It's tough to market opera these days. Maybe it's always been, but with social media making it so easy for something innocently meant (or poorly thought out) to incite a brouhaha, it's even harder. Opera is always fighting an image problem. To wit:
Opera is for rich people, the tickets cost too much.
Fact check: most opera companies offer moderately priced seats and rush tickets for students; and perks for subscriptions. A quick look at tickets for the San Antonio Spurs revealed that their prices range from $25 for a nosebleed seat to $1752 for courtside. Ticketmaster showed Ariana Grande selling for $20-$79 for seats and $395-$695 for VIP packages. A local tour of The Book of Mormon starts at $66 and goes up to $566. By contrast, my local opera company starts at $35 and tops out at $199 for single seats.
I won't understand it; opera is all in foreign languages.
Fact check: While most US opera companies produce opera in their original languages --- Italian, German, and French Russian, Czech, and English being the most common --- there have been operas written in Sanskrit, Klingon (!!!), Greek, Inuktitut, and even multiple languages (there's one in Nahuatl, English, and Spanish). But when you go to the opera in the US, you will almost always have supertitles, like subtitles in a foreign film.
Opera is a bunch of fat people in horned helmets.
Fact check: And here we come to the inspiration for today's post. The comic stereotype of the extra-fluffy Brunnhilde, usually wearing clownish makeup, or the sweaty, rotund tuxeo'd and hanky-waving cariacature of Pavarotti, have come to symbolize opera in the minds of the general public. Understandably, the opera world fights back against these silly images, and one of the results is that marketers try very hard to try to position opera as cool, contemporary, and sexy.
Let's be clear: opera IS cool, contemporary, and especially, sexy. Most of the plots revolve around people loving and lusting and whether that love and lust is requited or not. We get to see a lot of that fallout on stage. And opera IS very much a visual art form. Art, design, textiles, dance, makeup, lighting --- at its most modest and its grandest and at every point in between, these arts go into making opera the grand spectacle it is.
But at the heart of opera lies the voice, its incredible abilities and individuality, and the artist whose innate talent, cultivated skill, artistic mind, and wealth of experience goes into taking all of these elements and distilling them into a performance. The voice, ultimately, is the sexiest thing about opera, and without the voice ... it's not opera.
And those artists with their sexy voices come in a variety of packages. They are tall, they are short, they are fat or thin or neither, they are buff or flabby, they are older or younger, they are bald or blonde or brunette or black-haired or ginger. They come from a vast array of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Some of them are missing limbs, or have facial paralysis, or hemophilia, or are blind. Some of them are amazing, accomplished athletes and look like movie stars. Others are fabulous cooks or jewelry-makers or knitters and look like regular mortals. But what they have in common is a passion for the art form, and something to contribute. Something to say.
What a shame it would be if some of those voices were silenced for so silly, so shallow a reason as the way they looked, or didn't look. Opera is about the human condition, and humans, after all, come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. And it's not just the pretty who fall in love, copulate, suffer, or have adventures.
An opera company, in an effort to create compelling marketing for one of their shows, recently posted a meme, with the hashtag , "Not your mother's opera."
I don't know the soprano shown, Julia Lima, or her work. She is clearly a gorgeous young woman and those looks are part of her "package", part of what makes her marketable. Good for her. Julia Lima is, indeed, opera.
But so is the fat lady in the horned helmet (although, for the record, I've done three different productions of Die Walkuere and nobody had horns, or giant cone breastplates, or clown makeup).
Julia Lima is opera, but so am I. So are my many friends and colleagues who may not fit the Hollywood ideal. We're not your mother's opera either, whatever that means. Also, opera itself doesn't always mean a grand stage. There is so much innovative, cool opera going on. Operas on contemporary, relevant subjects. Operas happening in art galleries , in circus schools ,and in bars. Fusion opera. Small opera companies bringing small bites of opera to new audiences or re-imagining the classics in ways that interest non-traditional audiences and often get them in to the big opera house as well.
I made a few #ThisIsOpera memes of my own, and asked some of my colleagues to share theirs. We are opera, too. After you look at our photos, please visit our websites and hear our sexy voices. Better yet, come to a show. You might be surprised to find out what opera really is.
And last but not least ...