The time: early 90s.
The scene: a shopping mall in Champaign, IL
The action: some fellow students and I are singing arias to advertise our upcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro. A little boy of about 4 stands, mesmerized, a few feet away. He does not want to leave and violently protests when his parents attempt to move him along.
(Repeat versions of the above in a hotel lobby in San Antonio, TX and after a Messiah performance somewhere I no longer remember; but was approached by a parent with a tiny little boy who wanted to give me a hug).
The time: 1998.
The scene: A McDonald's in Burnet, TX.
The action: I am driving home from performances of the Ring Cycle in Arizona and have stopped off for coffee, wearing my Ring sweatshirt. I am the only person in the place not wearing overalls and a gimme cap. The good ol' boy behind me strikes up a conversation: "Der Ring des Nibelungen?" he drawls. "I love me some Wagner. I listen to that Texaco Opera broadcast when I'm on my tractor."
The time: 2012
The scene: A Starbucks in Miami, FL.
The action: I'm enjoying my post-workout smoothie and I happen to have a bunch of free tickets to the dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliette to give away. Everybody in the place wants one and suddenly, people who were formerly merely occupying the same space as they pursued their individual interests are chatting with each other ABOUT OPERA. The Cuban barrista shyly asks if he can have four tickets --- he wants to take his wife, his sister, and his mother-in-law.The next time I see him, he's beaming -- those opera tickets made him a hero at home. I no longer have to pay for coffee.
The time: 2013
The scene: A bakery/cafe in Bozeman, MT.
The action: The wonderful, remote cabin where I'm staying has no internet access, so every day I drive into town and spend several hours (and dollars) at my favorite cafe. I have comp tickets to Romeo & Juliet to give away, and offer them to the twenty-something tattooed, pierced barrista. He is so excited that he comes around the counter and asks if he can give me a hug. "I have ALWAYS wanted to go to the opera!" he says. He immediately calls a female friend. You'd think I'd tipped him fifty bucks.
Footnote: two separate groups of high school kids come to the performances. They have all been studying Romeo & Juliet in English class. One group comes in their finest prom attire --- they are making an evening of it. The other has made fantastic Venetian masks, which they all wear throughout the performance. Both groups are wildly enthusiastic about the show.
The time (I promise this is the last one): 2013
The place: Iroquois County, IL.
The scene: On opening night of Cold Sassy Tree, a colleague and I have rescued a kitten and taken it to the nearest animal shelter we can find, a good 20 miles out of town in more or less the middle of no where. This overcrowded cat shelter is run by several young women. We spend a lot of time touring and playing with the kitties --- they don't get many visitors --- and chatting with the employees. It turns out that one of them is a huge opera fan and in fact had seen me when I sang there two years ago; she makes regular trips to Chicago (over two hours away) to hear opera at the Lyric.
There's been so much naysaying about the state of opera recently; and with the controversial announcement of San Diego's Opera abrupt closing (which now, thankfully, has been postponed), article after article has sprung up with the headline, "Is Opera Dead?"
I'd say that the national conversation and outrage over San Diego is a pretty good argument that opera continues to be relevant to many people. And the anecdotes above are just a sampling of what I have personally experienced over my years as a professional singer. Opera lovers exist where you least expect them; and many more people are open to the genre than is popularly believed.
When you tell people you're an opera singer, no one ever reacts with indifference. In fact, no one ever reacts with disgust or contempt. The reaction is almost always some variation of "Wow, that's so cool! I don't know much about opera but I like the little bit I've heard." Often they ask you to sing for them; and when they do, if the situation is appropriate, I always do. I believe we should be ambassadors for our art form. So I sing when I'm asked; I give away comps to performances. Sure, I'd rather they buy a ticket, but maybe they will next time. Or maybe they'll just always fondly remember that time they went to the opera, and when years down the line somebody makes a disparaging comment, they'll pipe up and say, "I went to the opera once. It was magical." Or "I met an opera singer once. She was cool."
Opera has a public relations and marketing problem. The general public still seems to think that opera singers are all fat and temperamental and that all our costumes involve horned helmets. And they seem to think we're all rich, too. (I wish)! And industry professionals like San Diego's general director Ian Campbell (who, let us not forget, deserves lauds for his past contributions in turning SDO around even though he's now trying to burn it to the ground) are actively damaging today's opera by promoting the old-fashioned, grand opera ideal of huge productions, with big stars the only worthwhile talent. Everybody loves a spectacle and opera has always, in part, been about spectacle, but it's much, much more.
Good theater is good theater. It doesn't need fancy production values to be interesting, entertaining, or relevant.And I'd be willing to bet that those top-tier singers who are getting $19,000 a performance at San Diego Opera would be just as riveting if they were standing on a bare stage in their street clothes. If they weren't, they wouldn't be worth $19,000 a performance. A diamond doesn't need a fancy setting to shine.
Opera isn't dying. Opera is evolving. Increasingly, only a tiny handful of companies in the world can afford to regularly produce opera on a grand scale; and this isn't a terrible thing. What a treat to travel to one of the world's great houses to see and hear the artistry of composers, singers, instrumentalists, conductors, costume, set, makeup, and lighting designers, scenic artists, dancers, and the less glamourous but indispensible artistry of the carpenters and electricians who bring the vision to life. What an occasion.
But you can still see and hear opera on ---perhaps a less grand, but no less intriguing, artistic, moving, relevant scale. As I type, Fort Worth Opera Festival is rehearsing the haunting, Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, based on a true event during WWI; and last season they brought the wrenching and critically acclaimed Glory Denied about a Vietnam War POW; right alongside sparkling productions of Daughter of the Regiment and La boheme. Moving to a festival format revitalized Fort Worth Opera; it is now one of the jewels of the industry and an example many other companies look to for inspiration.
Minnesota Opera comes to mind as a long-successful producer of innovative and vital productions of traditional favorites as well as new productions. (I treasure my experience as a cast member of the American Premiere of Jonathan Dove's delightful The Adventures of Pinocchio --- an opera which, as appealing to adults as children, should see many more American productions that it currently does).
And I am particularly proud of my hometown opera, Austin Lyric Opera, which under new, decisive leadership has recovered from its foundering, gotten out of debt, and is moving forward with programming which is both artistically satisfying and engaging for the community.
These are just a few examples. I sit writing this in a coffee shop in Boise, Idaho, where I am currently directing a production of Gianni Schicchi for Opera Idaho. It's not a big budget show, but I daresay it will be entertaining and appealing to the audience. Today over lunch, my hostess asked me how Opera Idaho compared to other small market companies. "Does every state have an opera company?" she asked.
Good question. As near as I can tell, every state in the U.S. has at least one opera company, except North Dakota, Wyoming, and West Virginia. My home state of Texas has fourteen, including two international houses, four solid mid-size regional companies, and a myriad of smaller houses and associations --- and that doesn't count all the universities that produce opera. North Carolina has seven professional companies, a major training program/festival and the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute. Pennslyvania has eleven companies. Missouri has five. Florida has twelve. California has about thirty-three --- we hope it doesn't soon become thirty-two.
This doesn't sound like an art form on its deathbed to me. Besides, opera dotes on death scenes. And mad scenes. And dramatic rescues.
We'll be around for a while. You should check us out.