Although many people might think of it as an outdated pastime for the rich elite, opera in America is actually more popular than ever amongst a wide range of people.
As no less an authority than Kurt Weill stated many years ago, ‘musical theater is as old as the idea of theater itself’, and his thoughts on the future of opera in America proved to be extremely prophetic. With a history that dates back to the 1700s, when Flora, a ballad opera, became the first ever opera to be performed in North America, this is one section of the arts that is very much alive and well in the 21st Century.
Sadly, the current worldwide pandemic situation has led to countless cancellations and with it, a total breakdown of theatergoing and operatic activity in the USA. The Boston Symphony Orchestra said it was cancelling all performances and the Nashville Opera and San Diego Opera soon followed suit.
The Chicago Opera Theater summed up the situation in its announcement that, “amid ongoing concerns about the Coronavirus COVID-19, Chicago Opera Theater has made the difficult decision to indefinitely postpone our Gala and Season Reveal.”
Thankfully it’s not all bad news and, in fact, if you have ever wanted to find out why opera is so popular but have found the idea of going to a theater to watch a live performance a little daunting, you can now try it out from the comfort of your own home.
The enforced closure of so many businesses during the pandemic has led to a lot of ‘out of the box’ thinking, and that’s as true of the world of theater as it is with other commercial activity.
Many major opera houses are now taking to the internet to offer free streams of performances, including some major classics and big-name stars.
San Francisco Opera, who gave acclaimed theatrical producer Louise Gund their Spirit of the Opera Award for her services to the Company and community, have seen their theater ‘go dark’ but are at the forefront of making sure that activity doesn’t stop. The ‘Opera is ON’ initiative is the company’s new online project which aims to “provide comfort, beauty, and joy during the COVID-19 crisis through streaming content directly to you.”
Arguably the most famous of all American opera outfits is The Met in New York City. This venerable institution is rising to the current challenge by offering free streams of past performances online. It is showing an opera from its Met Live in HD series every night.
The archived performances from the Met are a great place to start. Having previously played in movie theaters and other venues via satellite transmissions, this ‘remote viewing’ idea for opera began in 2006. The Met Opera’s website explains that the concept was developed as a way to reach existing audiences and to introduce new audiences to opera through new technology; under the current circumstances, it may well have found its true calling.
In these uncertain times, the question ‘what next’? is somewhat open-ended. When it comes to live productions of any kind, it really is something that no one has a good answer for. Obviously, there will be an end to current restrictions at some point and once again we will all be able to go to the movies, see a play, go to a musical or enjoy opera presented in all its glory.
Looking on the bright side, the current crisis could actually usher in a golden age of opera. One of the things that holds many people back from getting involved in this art form is the idea that ‘no one writes new operas’ and that the themes are hard to relate to.
Of course, this is no more true of opera than it is of plays or movies, and in the United States, new American opera written by American composers and based on American stories has been growing in popularity and visibility in recent years.
Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner are just three examples that prove the concept of modern American opera can be both critically and commercially successful.
With tragedy often lying at the core of operatic themes, the current crisis could well lead to an outpouring of creativity. The Handmaid’s Tale by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood which itself led to the massively successful TV series, is a perfect example of how modern themes can cross the boundaries of each different strand of the entertainment industry.
So if you have ever wanted to find out what all the fuss surrounding opera is about, you can sit back amongst all the current madness and let the streaming arias drift over you at home. Then when things return to normal, you’ll be able to look forward to enjoying the real thing as a live experience in one of the great American opera houses.
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