Opera can be the most elevating art form because it utilizes and dramatizes all of the other arts simultaneously. Like great novels that create characters and events for the imagination, operas offer stories with larger-than-life characters facing heroic or heart-rending conflicts. But opera is live. We experience its physical reality directly.
Architecture is set in motion as elaborate sets revolve, appear and disappear. Landscape, portrait, and still-life paintings come to life with characters moving through their surroundings in magnificent period costumes, eating, drinking, loving or leaving.
Sculpture in its most sublime form of the human body spins and glides as dancers move gracefully across the stage. Dramatic actors sing their roles with thrilling voices, and the chorus gives full support to their passions or their pain. Language doesn’t matter; we intuitively “understand” Italian, French, German, Russian.
If this isn’t enough, all of the arts and performers interplay and come together as one integrated whole to let us see and experience in every way possible the most exhilarating art of all: the unseen art of music; the glowing center, the heartbeat of opera. Surpassing normal theater productions, opera stimulates our senses in full profusion, and we are launched into a heightened state of beauty that merges sight and sound harmoniously together. Our minds are activated, our souls stirred.
Emotions soar or sigh as we feel the music, for it fills us until we overflow with joy or with sorrow; it doesn’t matter which because after every unrepeatable performance we leave the opera house and re-enter real life ever richer than when we entered, drenched in aesthetic-mental-emotional fulfillment. Opera as it should be.
How unfortunate that this great art form in today’s already dismal cultural world is being gussied up and dumbed down to appeal not to serious opera fans and students but to attract new audiences of uninformed, fad-driven, sloppy-of-mind-and-dress attendees who hoot and holler as if at a football game when any famous soprano hits a high “C.”
“Modernizing” traditional opera has been an unavoidable fact in Europe — called “Euro-trash” by knowledgeable opera buffs — for years, but under Metropolitan Opera’s present manager, Peter Gelb, the trend has finally established roots in New York City.
Formerly of Sony Entertainment, Gelb claims there are too many “gray heads” filling Met seats and opera needs to appeal to young people, so he hires mostly English theater, Broadway, and Hollywood directors to gimmick up productions.
But if appealing to youth means that in “Macbeth” there are 33 witches instead of three, all dragging children around and sporting huge pocketbooks, and Macbeth drinking a child’s vomit from a chalice, what does that appeal accomplish?
If setting the tragic “Rigoletto” in neon-blazing Las Vegas is fun for the young, what happens to the story’s soul? The new “Madama Butterfly” is the first where I did not weep. Visual stunts fracture attention away from soaring music, Cio Cio San and her maid pick fake flowers from the backs of kneeling males with rear ends facing the audience, and the pathetic child, with (according to the libretto) curly blond hair, dangles and jerks comically about as a bald-headed puppet manipulated by black-clad males Japanese Bunraku-style.
“Orpheo and Eurydice”? Freakishly attired dancers jump-stomp through “choreography” shamelessly pick-pocketed from Bob Fosse and Martha Graham; the perky character of “Love” descends to the stage on wires in a pink T-shirt, bobbing around and looking so much like a drunk Mary Poppins that it’s hysterically funny, causing the audience to roar with laughter.
Romantic “Romeo et Juliette”: The costumes and side sets are fine — there’s even a balcony — but at center stage sits a gigantic revolving-tilting-turn-table platform that singers hop up to and jump down from, an orifice-centered circle at the back with changing images that blind the audience with light, and another revolving mobile that appears and disappears at random from above; finally, the white-draperied marriage bed swings suspended from chains, causing the singers to fumble around awkwardly amid the bed’s precarious arabesque to grab each other on their wedding night.
"La Traviata" . . . Enough.
After 20 years of six-eight operas a season, my husband and I — no gray hair — gave up our sixth-row-center orchestra seats. Opera, however, is being given up as a noble art form to become a circus for undisciplined adolescents and a display of tasteless distortion by “hip” directors drawing attention to themselves rather than to the superlative works of dead composers who cannot defend themselves against modern mutilations of their glorious musical creations. This is high treason that big name-singers with clout and savvy audiences ought to shun in defiant protest.
Original, contemporary operas? Good or bad, bring them on and “Bravo” for trying, but shame on those who blaspheme the works of past geniuses in the false name of modernity.
True opera aficionados, choose your productions carefully.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "The Innocent." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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