My father was fond of the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." I think of it often when considering the state of opera in America, or rather the state of American opera companies. While opera, the art form, is doing well — artists have never been better — the model of opera production we have enjoyed in this country for the best part of a century is collapsing on itself. For those of us responsible for ensuring that opera continues to be heard as widely as possible, there is no doubt that we live in very interesting times.
In the latter part of the 20th century, opera was unique among the "legacy" art forms in enjoying substantial growth, buoyed by the innovation of simultaneous projected translation (aka surtitles). That trend has reversed in the new millennium. In the past 10 years, attendance is down almost 25 percent nationally. This slide was accelerated by the Great Recession, of course, when a number of opera companies disappeared completely and almost every company cut its number of productions. Fewer performances at fewer companies has played a role in this decline, but so has the explosion of alternative entertainment options. Today, our biggest competition is not just theater or movies or sports; it's people staying home to watch Netflix.
I am fortunate among my peers at other companies in that I joined Opera Memphis in 2011, after this implosion process was well under way. Change is here, clearly. We need to take a step away from how we did things for decades and decide what is actually vital about what we do. What makes opera special and worth protecting? More importantly, what about it will allow us all to break free of two centuries of elitist baggage, whether perceived or real?
I think the answer to all of the above is simple. Some of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced in opera were in a dingy auditorium in Tel Aviv, working with the Israeli Vocal Arts Institute. The only orchestra was a piano. The only sets were things we could scrounge from classrooms and "borrow" from our hotel rooms. Props were brought in in your luggage or not at all. Everything about the circumstances worked against creating great, or even good, opera. Except for the singers. They were glorious. Some of the best singers from around the world, there to coach with staff from the Metropolitan Opera.
For three weeks every summer, their talent transformed that concrete-block building into the most lush opera house imaginable. With nothing but words and music, they transported that audience to heights of ecstasy and depths of despair.
Don't misunderstand me. I love the acoustics of GPAC and the moving lights at Playhouse on the Square. I love beautiful sets and costumes, and I wouldn't trade the Memphis Symphony in the pit for any band anywhere. But it all begins and ends with those singers onstage and the words and music they bring to life.
This deep belief in the basic power of the human voice has allowed Opera Memphis to expand its mission outside of the opera house and into the streets, schools, and parks of Memphis. Our annual month-long celebration of the human voice, "30 Days of Opera," has brought opera to more than 50,000 Memphians in the past two years. My greatest pleasure is looking into the face of someone whose dinner or shopping trip was just opera-fied and seeing the tilted head and furrowed brow of someone saying to themselves, "Good Lord, did I just enjoy opera?"
All across America, getting people in the door has become an increasingly harder task for opera companies. So out that door we've gone, singing arias at the Levitt Shell and the corner of Sam Cooper and East Parkway, in nooks and crannies all around the city. And it's working. People are following the trail of bread crumbs to the opera house, in our case to GPAC. More will follow.
I'm not sure what they expect to find when they walk in. I know it won't look like what they've seen on TV or in the movies. But I do know what it will sound like. That hasn't changed in 400 years. It will be the sound of the most beautiful, the most heart-human life distilled into words and music and brought to life by the glory of the unamplified human voice.
So here's to interesting times!
Ned Canty is the general director of Opera Memphis. The company will present Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto at GPAC on the evenings of October 3rd and 5th. For more information, go to operamemphis.org.