"Why would anyone want her to fail?"
"For the excitement. The drama missing in their own lives. Look around. These people would love a good wipe-out. Now that would be real opera."
The above, from Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing, is an exchange between young professional singer Jonah Strom and his brother. They are watching the Met debut of Jonah's voice teacher, and the Jonah is more nervous about his teacher's vulnerability onstage than he ever is about his own.
Last week's national anthem lip-sync debate reminded me again how different our opera world is from the popular culture music machine. If you were under a rock recently (or if you're stumbling onto this post after January 2013), here's the short story: It is reported that Beyoncé lip-synced her performance of the national anthem at Obama's inauguration. Many words have already been written about whether or not it was defensible to do so, and if she should've come clean immediately. Frankly, I care not.
What sticks with me is how increasingly rare (and difficult?) it is to take any chances when celebrity and big money are at stake. In an age when we're all about the messiness of reality TV and confessional social media, the pressure to deliver flawless, spotless live performances is a real disconnect. But so much of what we hear is already canned in one way or another, and I guess that lip-syncing is only different in its order of magnitude.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's opera. We sing without microphones and fly without a net. In fact, there are so many things that can go wrong during the course of a live opera performance that it's really a miracle that any of them go right. Rabid opera fans are (sometimes justifiably) taken to task for wanting blood, and there's always the chance that someone will crash and burn. Spectacularly. As a mentor of young performers, I wish to spare all singers this fate. But it's almost unavoidable in the long run.
Although most people think of opera as stodgy and stiff, it's pretty gutsy and raw (and slightly crazy) to stand in a huge theater, throwing the force of your personality to the back wall, depending on two little pieces of flesh in your throat. No mixing board, no backup track, no lip-syncing even if you wanted it.
And yes, I know it's more complicated than this. There are more shades of gray than I have time to address, but the fundamental difference is still striking. So if the calculated, play-it-safe world of lip-syncing bothers you, think about joining us in the world of naked acoustic music at the opera. And not just for the wipe-outs.