THE BLOG

Opera Is Dead?

02/24/2015 08:49 am ET

Opera is dead. And why not, since classical music is also dead. Ballet is dead, modern dance is dead, the literary novel is dead, poetry is dead, experimental film is dead. Either abstract art is dead, or representational art, or both. Painting has been dead for a while, anyway. Science, or science as meaningful to polity, is dead. Journalism is dead. Intelligence is dead.

A recent report on opera's death (I won't help the article I'm thinking of gain clicks by linking to it) is based on an interesting analysis (not by the author) of the Metropolitan Opera's programming over about one hundred years. Unsurprisingly, we find that, increasingly, the Met has programmed standard works by dead, white, male composers, largely ignoring American or contemporary music and shunning composers who are women.

Thus opera is dead. No consideration of whether the tremendous vitality of American regional opera (Seattle, St. Louis, Minnesota, San Antonio), other companies' successes with contemporary American opera (Jake Heggie, Kevin Puts, Daron Hagen, Mark Adamo, Ricky Ian Gordon), the exciting contributions of women composers coming to opera (Jennifer Higdon, Lera Auerbach), and the vitality of our other national companies (Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Fe) might be taken into account. No, all opera can be judged based on a single graph about the Met.

Nor is there the least attempt to trace the line between whether an art form is dead -- represented by a single company in a single city -- and how its concentration of repertoire signifies that.

I recently found myself with 90 free minutes in New York. I went to the Metropolitan Museum. The first thing I thought of was Cimabue, and I spent a little time in the Italian and Flemish Medieval and Renaissance galleries. All dead, white, male painters. I strayed into the American Wing -- a tiny fraction of the space of the whole museum. I saw wonderful things, all by dead white men (except one glorious Georgia O'Keefe -- the exception proves the rule). I came out looking at many, many more paintings by dead white European males. If I were the author (data-head) of the article I am not citing, I would definitely say painting is dead, art is dead, and museums are dead.

I like a friend's response: that the strength of a standard repertoire itself, and its vitality over many generations, is the essence of why classical music does survive. Are we really sorry to program Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven? Should we apologize?

As a composer myself, I think we need a musical eco-system that opens up to new things, and preserves and re-invigorates the unbelievably precious old things we know.

But while one data-head says we're dead because we only do old things, many others in the crazy over-heated blogosphere say we're dead because we do too much new and unfamiliar stuff.

This view has been around for years. "Music died because of Schoenberg," or because of all the musicians and artistic administrators and, worst of all, academics, who push new music on a resentful, bewildered public. If only every opera company and orchestra and recital series stuck to what audiences like (what they know they like), we wouldn't be seeing them drop like flies.

Two summers ago in Aspen, at a concert featuring a brand-new, large-scale work by a great living composer, a concerto by Benjamin Britten, and a substantial but largely unknown work by another 20th-century dead white composer, an earnest patron summed it up for me: "I've come to an age where I know what I like, and that is all I want to hear!"

So we are doomed equally if we always do old things or always try some new ones.

These conclusions thrive in a culture of something -- I hesitate to dignify it as journalism -- that celebrates statements even when they come from someone who has never studied the subject, and only started thinking about it moments before writing -- and maybe especially in that case.

Hermann Hesse described this "Age of Feuilleton" -- an age of triviality, of insubstantiality -- the Age of the Wisp. It is an age where the shallow drives out the deep. (We must remember that Hesse was talking about an age that now seems like a Golden Age of print journalism, compared with today.) In the classical liberal arts, data gathering is part of the grammar in the Trivium (three essential studies Plato identified as grammar, logic, and rhetoric), while Music is across the divide, in the Quadrivium (the four remaining essentials: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Data-head conclusions about music are apt to be, well, trivial.

Not that everyone dedicated to a fresh, exciting, active, sustainable classical music culture can or should ignore data! On the contrary, what we need is deeply informed consideration about how the business of culture, which is essential to its survival, can best be carried out.

Recent catastrophes like the lockouts in Minnesota and Atlanta at least brought to the fore questions about how to fund these organizations, what can be cut and what can't be cut, what one community can manage (rather than a cookie-cutter approach), what a community needs and thus will stretch for.

When I hear that classical music and its cousins in other arts are endangered because they haven't recognized that no one wants a formal, intense, sustained experience of concentration -- on anything! -- I am reminded of a hoary business school case study. I think the company was Procter and Gamble. The issue was a study showing that, say, 80 percent of all householders prefer high-suds detergent. Clearly, to stay alive, manufacturers had to have more and more high-suds products. Statistics proved that success depends on making only high-suds things. But the case study proposed that, while the whole world runs after the high-suds market, a great idea would be to champion low-suds soap for the 20 percent who will buy it.

I think, in an age of sound bites, tweets, ill-informed criticism, multi-tasking, and ever-decreasing attention spans, that an art form that stands instead for deep listening, repeated engagement, willingness to risk the experimental, recognition that to be prepared and thoughtful is a precious and rewarding thing -- that art form may prove, as it has for many centuries, very lively and hardy. And enduring.