Can Opera Survive Online? You're Asking the Wrong Question

It’s a question we’ve been asking before the pandemic but which has now become more urgent. From the discussions I’ve listened in on and the articles I’ve read, the answers to the question tend to fall into roughly two groups:

a) yes, it can survive, but only if we are willing to change our fundamental ideas about what defines opera

b) no, opera can never exist online and please stop uploading, you’re getting our audiences used to free stuff

I’m being a bit reductive but that’s the gist.

A lot of this supposedly new “free stuff” isn’t new, really, it’s just more noticeable when people are stuck at home and there is no theater to go to. I’m talking about the homemade videos and streams, featuring both new and established artists, released onto social media by the thousands for laughs or inspiration, especially during the first weeks of the quarantine. Some were clearly thought-through and well-made and clever enough, or worked the algorithms enough, to have generated some useful attention. Most of them were simply part of a stream of brief pieces of entertainment, a kind of never-ending vaudeville with no presenter. Right now, a month into the pandemic, the wave of home-made content made by suddenly-jobless performers seems to be slowing. For me, that brief but memorable moment at the beginning of this pandemic, defined by streamed living-room concerts, semi-clever classical music jokes, and famous singers vertically-framed on their phones, unofficially ended when someone uploaded a four-voice Facebook video rendition of Cage’s 4:33. 

I am naturally suspicious of anything that seems to be motivated by fear of change. Cultures have always changed and technology has often been the driver of that change. So when people lament that opera can’t “work” online I feel they are motivated by conservatism and lack of imagination. On the other hand, I would be lying if I said I had found any of the online offerings –whether delightfully low-budget or impressively produced – truly satisfying. 

When we talk about opera online we are usually talking about two separate things, though: The first is aesthetic, that is, the idea of whether opera can do its job, artistically, on the small screen. The second is business-oriented: Can opera survive fiscally online? The thoughts I'd like to share here are oriented towards the latter because the former is much more complicated. 

I admit that the two articles addressing the whole idea of live performance online, in the first weeks of lockdown, which I found most memorable happened to be on the skeptical side:

“The Forgotten Art of Assembly or Why Theater Makers Should Stop Making” by Nicholas Berger really made the rounds among theater folk probably because it expressed something many of us felt but were afraid to say: That this breathless flood of online content, with little regard for quality, is a futile attempt to cling to relevance in a time when performers feel like they don’t matter – in other words, it's performers making it about the performer, not the audience.

The second was an article by Alex Ross, celebrated author of The Rest is Noise, which mentioned the perils of online streaming. Ross makes a convincing argument that online performances shouldn’t be seen “as any sort of wave of the future” because a) we are already too sedentary and screen-oriented in our relationship to the arts, b) we should be weary of the digital realm, anyway, because it is ruled by corporations to a greater extent than we would like to admit, and c) that the expectation of free streaming makes it harder for non-celebrity artists to get paid for their work. He also mentioned a 2019 study by researchers in Glasgow and Oslo which found that the shift to digital music streaming has led to a significant increase in carbon emissions. Yikes. This study actually focused mostly on the price paid for music carriers and seemed to take its conclusions about the CO2 cost of streaming entirely from a study by musicologist Kyle Devine for his book Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music. Now, according to the Carbon Brief, streaming is still a relatively modest emitter and, as technology improves, the carbon footprint of streaming tends to go down (and already varies vastly all over the world) but I find it sobering that there is an environmental cost to streaming at all. Even before the pandemic, I was thinking about how the internet might be an excellent tool for keeping performers and audiences alike from traveling to performances, thus…reducing carbon emissions? I’m not sure what I was thinking, actually.

On the other side of this well-argued skepticism is not so much an argument as a manic need to #keepthemusicgoing. At all costs. To name a few I happened to notice: Bass-barytone Ryan McKinny turned his YouTube channel into a little set of free opera-related performances. Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium artists have coordinated to create home-recorded music videos under the hashtag EQ4U. The Dallas Opera YouTube channel has added a kind of late-night-inspired show hosted by soprano Elizabeth Sutphen.  Sopranos Sondra Radvanovsky and Keri Alkema began a kind of YouTube talk show called ScreamingDivas where they interview each other and other quarantined opera folk. Opera director Ella Marchment has launched the commission of online micro-operas. And there was the online Met gala, of course, not to mention the widespread practice of live theater institutions letting people stream their performances for free – a practice which has become infamous for promoting the institution while not paying the performers. This has sparked a debate between those who claim “there would be no performers without the theater” and those who contend that “there would be no theater without the performers.”

And all this has, understandably, made people wonder about opera online. Can it be good online? Can it be art online? Will people like it online? But really they want to know: Can it be monetized? Keeping people engaged with live performers and their respective genres while theaters are closed – that’s all well and good. But where’s the money? And, honestly, where are the viewers? Even the biggest stars of opera are generating modest viewerships, by internet standards. And that sums up the issue, really. We from the theater world do not understand how the internet works. I certainly don’t. Just a cursory look at how I curate this blog is evidence of my utter disregard for SEO. However, I get the sense that even as someone who doesn’t know a lot about this stuff I have taken more interest in it than some of the older people running theaters and worrying about the future of opera.

So, dear pure and uncorrupted theater folk, here are some observations on the internet which we might find useful before we ask the question "Can opera survive online?"

While live theater has chugged along, fueled by tradition and more or less standard methods of promotion, a parallel world has been forming one we, people from the theater, have not fully understood. Even though nearly every single theater professional is engaged with the internet in some way, I don't see any of them truly surfing the waves of online traffic. Because, you see, we don’t understand what the internet is really good for: Analysis. It provides almost anyone with the tools to become sociopathic in the analysis of human behavior. It allows one, no, requires one to, as Brendan Kane referred to it in his handbook One Million Followers, make the people who interact with your work – their likes, their comments, their clicks, their shares– part of your editorial staff. And this sounds very lovely and democratic but it amounts to constantly giving people what they want in an effort to make them tick and ultimately influence their behavior. And, sure, that’s been an aspect of advertising ever since people called out in sing-song voices to potential customers at ancient markets but the internet – and particularly Facebook – has made it easy for anyone to be laser-precise in their targeting and messaging. This has put anyone who does not do this, and doesn't do it well, at a disadvantage. And, of course, it has raised new ethical questions. Cambridge Analytica mined data to identify precise personality types and target individuals accordingly with tailor-made political content, disguised to look like regular memes and infographics by independent organizations but which came from inside the campaign paying Cambridge Analytica for its services. The company was busted but the technology they used to analyze data remains (in fact, you can get your own social media data analyzed here) and is probably still being used. You know what you can’t get busted for, though? Any one of us with a Facebook page can pay a few bucks to promote a post to a highly-targeted group of people which we can select based on standard criteria like age, gender and geography but also level of education, field of study, field of work, income, political views, and, say, whether they recently moved. You can compare the outcomes of promoted content for various groups and adjust the content and adjust the target audience until you have yourself a following. Let me repeat: Anyone with a Facebook page has the possibility of doing this. The internet is the world of advertising on steroids. 

So, the internet is a tool for behavioral analysis and by analyzing behavior we can learn to influence it. And that’s where money comes from on the internet: Influence of behavior. And that is where I hear a lot of people talking about how to better use the cyber world to promote opera getting it totally wrong: You cannot expect to simply do the same thing you do in real life, that is, sell tickets for an event, but have the event be online. It simply won't work. We already see that it doesn't really work. You need to think of a bigger game. You need to use the internet to create a deep, interactive experience people will want to engage with. You need to use the internet to find your ideal audience and build a world around them with the ultimate goal of convincing them to start buying tickets, donating, perhaps buying merch regularly. But the only way you can gain that kind of influence is if you use the tools the internet offers precisely and persistently. Posting stuff that seems like it should be popular and hip and funny and also opera(-inspired) online and hoping this will change the tide of attention enough to make so much as a dent in the internet is unrealistic.

This does beg the question: Do we want to use those tools? And at what point would we no longer be making art and honest commentary and, instead, participating in a never-ending commercial? Those of us who decided to pursue the artistic and intellectual disciplines didn’t do so because it was hip or because we wanted to make a lot of money but because we thought there was some intrinsic value in the act of making art and thinking itself.

And what would mass online engagement + opera look like, anyway? The commercialization of everything is a process that started way before the internet and has changed us in ways that are deeper than we’d like to admit (sometimes, living in a post-Soviet country but growing up with an American father, I feel I have a front-row seat to what long-term exposure to commercialism does to cultures). Short attention spans, frustration intolerance, intellectual laziness, chronically low self-esteem, no consensus on basic facts, believing you can accomplish unrealistic goals – all those things, I think, can be traced back to people living in a world constantly appealing to their basest desires. The internet has only accentuated this and made it more present in every aspect of our lives. And a world run like one long advertisement is one that is ruled not by merit, not by complexity, not by honesty, oh no – it is ruled by attention. And it rewards people who play it like a game, herding traffic, adjusting to stats, not those who create things out of pure aesthetic or intellectual impulse.

What about independent creators, though? Isn’t the internet also a wonderfully democratic place where anyone can upload from their living room and share their uncensored content with the whole world? Well, yes. It takes a couple minutes to create a blog. A couple minutes to create a YouTube channel. Sure, you have to spend lots of time making content but the venue is there for you, (more or less) no questions asked. Since I also organize my own live events, I know precisely how convenient this is. Or is it? Is the “anybody” who creates a blog or a YouTube channel really entering a world of endless possibilities where money and connections are no object? The commercially-savvy part of the entertainment industry has caught on to how much people love the “authenticity” of the YouTube/SoundCloud star and has carefully curated the bios of artists to accommodate such a backstory. But, believe it or not, fans don't make stars. They’re only the means. At some point a potential star has to meet a deus-ex-machina who will elevate her to stardom through industry connections. The most miraculous stories of online fame, at least within the pop music industry, are ones where an industry professional noticed someone’s online content “cold turkey” and decided to cash in on it. I’m no expert on this phenomenon but I only know of one case where this actually happened and that was with Justin Bieber (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that story were exaggerated). Stars like Billie Eilish (or her team, rather) are lying by implication when they say they went from “bedroom to stardom.”

Yes, there are independent creators who really are just putting content up and generating interest “naturally.” Some of them make a full living from patrons and maybe some ad revenue and sponsorships. Most of them make only a partial living or only use what they make to fund further work. In any case, even the most successful ones are not getting rich (unless they are selling something through their channel - but that's a different breed. I'm talking here about online artists, cultural critics, and "philosophers"). These aren’t rags-to-riches stories so much as middle-class-person-who-can’t-stand-doing-a-boring-job to middle-class-person-who-hustles-on-the-internet-because-at-least-they-get-to-be-creative. And, honestly, that seems like a nice out, from where I stand. I'll take it. But since YouTube creators are a fairly recent phenomenon, we don’t know how long it is possible to sustain that kind of lifestyle, living mainly off of money donated by strangers and ad revenue from clicks and sponsorships. It’s the online equivalent of busking. And it’s a kind of strange busking where you never pack up your coin-filled hat and head home, because the performance, in fact, is your life and what’s on offer is not just you doing your schtick, be it philosophy or music or film-analysis, but also you making revelations about your personal life while sitting on your bed. The lives of YouTubers as they unfold online often seem like some strange emotional striptease. Let me show you what I eat. Let me talk about my mental health. My childhood. My bad relationships. Here’s a coming-out video. Here’s another one. Because it’s all about keeping people engaged and this seems to work: Intimacy. Authenticity. To the point where even independent creators are manufacturing it.

So, on the one hand we have bowing to the whims of online traffic and gaining questionably-ethical influence and on the other hand we have busking and emotional-striptease. 

Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m not precious about opera and don’t like anything which wreaks of trying to “preserve high culture" but I do want to preserve artistic integrity and that requires independence. Independence from data, reactions, public opinion. And I’m not entirely convinced the internet allows for that as much as it seems.

At this point you might be thinking: But you have decided to enter this world and add to it with your content. Both here and on YouTube. How can you be so pessimistic?

I’m not pessimistic. I’m just trying to be realistic about what it actually means to "survive online." 

But let's be positive: I don’t think the tools of the interned need be used unethically. Just don’t give them to anyone who is interested in making money or gaining power – of course, those people are remarkably good at using the internet, better than anyone else. It’s time the rest of us finally learned to do what they do but without the corruption and greed. (Is it possible? That's yet to be answered.) I can imagine the sophisticated analytical tools available to all of us could be used to pinpoint unlikely, underserved, or even just potential fans of opera we wouldn’t be able to tap otherwise. We can learn things about what really draws people to opera. We could learn what turns them off. If you think those are things that are obvious then you clearly haven’t been paying attention to just how deeply revealing the internet can be. We could also bring people into much more intimacy with opera. Opera would then cease to be the obscure art form people have a hard time relating to but an immersive process from rehearsal room to stage. Of course, the internet already abounds with backstage videos and documentaries and interviews which attempt this. And, yes, some opera singers have, without calculation, gone down the path of internet candidness already: Singers like Jaimy Barton, whose Twitter presence is enviably down-to-earth and relatable and who has also been outspoken about body shaming and sexuality. Joyce Didonato was ahead of the game almost a decade ago with her blog and YouTube videos for young singers. All of this, however, is still extremely peripheral and surface-level in the grand scheme of things. And that is why the internet still leaves some industry professionals baffled by the fact that some of the most famous classical musicians and ensembles of our time only get 1000 views on their streams.

I’ve been thinking of vaudeville. When the moving pictures came around, vaudeville was decimated. Some of its artists ascended to the screen. Most were lost in the annals of history. Aspects of vaudeville were subsumed into TV variety shows and, I would argue, its sensibility lives on in that procession of weird acts, uncategorizable talents, surprisingly thought-through home-made entertainment displayed online but, as an independent artform, vaudeville did not survive. Opera, on the other hand, did survive the movies. Certain operatic aesthetics were absorbed into the early moving pictures, perhaps, but opera prevailed as its own separate art form. Yes, it is rather odd to compare the fate of vaudeville and opera – opera is a 400-year-old artform while vaudeville was a localized, fairly recent, flash in the pan. Still, the fact that opera survived makes me think there is something about opera that could not be replaced by the silver screen and thus perhaps can't be replaced by the black mirror of our computers and phones. But what is that? Do we even know? And why is it that we always seem to want to promote it to a “broader audience” by making it seem more like the movies? Or more like YouTube? Every opera singer these days has been told at some point that they are a product and that they have to think of what makes them unique and therefore sellable. Opera as a whole needs to take a page from that book and think about what makes it unique and sellable. And, yes, we may also need to think more broadly about what opera even is. 

And here is the real indication that there is a place for opera in the digital age: Through a gradual process which started even before the movies, opera became increasingly associated with “high art,” elitism, exclusivity. It became an art of “aficionados” and only for “people in the know.” It was no longer considered entertainment, per se. Can an artform like that survive in a world determined by the whims of attention, of what feels good, of what’s easy to understand, of what’s catchy? Can it do so while remaining itself? Well, when you put it like that, perhaps not. But here's the thing: The internet is remarcably well-equipped for niches. Even the movie and TV/streaming industry caught on to the fact that in a world as saturated in content as ours, it’s not about how many viewers you have, anymore, but, rather, the depths of their engagement. Distributors no longer talk about viewership but fandoms, smaller groups of viewers who not only passively consume media but engage in a dialogue with it and create new content pertaining to it. Has opera not been an art of fandoms for much of the last two centuries? Does it not still have a way of attracting a relatively small but deeply passionate following? Given the fact that opera has attracted such passionate fandoms, should it not feel confident in an age of niches?

So, yes, opera can survive online but we need to understand what that means and ask ourselves how we want to go about it.