A few months ago I came across a piece by Imogen Crimp which recounts her attempt to pursue a career in opera. Her story covers some pretty crappy experiences with conservatory instructors and less than savory employment practices, but one of the parts that stuck in my mind was her reflections on what got her into opera in the first place.
When I decided, in my final year of university, to pursue singing as a career, I’d never actually been to an opera. I’d taken vocal lessons and been in choirs for most of my teenage years. Singing had always seemed to come naturally to me, and people would reliably tell me I was good at it – something very important to me as an attention-seeking youngest child. But I’d never seen an opera performed.
If I’m completely honest, I was drawn towards opera, I think, because it seemed like the most prestigious and impressive sort of singing. I wanted, with that abstract, misplaced confidence of a very young person, to be the best. I’d learnt a handful of arias from operas over the years, but beyond that I knew next to nothing about it and strangely it didn’t occur to me much that this mattered.
When I finally did go to see an opera performed, a couple of months after I’d graduated, I was – something I found difficult to admit even to myself – instantly disappointed. What had always moved me about vocal music was the sense of raw unfiltered emotion, of feeling that couldn’t be suppressed… And so going to the opera, I was sure I would witness something magical and transformative. Instead, I felt detached and indifferent and, yes, just a little bit bored.
There was a lot going on here. The first is that arts marketing talks about the experience being transformative and magical and yet for someone who knew the songs, the first experience wasn’t. It seems pretty clear that she experienced the songs out of the context of the larger piece and the environment that accompanies it.
If that was the case for her, then it is probably reasonable to assume that expecting advertising pieces with video and audio featuring the most exciting moments from a work aren’t going to be effective tools for retaining audiences. They promise an experience out of the context of the whole.
Whether it is alternative programming or new attendee welcome/orientation initiatives something else has to be there for those new to the experience. You can’t expect ads to keep people coming back for more if they felt like there was a failure to deliver on what was promised.
In a similar vein, I have occasionally seen articles noting the popularity of dancing and singing shows on television and wondering why that hasn’t translated into greater interest and investment in the arts. Obviously, all the boring and tough parts were edited out and what you see on TV is only a slice of the greater experience. It can be really disappointing to learn that there is a lot of annoying filler between those satisfying moments.
As has been noted about classic works of literature and theatre of late, Crimp feels opera isn’t holding up so well against the evolving expectations of society. She wonders how La Boheme can be considered a love story with all the creepy stuff Rodolpho does and says. She also points out the disconnect between valorizing struggles against poverty, inequity, etc., in performances the poor can’t afford to see. There is a sense that this may also be contributing to the disconnect between what is promised and delivered to newer audiences.
When you go to watch an opera like Bohème in a big opera house, there’s an unavoidable irony: in so many of these works – from The Marriage of Figaro to Tosca to Wozzeck – money, disempowerment (particularly of woman) and social inequality are repeated themes, and yet the contexts they’re so often seen in – at large opera houses with expensive tickets and dressed-up audiences – are rich and privileged. The rituals surrounding going to operas, its entire reputation as an art form, seem to me now so at odds with the spirit of the stories and the music.