Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Why I don't like opera

As a full-time classical singer, i.e. not a singing teacher/waiter who does the occasional gig, I mean someone who actually lives and dies and pays the rent on the back of his singing - opera and the music world's obsession with it really pisses me off.  Don't get me wrong, I do like opera to a point - I've sung in many.  The spectacle, the collaboration of artists from different fields, the buzz and fun of being in a successful production with good people can be really great, but on the whole I think it is over-reported, over-funded, and far too much attention is paid to it in general.  This is evidenced by the fact that in common parlance, I am an "opera singer", because if you sing as a soloist in the field of classical music that's what you must be - there are no other genres.  

My quarrel is not with the ignorance of the common man however - I couldn't care less what the nextdoor neighbour thinks I do for a living - but with the industry and those in it.  Those that should know better.  You see, opera is for douchebags.  No, really.  It's for self-obsessed, nacissistic, air-kissing, evil, back-stabbing psychopathic douchebags.  I know this, because I have worked with these people, I have been "friends" with these people and I have seen what the people are like surrounding it.  Opera is basically Hollywood with singing.  No-one's particularly interested in making art, they're interested in their ego, and how they're going to look in their ball gown in Act II.  No-one is your friend, and people will do anything to get to the top, no matter how shallow, insincere or just plain pathetic it may be.  I'm told that the further up the food chain you go, the worse it gets, too.  My singing teacher, a very successful opera singer, will attest to all of this, although he goes the other way.  He's actually a decent and worthwhile human being, but in order to survive all the bullshit he has built a massive wall around himself to the point that the first few times I met him I thought he was actually a bit of a prick.  Later on when he relaxed a bit, I saw that it was just a defence mechanism - assume that everyone's basically an evil bastard until proven otherwise.  Not a great way to live your life, in my view.    

That isn't much more than a rant, mind you - and perhaps you'll be thinking that there are a few sour grapes in there because I didn't ever make it or something.  There could be a SHRED of truth in that, but not much more.  Yes, when I set out to become a household name (in progress!), it was originally operatic stages that I was aiming for.  I've also been burnt more than once by some of the above people, and walked away from more than one production thinking "never again".  Of course I have, though -  where would I have got all that vitriol if I hadn't?  I do have more issues with opera than just the fact that people might have been mean to me, though.  

The thing is for me that very often, opera just isn't that interesting or even particularly relevant, and that's where all the attention it gets paid really annoys me.  This is an area in which I can claim a fair amount of experience, because in various of my past lives I went to the opera a LOT.  As a music student I was lucky enough to have a father who worked for the principal sponsor of the Australian Opera, and I took a procession of pretty girls along to just about every production they put on for four years.  Similarly, as a publishing executive for a classical music media publisher in London I had my pick of ENO, Glyndebourne and Royal Opera productions to go to.  I haven't ever bothered sitting down to count how many I've seen but it's an awful lot on four different continents, much of it in some of the best houses in the world.  As a consequence, I think I'm probably more an authority from a watcher's perspective than a participant's.  

It seems to me that thematically, opera deals with "small" issues for the most part, by far the most dominant being love, of course.  Love makes the world go around I suppose, but unlike oratorio which I'll get to in a moment, opera tends to deal with love with a small "L".  Boy meets girl.  Girl has TB, is taken prisoner, is being blackmailed by a powerful local politician, is actually his sister, is on the wrong side of the law, doesn't know that he's going to take off and leave her with the kid.  They sing about it for three hours, sometimes four if you're really unlucky, and they're either gloriously united or she dies, one of the two.  Clearly I'm being pretty cynical and I'm mostly describing romantic opera and not much else, but yes, it really is that silly for the most part and if you've seen much opera this should seem pretty familiar.  By and large it's about personal relationships, it's not about anything particularly ....... global or important.  

This is in stark contrast to oratorio, which is all about love with a big "L", and as the world grows more extreme and violent by the day is frighteningly relavent as far as I'm concerned.  By the very nature of the religious experience, oratorio is not about self, but about the transcendant.  Oratorio teaches us about hope, charity and self-sacrifice, doubt, betryal, forgiveness and the search for something OTHER - call it inner peace, nirvana, whatever.  "Ah yes", I hear you cry, "but so does opera!"  You'd actually be right - well, sort of - but as far as I can tell what divides the two is that if these themes exist in an opera, they are dealt with on a personal level.  It's all about one person or one couple's struggle with something - it's very rarely about anything genuinely universal.  Oratorio by very definition wants to convey a message and is inclusive - it's about the audience and those in it as much as it is about the performers.  Opera is much less about that and about the girl in the pretty dress who gets to be a star.  That's not always true of course and I'm using pretty board brush-strokes here, but there's a lot of that in opera, and it's not very attractive.  It's probably why opera is such a breeding ground for the type of person I've described above.  "Me!  Me!  Me!!!!"  Yuck.  

What also stick in my craw is that the musical world is so opera-centric.  It's actually very difficult to find a specialist oratorio singing teacher for instance, or a repetiteur.  If anyone's a name it's nearly always because they've had an operatic career rather than a concert career, and it shows in the way singers are taught.  If anyone thinks about work and where they want to be, they think about opera.  La Scala, baby!!!  Choral work or oratorio is just the stuff you do when there's no opera about, and if it's all you do it's clearly because you failed as an opera singer and aren't very good by consequence.  

Well balls to that, quite frankly - I am not a failed opera singer.  I have made a conscious choice to follow the career that I've taken, and for all of the above I'm much happier for it.  

I'd look awful in a ball gown anyway.  


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