opera’s great revitalizers, General Manager of the Met Opera Peter Gelb, to talk about the predicament that opera is in right now. And, even more importantly, what can be done about it. I was particularly eager to talk to Gelb because of the work that he’s already done to bring opera to a wider audience. The abridged production of “The Magic Flute” that hooked me as a toddler was one of his initiatives. He is also responsible for “The Met: Live in HD,” which brings live performance transmissions to movie theaters all over the world. Gelb and I spoke over Zoom. Here is our conversation, cut down for clarity and length:

What do you think accounts for the disconnect between young people these days and opera, and what might opera have to say to youth?

PG: Opera takes a commitment. You have to have time—operas are longer than Broadway musicals. They are mostly sung in foreign languages, so you have to have the patience and intellectual curiosity to actually take the trouble to read the subtitles if you actually want to know what’s going on in the story. Also, a lot of opera stories are very outdated, and they are not so relevant. Some of the greatest music written for operas have stories that are not very convincing, not very credible dramatically.

For today, my goal with opera is to try to make it as widely appealing as possible for different age groups and to work with the best directors and designers to create experiences that younger audiences, if they give it a chance, could really get into. And it’s also why, for extra young audiences, I’ve created that reduced English-language version of “The Magic Flute.” That was done expressly for the purpose of trying to introduce opera to younger people. It’s what I’m committed to doing, trying to make opera as widely accessible as possible without undermining its artistic integrity and what makes opera so beautiful and so appealing. My goal is to get people to be willing, whether they’re old or young, to come into the opera house and give it a chance. And then I hope what happens is that they will be overwhelmed by the power of the musical and theatrical experience, which can be incredible.

Sometimes there are themes in opera that clash with modern values, like “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” or anti-semitism in the Ring Cycle. So how does the Met deal with this? And if an opera does have these sour notes, does that mean it shouldn’t be performed?

PG: Great art, over the span of history, often reflects the values, or the poor values, that existed at the time when these great works were created. And this is not just exclusively the case of opera. William Faulkner was terribly anti-Semitic in some of his great novels. But because somebody writes something that’s flawed or wrong, but the work itself is a creative work of genius, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think it’s really important that we should make note of the fact that opera librettos, or the way they were produced, conveyed unfortunate or blatantly racist stereotypes or anti-Semitism. But that doesn’t mean they should be eliminated. They represent the great history of art. But also, going back to your earlier question, that can make it harder for somebody who’s young or not initiated to opera to want to be exposed to it, because they come to an opera and see that it’s blatantly racist. There were practices, historically, in opera, [like] using makeup to make singers Black, in the case of performances of “Otello,” or yellow in the case of performances of “Madama Butterfly” or “Turandot.” We stopped doing that. But you know it’s something we have to be very aware of, and anybody doing the job I’m doing has to be careful and has to ensure that proper contextual information is given for these performances. It’s also why I’m excited about commissioning new work. It’s a chance to address social change. And for example, in the 21-22 season, our very opening night is “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which is an opera by Terrence Blanchard, and it addresses several issues, one being that the Met has lagged way behind in not having Black composers. This will be the first work by an African-American composer the Met has put on.

How do you expect that opera will change because of this pandemic?

PG: COVID has been devastating, not just for Met but for all the performing arts. Everything is shut down. The nonprofit performing arts were struggling financially to begin with, and now without performances, our company members are struggling because most of them have been furloughed without pay. We are ultimately at the mercy of how quickly the COVID crisis is cured. Until it goes away, we’re kind of stuck. What has been really important for the Met, in these months that we’ve been dark, is the way that we connect with our audiences both here and abroad through this vast vault of programming that we’ve released to the public. Free nightly opera streams, pay-per-view recitals we’re releasing in Europe—all these have had a really profound effect on the public. We actually have 30,000 new donors who joined because of the nightly streams, people who felt that the Met sort of came to their rescue, culturally, when they were stuck in their homes. People have actually discovered opera through these nightly streams. Hopefully, that will carry over—that momentum that we’ve achieved winning the hearts of the public through the Met’s efforts to keep audiences connected to the art form, even when we’re dark.

It is true that opera is old and still resorts to some of its most outdated mannerisms, like bosom-clutching and 20 gigatonne sets. However, it is also true that opera, despite how its skin may sag and drag, has vital organs that are still pumping. “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s beautiful (and only) opera, is the story of the heroism of a woman called Leonore who disguises herself as a man and sneaks into prison to liberate her husband, Florestan. “Fidelio” is also a story about justice. In his underground cell, Florestan, who has been jailed for speaking out against the evil Don Pizarro, sings, “I dared to speak the truth boldly, and these chains are my reward.” Perhaps this sounds familiar in 2020. Often, though, opera doesn’t strike any socially relevant chords. It doesn’t need to; it simply tells a good story.

In Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’amore,” a bumpkin named Nemorino takes a swig of placebo with the hope that he will develop enough manly swagger to win the heart of the wealthy farm owner Adina, whose chief virtues, according to Nemorino, are that she is beautiful, expensive, and literate. Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” is the story of a prank gone so wrong that two young women, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, start the day engaged and end the day about to be married. But not to the original men.

But what keeps opera a warm, breathing art form is ultimately not only the plotlines. It is the way that opera draws people together. In a physical sense, opera brings people together in the opera house rows and on the subway ride there and back. People graze each other as they slip into their seats. During intermission, bathroom-goers bump elbows as they reach for the soap. There is a different form of closeness in the music. The music is the part of opera that everybody understands without the help of subtitles or costumes. The music is the part of opera that stays fresh, the part that affects people in the same ways as it did a century or two ago. The music cannot be dead because it calls out to all sorts of creatures—Prince Tamino, bears, and humans—and brings us all to life.