Opera on­ward

Why the genre would do bet­ter to seize upon its cen­turies-old for­mu­las and trans­form them

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

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.

KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA

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.

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