Push and pull opera in the present

Opera singer
A scene from Yuval Sharon’s 2019 production The magic flute

A recent study published in Biological examinations argues that Earth’s sixth mass extinction event is underway, causing an outpouring of national interest and grim media headlines warning of drastic decreases in global biodiversity.

Would the death of opera in its current form, reducing the diversity of the American artistic landscape, attract such attention? Probably not – this medium means a lot to a relatively small part of the population. But for years, the opera has been in a kind of cocoon-like period of transition as it explores new works and ways to move beyond its history of exclusion. Companies large and small across the country are emphasizing the newest works and new ways of interpreting old works. COVID-19, that natural catalyst that caused society to do some serious soul-searching, accelerated this process.

The proof: many companies have been forced to experiment with digital content, smaller scale productions and new ways to rehearse and perform. As the pandemic subsides – omicron notwithstanding – much of this experimentation will likely be pushed aside in favor of the “normal” way of doing business. But there are composers, performers and directors who, through their creativity, have been hired as artistic directors during the uncertainty of the pandemic to ensure that some of the changes continue.

Shawna Lucy

Take New York-based theater and opera director Shawna Lucey, who was named Opera San José’s new general manager in December. She’s been described as “experimental,” but quibbled with the term a bit in an interview: “I don’t consider myself particularly experimental,” she said. “I think it’s a complicated word, it’s loaded. If you mean experimental like trying to make a performance deeply engaging and accessible, then yes, I’m very experimental.

Other “experimental” directors stepping into traditional roles include Yuval Sharon, founder of The Industry in Los Angeles and artistic director of the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit and the highly decorated James Darra, appointed Artistic Director and Creative Director of the Long Beach Opera. These three have mounted productions of old and new works in train stations and parking lots, and as streaming series and much more.

Safe to say, there has been some experimentation.

Backward Bohemia

“Somewhere along the line, our approach to classic works really froze,” Sharon said. “Operas were cut, rearranged, taken from other operas. Before, there was a lot more fluidity in some of these works. Fluidity indeed – Sharon has taken one of the world’s most beloved works of opera and literally turned it on its head. In April, the Michigan Opera Theater presents its Bohemian, where the opera takes place in reverse order. Yeah. Upside down Bohemia. “The elevator pitch can make it very fancy, but the process doesn’t end with the title,” Sharon said. “This is not an otherwise conventional production of Bohemia but a thorough investigation of the concept.

He added that COVID-19 made it more difficult for administrators and companies to make assumptions about the “right” way to do things, and that this led to more openness in the field to try more techniques. radical. industryhis company in Los Angeles, is based on this idea of ​​investigating established processes.

Yuval Sharon | Credit: Casey Kringlen/LA Phil

Small companies have long been open to experimentation, but the ideas are becoming mainstream in larger companies, signaling a fundamental shift in attitude. “At most regional companies, we’re not allowed to make a mistake,” Lucey said. “The margin is so thin that I can’t, and that fear of making a mistake means everything bland and harmless and boring.”

But in the case of workhorses and new works, trying to make the material resonate with audiences, especially new audiences, will require some creativity. And sometimes even a slight change in direction can trigger a huge emotional reaction. Lucey described directing a production of Figaro’s wedding where she asked the singer playing the Countess to return her wedding ring to the Count as a signal that she was ready to move on with her life. “The cast was excited and blown away to do it that way, and the audience loved it,” she recalled. “There is fear, if we do something different like this, the public will revolt. This has not been my experience.

A scene from Shawna Lucey’s production of Figaro’s wedding

HBO opera?

James Darrah’s vision for the future of opera exists on a whole new level. “There’s a way I’m so excited for the nonprofit arts side to wake up and realize that the next generation has phones in their pockets,” he said. Darrah has made a number of filmed operas since before the pandemic and insists that there is a marked difference between archival recordings or the streaming of traditional productions and designing an opera to live in. the screen. “Rather than doing what happened in the 20th century, bringing in directors and having them record great operas, why not make opera take over some of the DNA of television and cinema? “, did he declare. “That’s where I’m trying to go.”

James Darra | 1 credit

This assignment has taken him into unique spaces, working with television actors and screenwriters in writers’ rooms on episodic and lyrical content, including the 2021 release of David T. Little. soldier songs with Opera Philadelphia, and a new film by Francis Poulenc The human voice.

“Opera, because it’s so old, has a lot of tradition built in, something I call the quagmire of tradition,” Darrah said. “We [can] let the opera separate and play by other rules and involve the rules of other mediums. He advocates that older works be reinvented as streaming opportunities as well as newer works created specifically for this medium, as television and film are the cultural ‘zeitgeist’ of modern times, not opera. . Success stories abound. As Creative Director of Digital Content for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 2021, Darrah oversaw projects that racked up over 2.5 million views during the year.

The academy also takes note. the soldier songs The project Darrah worked on is nominated for Best Opera Recording at the 2022 Grammy Awards. “You can never fake the experience of walking into an opera house and being dazzled and wowed,” Darrah said. “I never want it to go away. But it’s a great way to save the opera, to be quite frank. It’s a bold claim.

What does Lucey think about what could save the opera from extinction? “Right now it’s all about how the soprano dies at the end,” she laughed. “My personal mission in trying to help manage this art form in its next iteration. If I can leave a legacy, it’s to create more comedies. More new American comedies. She recognized that the field is currently struggling with its own heritage and self-image, as well as the culture as a whole, and that asking people to laugh at themselves is a “tough ask.” Doing comedy is about 3,000% harder, like threading a needle,” she said. “And that’s why we do less of it.”

Sharon’s approach is less focused on a single medium or genre and on disrupting conceptions of the creation of opera. “All I can do is respond authentically to this work and move forward whether these things are old or new,” he said. “Reception is out of my hands. At this point, I have my way of working and it won’t change based on people’s reaction. It may sound abrasive, but his commitment to investigating the processes of opera led to international success and fame.

A scene from Yuval Sharon’s 2019 production The magic flute

The groundbreaking production of Mozart’s Sharon The magic flute premiered in Berlin in 2019 with whistles and boos, leading one reviewer to say, “There are natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes. And then there are the man-made disasters, like Yuval Sharon’s new production of Die Zauberflote. (Shirley Apthorp writes for FinancialTimes gets credit for this zinger.) But in the end, this production became very popular all over the world, thanks to its freshness.

Like any live performance, one that inspires an emotional response, even a negative one, is preferable to a drowsy one. magic flute. The estate seems to agree, if the influx of bolder directorial talent is any indication.

“A lot of people think ‘experimental’ means Bohemia on the moon with people swimming through putty,” Lucey said. “But the experience is when you have a classic title like Marriage of Figaro Where magic flute …we are an American audience full of diverse and interesting citizens. Until now, we may not have been part of the opera experience, because [of the way] it was passed on, because it’s not for them or they couldn’t see it. The question now is, how can we do Marriage of Figaro important to these diverse communities, because I believe that Mozart’s music is for everyone. It’s an exciting time for opera, new composers and new works, especially those that speak to the American experience. Maybe more directly compelling, because it’s more directly related to where we are now.