04/01/2014 01:24 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Chew On This: Operatic Mastication

Opera lovers have been on the edge of their proverbial seats waiting to hear the latest about yet another company having trouble. No sooner did the news of the New York City Opera bankruptcy moderately settle, and the Minnesota Orchestra go back to work, than the 49-year San Diego Opera abruptly announce that it is closing. This news hit about ten days ago, and I purposely have refrained from commenting due to lack of a real picture.

A few weeks ago, I served on a committee at the umbrella organization Opera America, reviewing grant applications for operas by women composers supported by The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. Opera America has funds for everything from audience and repertoire development, to support for new works. This committee consisted of a musician/conductor, two composers, a stage director, librettist and myself. The two days reviewing over 130 applications (Encouraging to know there are that many female composers interested in the art form.) It was one of the more dynamic informative experiences I have had recently. A frequent discussion centered on what exactly defines an opera today. Many of the works submitted were more of a prolonged song cycle with instruments. Others were multi-media presentations first and foremost. We whittled the grants to under ten works. I do not speak for Opera America as I write, and these are my own thoughts, which apply to the situation mentioned in the first paragraph above.


STEP ONE: Start with one or more singers, not miked. There is no opera without singers. Period.

STEP TWO. Add accompaniment -- which can be with just piano or just a few instruments or with a full orchestra or even electronic or ethnic instruments.

STEP THREE: Mix in a story -- an opera really needs a story -- an arc that has a beginning, middle and an end, as Oscar Hammerstein once said when defining a song. Older works often are composed to a libretto with a poetic meter and later they evolved to be more prosaic. Both have to have a dramatic line, one that draws an audience into caring about the characters and quite often with a conflict and a resolution. It need not be literal and can be symbolic.

STEP FOUR: Slowly add stage direction and movement.

STEP FIVE: Add money and stir.


Scenery: Depending on the size of a theater, it can be quite extensive and with multiple scenes. Some early Italian operas actually took place at homes of patrons, some even employing the use of exterior locations, courtyards, what have you.

Costumes, props, makeup, wigs: suggested but not always necessary.


Please note: Flavors and portion sizes of and operas are extensive.

Depending on your budget, there are a variety of meals available, all good for the heart. High-calibur singers are available with all menu items.

The appetizer: $

There are pieces with a few instruments and excellent singing in a small setting, sometimes a bar or a museum. The singers are often young, but not always.

Small, flavorful plates: $$

There are some very successful companies of various sizes that produce opera in more intimate settings, with simpler production elements highlighting the drama and the singing. There are many wonderful singers today who are amazing actors, as well, and who look their parts.

The five-course meal: $$$

Opera has evolved over the last century to become a large art form that is costly to produce due to that many facets not to the least of which are size of theater, new technology for the visual aspects and more and more people involved in the production of it. Hundreds of people help to make an opera in one of the "big" houses (The Met, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, to name a few). Scenery is often built from scratch and will fit in anywhere from five to twenty semi trucks. Costume shops make amazing costumes with every detail paid to the period. Then, of course, the orchestra musicians, varied sized chorus if required, stage managers, lighting and scenic designer, conductor and stage director, stage crew, makeup and wig people, dressers and then all the supporting administrative staff. International "stars" often appear at these companies. The experience attending an opera at one of these companies is thrilling with the spectacle alone, not to mention the great singing that accompanies it.

Does the five course meal need to be the default model? The answer is no. It is my opinion that only a few companies in the world can continue with this type of production and these are the ones that are the oldest, most donor-supported and well-endowed.

The scope of opera can be as large as a Las Vegas show. "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." It does not necessarily always belong elsewhere. There are some very successful companies of various sizes that produce (or should start to produce) in more intimate settings, with simpler production elements highlighting the drama and the singing. There are many wonderful singers today who are amazing actors as well. Just because they do not have a publicity machine behind them does not mean they are not worth experiencing. By the same token, there are many singers who are in high demand who are willing to tailor their fees to suit the situation.

For all of the above, it is important that the art does not stray from the sound of the unadulterated human voice as much as possible. I would really hate to see this lost as it pretty much separates opera from all other art forms. In a world of high tech "reality," this is all the more important.

A healthy lifestyle, with diet and exercise leads to longevity.

We need to get on the arts treadmill, cut out the fat and keep its heart healthy.