Why the genre would do better to seize upon its centuries-old formulas and transform them
Steve Jobs, Apple’s late visionary leader, has inspired books, films and an opera, and all of them took a lot of research. That research led to a 650-page exhaustively detailed book by Walter Isaacson. It led to a feature film by Aaron Sorkin that focused on Jobs’s (inexcusable) treatment of his oldest daughter, Lisa, whose paternity he long tried to deny. And it led to the libretto of an opera called “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” which had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera on July 22, in which Jobs’s wife, Laurene, sings, “You were never easy./ But once you found your way,/Discovered you were ‘human,’/ We found a way/To connect.”
One of these things is not like the other. In a book or a movie, the lines Laurene sings would be scorned as Hallmark-worthy, romance-novel sentiment: A woman turns the bad boy good. In opera, it seems, we’re willing to tolerate it.
We’re in a golden age of television: More shows are moving away from formula and taking their place among other dramatic arts as powerful creative achievements, from “The Wire” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Yet at the same time, opera — which is considered one of the
highest forms of art — tends to uphold its formulas, sticking to tropes a century or two old. And opera audiences are willing to hold opera to a different standard — which effectively means that the bar is set a lot lower.
When was the last time you came out of a new opera — or ANY opera — feeling that you had had a vital, exciting dramatic experience? When was the last time you felt you had lost yourself in another world? It certainly happens. But in general, we judge opera by different standards. We don’t expect it to be as gripping as a work of spoken theater. The long passages of music, and the pace of the singing, slow everything down.
Indeed, those of us who love opera are conditioned to make allowances for it. Opera has so many moving parts — music, text, production, sets — that it seldom fully succeeds. Die-hard opera lovers learn to look past the flaws — a bad singer, a bizarre staging that only perplexes the audience it’s seeking to animate — to appreciate the greatness lurking behind them. And the eagerness to like the art form and enjoy the event leads many to suspend critical reaction altogether: Audiences laugh loudly at unfunny onstage jokes that in a movie theater would prompt eye-rolling or applaud at the sight of stage sets that aren’t particularly spectacular. Audiences often react, in short, to a social convention — we decide to accept that in this context a servant taking snuff and sneezing is hysterically funny — rather than to our actual response to what’s happening on stage.
There are, of course, exceptions: new productions that make familiar operas newly riveting (Francesca Zambello’s 2009 “Siegfried” was, for me, one example) or new operas that do have a dramatic punch, like this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, “Angel’s Bone” by Du Yun, or “Breaking the Waves” by Missy Mazzoli, based on the film by Lars von Trier. (Both operas had libretti by Royce Vavrek.) But there’s also an awful lot of what I term “opera product” out there, works based on familiar conventions and tropes that tick off a lot of the accepted boxes but don’t really take flight on their own. Sticking to tradition is supposed to make new works more palatable to audiences: The conventional wisdom has it that what opera audiences want is more Puccini operas, despite the fact that adhering to models more than a century old is generally anathema to any serious art form. And while many opera professionals talk a lot about how the art form is in competition with television, in practice that tends to translate as dumbing down — even as television, in general, is smartening up.
Much new opera is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. In opera as in many other fields today, including journalism, “telling stories” has become a buzzword: We exist to tell people the stories that, if you believe the consultant-speak, they are hungrier for than ever. Well and good, but this works only as long as you understand “story” as a metaphoric term for a kind of artistic unity. If you take “story” literally, and think it’s about an opera’s plot, you essentially define opera as a dramatic story that happens to have music appended — and if that’s all it is, other art forms can probably tell that story better.
Yet the opera field continues an almost desperate search for stories that seem sufficiently operatic — only to shoehorn them into relatively crude melodramatic contours, like the librettist Mark Campbell, distilling Steve Jobs’s life into platitudes about creativity and redemption. Many new operas these days are based on films, novels or the lives of real people like Jobs: “The Shining,” “Cold Mountain,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Bel Canto” are among recent titles. But few of them seem to deliver the punch of the original — or of real life.
Here’s the problem: This approach has it exactly backward. The idea shouldn’t be “We have to find a good story and tell it through arias and ensembles.” Rather, it’s the arias and ensembles and other musical elements that create and define the “story.” I love Verdi’s “Il trovatore,” but it’s certainly not because of the plot. What makes me care is Verdi’s music, and the way he uses the operatic conventions of his day to create a work so sturdy and viable and in some way dramatically credible, despite its ludicrous narrative, that it has survived for more than 160 years.
With the emphasis on telling stories, opera is in effect trying to set itself up as an alternative to television — which is only setting itself up for disappointment. An audience that attends only for a story is not an audience primed to enjoy the distinctive and unique strengths of opera. But opera could learn things from contemporary television’s success that could help make it more dramatically effective to a contemporary audience. One is not to remain fettered by formulas but, rather, to transform them, as television has reconceived the miniseries or the sitcom (“Veep”).
Another, as the librettist Vavrek pointed out in a recent telephone conversation, is to examine how opera is consumed. “The mode of distribution of television has changed in a remarkable way over the last 10 years,” he pointed out, noting that this is a significant factor in television’s qualitative leap forward. “We need to explore new ways of getting operas out there.” Vavrek himself is working on a series of short opera movies with several notable composers. Another exciting recent project was Yuval Sharon’s “Hopscotch,” which played out in cars on the freeways of Los Angeles, with audience members as passengers.
Opera is the most visceral and immediate of art forms, even if many people haven’t realized that yet. It doesn’t have to be isolated from our everyday experience or require us to suspend our dramatic standards to appreciate it on its own terms. And there’s no need to be tolerant of opera that merely seeks to continue the status quo — or that isn’t very good. What opera really needs is higher expectations. Only by being critical, and demanding of it the same standards we demand of other forms, are we going to be able to keep it alive.
Baritone Edward Parks, filling the role of Steve Jobs, at a dress rehearsal of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” The opera had its world premiere this month in Santa Fe, N.M.