Why do we persist with Opera?

Dependent on state subsidies, artistically ossified and only a few go to see it

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Arts Council England’s recent funding round enticed an unprecedented 1,723 applications. If all of these had been granted, the total funding would have exceeded £2 billion. 

Ultimately, £445 million was assigned to 985 organisations for the 2023-26 Investment Programme. It is noteworthy that 80 per cent of the funds allocated for music went to organisations involved in classical music, and nearly half of that is dedicated specifically to opera. 

This focus is impressive given how few contemporary composers write opera. Since the twentieth century, new productions have seen a steep decline and the genre today is, for the most part, of limited interest to the young. 

Urged to showcase the “impact” of classical music, the art managerial class is on the hunt for coping mechanisms. Some point to the reports that many students in Britain listen to orchestral background music as an aid to revising for exams. Others find solace in the evidence that film music is popular. That’s all well and good. But it does not provide adequate justification for the imbalance of Arts Council England’s preferences.

The financial viability of opera has always been uncertain. In its purely aristocratic conception, throwing money out the window was partly the point. Costly decors and costumes for early operas were used only once and were often destroyed afterwards. Flaunting money in front of social peers was an explicit aim of the exercise. 

Post-commercialisation and democratisation, opera has been fraught with tales of personal and institutional bankruptcy. Early modern Italian and French opera troupes were often under pressure to temporarily or permanently shut down their operations. 

The first public opera house (San Cassiano, created in Venice in 1637, right) ran short of cash during its inaugural season, failed to reimburse its investor (Pietro Corner) and eventually requested a private loan from another nobleman (Girolamo Zane).

In the twentieth century, the opera business has often struggled

In the twentieth century, the opera business has often struggled. Created in 1908, the Boston Opera Company failed to attract much interest despite a rich local history of secular concerts and the success of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881. In less than six years, the BOC declared bankruptcy.

It is tempting to sneer at those who expect an opera house to be financially viable. Only a philistine is willing to so crudely put a price on it. For a certain lover of the arts, permanent state subsidies are necessary to preserve a cultural activity the market does not protect. 

Yet historically, the financial pressure to produce popular work has been a great source of artistic, creative energy. Opera is a case in point. As a collective — and exorbitant — art form, its agents had to integrate financial and legal constraints at the heart of their business. Theatre-owners and tenants, investors, lawyers, guarantors, cashiers, impresarios, and benefactors shaped the commercial development of the genre, including its aesthetics. They were neither secondary nor ornamental for the flourishing of opera.

People such as Giovanni Faustini (1615-51) in seventeenth-century Venice embody this pre-modern imbrication of artistic and financial incentives. Faustini was not only a librettist, but served as impresario across different theatres, dealing with bookkeeping, scheduling and legal matters among other things. He constantly worked to raise money not only to produce his own work, but also to support the work of other artists and to sustain the general operation of the opera businesses he looked after. 

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87, left), musical tycoon who reigned over the Paris Opéra during its first decades, bound his performers with air-tight contracts and applied severe punishments against those who broke them. His financial arrangements shaped the hierarchy of the fixed troupe, which, in turn, influenced the ways subsequent composers and librettists created their work. Financial pressure and artistic development have always gone hand-in-hand.

It was common for artists to serve in multiple positions, including legal and financial ones. Although the Romantic myth of the artist as solitary genius initiated a shift away from that tradition, most composers never wrote music in a vacuum, preoccupied with creating an abstract object of transcendent beauty. They fully understood the need to navigate markets.

It is therefore curious that opera remains the recipient of such strong state support even as society has become ever more embarrassed by its tradition of classical music. Few new operatic works are being created, and past works run afoul of postmodern intellectual fashions. 

Historically, opera was always closely interwoven with the politics of its era, reproducing society’s aspirations and desires through common fables that became mass cultural events. Today, even its remaining patrons see the art form as a genteel leisure activity, a neutered form of entertainment without any real political edge or power. Depoliticised, opera melts into the generic and relativistic “creative industry” handled since 1997 by the eclectic Department of Culture, Media, and Sport.

Tied up with the rise of “historically informed performance” as a means of reinvigorating classical music and its appeal, the revival of opera genres highlights a symptom of loss. In the hands of its supporters, the genre has ceased to be a living art form and become a relic — albeit an important one — of the past. Public support for the arts has become cultural hospice care. Platitudes concerning the importance of cherishing our Western cultural heritage ignore the real pathologies that afflict opera as both a business and a musical art form.

Many artists and scholars have been weary of this issue for decades now. Fiery disputes on the matter of an “end of history” in art have agitated musicological discourse since the 1950s. The fundamental and permanent tension here is between the desire to produce “authentic” work (i.e. reproducing the original intentions of the composer, past performers and material conditions) and the imperative to deal with radically different sensibilities, expectations, and cultural standards of contemporary audiences. 

Critics of “reconstructed” classical music highlight the complexity of the sources we possess. Operas have been routinely adapted in light of financial constraints and changing tastes and artistic sensibilities. These commentators point at convoluted manipulations of the material into an acoustic time-warp and, at times, an excessive intellectualisation of the process that accompanies attempts to revive traditional music. 

The pursuit of “authenticity” is jeopardised by marketable practices which might simply accommodate our perception of the past and our tastes without delivering the substance of the work. It also perpetuates a tired feeling towards performances as museum pieces, exercises that allow little room for fostering new creative energies and looking towards the future with confidence in our own imaginative power.

Those who defend “historically informed performance”, particularly when it relates to specific customs and spectacles, generally conceive of reconstructions as a way to enliven the experiential context of past music. More than that, some believe that the “shock value” created by these renditions of classical music allow countercultural expressions. They would be akin to the chic modernism of neoclassical composers (such as Stravinsky and Poulenc). In the realm of opera, “historically informed performance” has indeed revived some of the innovative spirit of the past, the antique quality of the sound, and the virtuosity of past performers. But this comfort zone is only challenged by other dramaturgical choices also concentrated on past repertoires, never by new operas per se.

So, why do we persist with opera? Free or heavily discounted tickets are distributed in the hope that operas can be made accessible, helping younger people to acquire a taste for it. Dependence on permanent state subsidies, however, may itself contribute to the stagnation and stultification of opera. 

No sustainable success has been found in recent appeals to tomorrow’s audience, and the lack of financial pressure on opera undermines the incentive to pursue genuine artistic innovation. And unless we have changed our minds about what a business is, it cannot sell at a loss for too long. If we stick to the principle of opera as a commercial as much as artistic enterprise, we may surprisingly restore some of its traditional vigour and energy. 

In the context of the “culture wars”, some find ready-made solutions in the “queering” of characters and other familiar proposals for refacing opera. The banality of that script is as clear a proof as any that such measures will fail to revitalise either creative production or cultural enthusiasm for opera. 

When adaptation crosses the breaking point of the material, it’s time to try something new

More fundamentally, art is not infinitely stretchable. When adaptation crosses the breaking point of the material, it’s time to try something new. There is no shame in experimentation, as the path of art often involves sideways strides rather than linear, neatly structured progressions. But it calls for courage and honesty. Rather than invoking the authority and legitimacy of past masters to justify an extreme overhaul of their work, artists should be direct and clear about the political project behind new dramaturgies. As their predecessors before them, they must bear the responsibility for creating something new. 

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