Will the Next Great Operatic Diva Be an Independent Creator?
We can't reform the opera industry.
We can improve it – we can write critically-acclaimed operas about police violence, theaters can present outreach projects in atypical locations in order to touch broader audiences, the press can share the stories of singers who would have formerly had to live in the shadows, theaters can create productions that present orientalist operas in ways that are less exploitive and more authentic, musical institutions can create departments dedicated to diversity, the industry as a whole can try to support the rise of a more diverse set of leaders within the industry – those are all things which are already being done, not universally and not without challenge, but they are being done. However, even if they should one day be the norm, something will always be missing. The very structure of the opera industry is rooted in the patriarchal, early-colonial, early-capitalist culture it came from. These origins have defined, among other things, the position of performing artists within the industry.
I have insisted that it’s not true that opera was originally conceived for royalty or even for a “select few” and I'm still convinced that the fact that we think that is a part of the problem. History, however, is complicated and it doesn't always yield the answers we want.
A lot of opera histories start with the Peri/Corsi Dafné of 1598, commissioned for a royal wedding. The fact that opera’s history so often begins with a royal commission reflects the thinking of the people who constructed that history as much as it does reality. I only recently learned that some 100 years before these “first operas,” Angelo Poliziano wrote Orfeo, in 1480, a pastoral drama with music. Pastoral dramas were also a form of courtly entertainment, mind you, but this one is particularly striking because of how closely we associate Orfeo in particular, and Greek mythology in general, with the origins of opera. It’s just an example of how the early operas didn’t simply spring, fully-formed and wholly original, from the minds of a group of Florentine and Venetian artists and intellectuals. Considering that the word “opera” was not even used consistently for our art form until the 19th century and that, for most of its history, it was called by many names - attione in musica, festa teatrale, dramma musicale, favola regia, tragedia musicale, or opera scenica just to name a few (and remember “opera” simply means “a work” in Italian) none of which implied anything other than a play, and some of which didn’t even mention music, it’s very hard for me to accept this very clear beginning, this idea that we can trace “the first operas” to the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy. Clearly there was a long tradition of drama with music that preceded this “new” art form, a reality which historians often mention but rarely elaborate on. Instead, we have the narrative of a more or less continuous tradition which began when some artist-intellectuals presented the not-so-new concept of drama with music as a new art form to royal patrons. That is the operatic history we are living to this day and it influences the way opera is thought about, to whom it is targeted, and how it is funded.
But the precursors of opera we're talking about are still various forms of courtly entertainment. What about "folk" or "popular" entertainment? Well, history is written by the victors, they say, and art history is no different, except that in art history, the victors are not only those who have conquered territories but a subset within them, the people of means. It is quite hard to find detailed descriptions of what folk entertainment looked like in the times directly before the “invention” of opera and those that exist are quite general. The descriptions I've found of popular entertainment in various parts of Europe through the Middle ages and the Renaissance include everything from circus acts to music to communal dancing to farces. I’ve heard these performances compared to busking. They were all public, though, so they could very well be imitated, subconsciously or not, by court artists, who were themselves subjects, albeit aspirational ones. When we look at recent history, that seems to be how new trends emerge, especially in music. They don’t trickle down, but up. When the Camerata re-created their idea of Greek drama, they could only imagine, after all, within what they knew, within what they had heard, and only slightly beyond. Something like monody could have been sung on the streets back then, sounding extremely modern and edgy. But a historian can’t say that, and I understand why. There are things about popular traditions and their influence on the history of what’s thought of as high art which, if they happen deep enough in the past, we will only ever be able to imagine. “Why is that important?” you might ask. Well, to me it’s important because a society in which something as primal as music combined with drama could only have been invented for, and consumed by, the upper classes is not a society whose tradition I want to continue.
The first opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, built in 1637, was also the first European institution dedicated to music which opened its doors to the public. Sure, this theater was funded by a local royal family but – it was open, unlike other contemporary theaters, for everyone who could buy a ticket. So, who bought tickets? Who was actually in the audience? I came upon an essay that cited one historian’s opinion that the study of audiences in times past is a “a historical void.” This doesn’t mean we can’t reconstruct them (in fact, the essay that cited this opinion tries to), but it goes to show how much we lose when contemporaries don’t deem something noteworthy. The fact that opera became popular entertainment within a couple decades of being supported by the higher-ups is significant. Opera spoke to the people. And when an art form speaks to people, the people speak to it. Which may be why, within a century, opera became such a fruitful format for expressing anti-establishment sentiments. Some, particularly Italians, consider La Serva Padrona, the 1733 intermezzo by Pergolesi the real beginning of Italian opera. When, within the imaginary world of the stage and within the imaginations of the audience, the maid became master, opera came into its own.
My point is you cannot say that opera is at its core only a-political entertainment for "a select few" because that's not the history. At the same time, you can't say that the classist society from which opera emerged did not define it.
And that is why I don’t believe we should reform the opera industry. We need to discover what opera is outside of that industry.
Enter the independent creator.
When I was thinking of titles for this post I unexpectedly ran up against a question quite close to the core of what I was writing about: Is there an opera-singer equivalent, in terms of name recognition, to Mozart, Shakespeare, or Einstein? I wanted to use a name like that in the title (like “Will the Next Jessye Norman Be an Independent Creator?” or “Will the Next Maria Callas be an Independent Creator?”) but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? The fact that Mozart is considered synonymous with classical music, Shakespeare with literature, or Einstein with science must be a byproduct of the “great man” theory of history. Maybe opera singers avoided such a great name, at least to some extent, because they have always been in that nether-zone between respected artist and riff-raff owned by whoever they make money for.
An independent creator is someone who is not beholden to any institution, who is responsible for creating and maintaining the platform on which they connect with an audience, and as such has a direct relationship with an audience. Yes, today that mostly brings to mind someone whose platform is on the internet, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
I know first-hand that independent projects within opera, and classical music in general, are frustratingly privy to the same gate-keeping that makes it difficult to break into the industry. It is also frustratingly difficult to create quality performances when you are also spending your energy and time negotiating rental prices and emailing with administrators and herding other musicians. And as you go along there is this constant impulse – a very sane impulse – to seek platforms for your performances in the form of institutions, be they festivals or host organizations, who will legitimize your performance. But, again and again, I’ve been reminded that these venues are not really here for the performers. More than once, I received no reply after offering a particular art song program to a festival only to find that same festival offering a very similar program the next season with “more established” singers. I have had festival heads tell me that they were interested in my offer and asked me to contact them at a certain date, only to tell me at said date that "their season was already full" (that happens quite often and you might see it as harmless except it shows just how little they think of artists and their time.) I have also received a strange reply from an administrator at a Czech embassy in the US, in which he told me, in so many words, that they would not bring me over for the centennial of the founding of the Czech Republic and then proceeded to tone-deafly enumerate all the singers he managed to bring over in the past. I still don't know what he was really trying to tell me but the message was that we singers are somehow all interchangeable and that we should be grateful the Czech embassy is bringing anyone over to perform in the US at all. Within the world of classical music, singers are just objects with varying degrees of value, value determined by third parties. Less anecdotal evidence of the singer’s position within the industry is how soloists have been treated by certain opera theaters during the pandemic.
I deeply admire many successful establishment-sanctioned performers because the opportunities they had, in fact, make them the artists they are. But that’s also the tragedy. Performing artists depend on performing opportunities given to them by others not just to be seen, not just to share their art with an audience, not just to make money, but also to grow as artists, to learn their craft, to become the artists they are meant to be. Those who are given a chance at the right time will, later, seem as if they had always been worthier than those who had not been given the same opportunities when, in reality, they likely started off with very similar potential. So, as performers, we’re in a position where “legitimizing” organizations and people who represent them determine whether we are allowed to become the artists we have the potential to be. And even if you make the industry less classist, less racist, less sexist etc. that will always be the case within an industry as hierarchical and centralized as ours.
So what we need is not a better industry but a better way to exist outside of it. And yes, that is easier said than done. Like I said, getting grants and sponsors and support of any kind for independent projects is privy to the same gatekeeping as everything else. However, I think it’s better to put our energy in that direction, rather than spending all our energy trying to either curry favor with, or critique, the industry. After all, currying favor with and critiquing the industry are in this case both born of a desire to be accepted into it and I find that backwards, even as I revert to that impulse again and again myself.
First, however, singers need to examine their own preconceptions. I have certainly had to do so and I’m still not done shifting my attitudes. Quite recently, I complained about how hard it is to maintain one’s voice while working within other skillsets, even though having other skillsets is precisely what can liberate singers from bored festival owners making decisions that impacts what kind of art they get to make. Maybe, deep down, I’ll never stop dreaming of being taken under someone’s wing, be it an agent or a conductor or anyone else, who would champion me, so that I could focus only on what I consider to be art. Maybe I’ll never stop dreaming of being able to make money from singing alone so that I can focus, again, on what I consider to be art. Maybe I’ll never stop dreaming of being legitimized as a “real” singer through the prestige of the venues I sing in or the size of the roles I’m assigned. But I have also slowly realized that I have to let go of those dreams.
In a sense, the new role I imagine for singers is a much more daunting one than the traditional role of the patronized soloist, which leaves so much creativity and so much power in the hands of others. We singers, we performers, should be the ones offering an alternative to the industry, however unprepared we may feel to do so. And even those of us who are young are likely still too old to see the end of the process of de-centralizing live entertainment, including some form of opera, and giving it back to performers and, ultimately, back do audiences.
Now, perhaps you get a little weary at the mention of “independent opera” or opera that is “performer-led.” The term “alternative,” and anything that implies it, is, probably rightly, associated with a certain pretentiousness and inscrutability. I’m not saying that I find the independent productions I have attended universally better or more valuable than the ones I have seen in established opera theaters. Some were, some weren’t. But that’s not the point. Making that the point is like asking: “Why isn’t there a female Wagner?” or “Where is the Black Mozart?” It’s like saying: “If you want to put on your own opera – just do it. If it’s good, people will notice and buy tickets and write reviews and you’ll be able to fund your next production from it, ad infinitum.” But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Because artists and art don’t live in social and economic vacuums. And we, in fact, have no idea what a truly thriving independent opera scene would look like. So, we can't judge.
Indie opera has the potential to take down the barrier between the work, the performer, and the audience. That’s why I don’t ask “Will the next great opera be an indie opera?” but “Will the next great operatic diva be an independent creator?” For me, the emphasis must be on the performer. What that will look like in practice will vary – and that’s a good thing. That’s true diversity, not just the kind “allowed” by those in power.
Are there creative pitfalls to independent theater, particularly opera? Of course. It’s easy to talk a big game about how important it is for performers to find a way to organize and lead their own productions and establish a direct relationship with their audience but it’s not easy to do any of it well and consistently. A big part of that is the issue of funding and organizing, which most of us don't have enough experience doing. And that would be for a whole other (probably more useful) post, one which I may or may not be able to write any time time soon. But for now, I would like to talk not about the practical pitfalls but the creative ones. There are performer-led productions which we can look to as both examples and cautionary tales. Here are some things I’ve observed in a lot of independent performances and productions that, should I one day have the opportunity to actually collaborate on large-scale independent projects, I would like to avoid:
1) Sucking up to the establishment. If the idea behind an independent production isn’t to create a production in its own right but, rather, to present uninspiring morsels of grand opera with the end goal of getting people to eventually buy tickets to “actual” productions in established opera houses, you can call it outreach, perhaps – but it’s not independent opera. Conversely, establishing an opera troupe should not be done as “plan B” to having an “an actual career.” That attitude shows in the final product.
2) Hipster opera. This kind of indie opera defines itself in opposition to the establishment but seeks legitimacy by creating its own exclusive club defined by comprehensibility to only a few – usually a club consisting of the creators and their friends who nod along. It assumes that art is supposed to be incomprehensible to the majority in order to be “good.” It considers the incomprehension of audiences to be a sign of quality.
3) Thinking that opera is important simply because it’s opera. Opera is not the “highest art form.” It’s just an art form. People don’t need it. They can live without it. You’re not a savior by “giving” people opera. What that means practically is that your work is not “good” just because you’re calling it opera. Make it actually good. One way to do that is by fostering real, raw performing and immediacy, something most of us classical singers are not trained to do.
4) “Operatic” singing. If indie opera is to be performer-led then those people leading it will likely have traditional opera singing backgrounds of one sort or another. But if classically-trained singers are to successfully contribute to indie opera, they need to learn how to think outside the box, not just visually and musically but also vocally. I’m not talking about extended technique, exactly. The problem with the relatively short tradition of extended technique is that it is already loosely defined by the idea that there are either “ugly” noises or “beautiful” singing. I think the best singers know there are many shades between. The best singers are so free and so intuitive that they can slide in and out of various sounds for various spaces and occasions. That’s the kind of artistry I would like to cultivate and which I think should be cultivated in institutions which teach classical voice. Since educational institutions are rarely doing so, however, we singers need to take the initiative in exploring vocal artistry – both the tradition and the unexplored possibilities.
5) Superficial interdisciplinary collaboration. I would like to see interdisciplinary collaboration of a deeper kind than just “you do the lights, I’ll do the singing while they do the dancing.” We need to be able to truly and meaningfully connect with people outside of our discipline and be open to that interaction actually changing us.
6) Space and amplification. This relates very closely to my point about “operatic” singing but here I would, perhaps contrary to expectation, urge a re-discovery of tradition. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing within the opera pedagogy world about the loss of technique by singers. I have heard this blamed on increasing theater size, louder orchestras, and verismo opera – but I recently attended a virtual lecture in which the problem was blamed entirely on microphones and recording technology. I don’t see why it couldn’t have been a bit of both – and it’s not my place to argue one way or the other. In any case, there seems to be many people in agreement that, unlike with say, sports or dance, singers have not gotten more virtuosic but, rather, less so over the last century or so. And, yes, many non-opera-fans are turned off by the warbling, incomprehensible mush which much of opera singing has become. It seems they would prefer the tighter vibratos and clearer pronunciation of times past. So, perhaps this is something we could explore outside of the fast-paced opera industry, which has no time to pause for vocal reform? This, of course, leaves some questions. The space we sing in is part of the sounding board of our instrument. Independent opera is likely not to take place in opera theaters. So, is the fact that an opera house provides a fundamentally different sounding board than a café, which provides a different sounding board than a park gazebo, which provides a different sounding board than a living room something we need to be thinking about, as vocal artists? Also, even though we should like to perfect and promote unamplified sound, we do need to empower ourselves by learning as much as we can about recording technology, namely what it does and doesn’t capture about the human voice and how. And, yes, I do think we should create projects specifically for recorded media, in a way that truly uses the unique possibilities of that format. And, as a matter of survival, we need to be able to record well regardless of whether we are interested in recorded media, for reasons of promotion.
Again, I know I am not answering the more pressing question of how to fund all this, how to win support for your projects, how to attract audiences. I know, I know. This is merely a statement of intent. I have a lot to learn before I can tell you anything practical about how to go about it successfully. And I'm not asking that anyone turn away from the establishment, altogether. You need to be in some dialogue with it. For me, the shift manifests itself in the fact that getting hired to sing is not longer an end but a means, a means to gaining experience so that I can ultimately break away. The only way what I'm saying is going to have any value, though, is if many singers decide to similarly rethink their goals. I hope that happens. Now, when so many theaters are shut down, so much performing has ceased, is a good time to do some of this re-thinking.
So, will the next great operatic diva be an independent creator? It’s more like operatic divas, divas stripped of all the stereotypical displays of powerlessness – the temper tantrums, the vanity, the scandals, the firings. The trope of the “temperamental diva” (a reality for only a small subset of singers) is born of an artist’s unsuccessful disobedience to an industry that successfully owns her. I would like that not to be the future of opera. To be clear, I am using the term “diva” and the feminine pronoun as a stand-in for all voice types.
None of this is to say that we should not pursue reform within the establishment. But we should never lose sight of its limitations. Think of the opera Blue, which premiered at Glimmerglass in 2019, and was (as far as I read) universally praised as a brave attempt at an opera about race in America. But is it not significant that Blue exists because the director of the Glimmerglass festival (a white woman) commissioned a composer (a white woman) to write an “opera about race in America” and only then contacted the librettist Tazewell Thompson (initially only to consult with him on a list of other possible librettists she was considering.) It was a white woman, and, ultimately, the board of the festival she represented, I suppose, who had the power to decide whether Blue would be made or not. I’m not saying that makes the effort without value. It just means the power was still in the same hands throughout the process. When there are only ever a few people at the top, diversity comes comes down to the benevolence of the people in power. And you can replace people in power with others, and that can bring change, but it's only a matter of time before a new division emerges and someone else is unheard. I think we can go beyond that.
For whom did the Camerata, that group of intellectuals who wished to promote musical drama as a new art form in late 1500s Italy, imagine dramma musicale to be? They did have a vague sense of “the public,” I suppose. Yet, built in, there was the assumption that something had to stand between the public and opera, that is, the public and the performer. We’ve accepted that tradition to be self-evident - but is it really?
The kind of research I would have to do to answer my questions would be much deeper than what I have the time and resources and skill to do right now. So I'm taking it gradually - and trying not to make any misrepresentations on the way.
The questions one asks about the past are, at their core, motivated by what one wants to find which in turn is motivated by worldview. In my case, I want to believe that opera and, more broadly, what's thought of as Western art, is not, at its very core, the product of (and for) one, elite, class - that the only reason it seems that way is because, like I said in this post, history is written by the victors. I also understand that one's sense of what class means and what "popular" or "folk" art mean are defined by the time one is living in and that, for that reason, among others, it is dangerous when a person who is not a historian attempts to think critically about history. In any case, for this post, I spent quite some time trying to find literature describing "folk" or "popular" entertainment in Italy in the centuries leading up to the birth of opera in hopes that it would indicate the "popular" or "folk" roots of opera. Of course, I found nothing of the sort - just several indications that the past is much murkier than we might think, simply because so much goes unrecorded.
Here are some sources I read while writing this post:
Carolyn Abbate, Roger Parker: History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years
John Roselli: Singers of Italian Opera: The History of a Profession
Sandy Thornburn: "What News on the Rialto? Fundraising and Publicity for Opera in 17th Century Venice" (here)
Toni Bernhart: "Imagining the Audience of 18th Century Folk Theater in Tyrol" (here) - where I got the quote about audiences being a "historical void"
Kimball King ed.: Western Drama Through the Ages: Volume One - I found some descriptions of folk entertainment and festivals which are considered precursors to Western drama, or at least significant enough to be mentioned in a textbook about it. I realize these are simply general descriptions from different eras and regions (and I do not own the book so I only read excerpts) but it was the closest I got.