Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Tonight, stumped about what to write my blog about, I googled "Opera" in google news, just to see what would come up. On the first page, I found this article, in something called the L magazine, about a new Broadway show called "Lend me a tenor":

I disagree with quite a bit of Charles Isherwood's pan of Lend Me a Tenor, a revival of which opened on Broadway this weekend. But he does make one incontestable assertion: of Justin Bartha, the Hangover alum who stars in the show, he writes: "his attempts at singing are dubious at best. (The ending really should have been tweaked to avoid exposing his deficiencies in this regard.)"
That's true! Not that the audience has any clue.

Bartha's character secretly aspires to be a great opera singer and, one night, when a star tenor cannot be woken up, he gets his big chance, wowing audiences with his Otello, a part he just happens to know by heart.

In one scene, Bartha and Anthony LaPaglia, as the titular tenor, collaborate on an aria, and it's never more obvious than here that Bartha can't sing, as his voice wobbles on uncertain notes. And yet at the end of the scene, the two received a wild ovation at a recent performance.

The audience seemed impressed that anyone could almost sing at all, especially in another language! But what the casting choice tells us is that Americans, even wealthy foreign tourists, have become so opera illiterate they can't even recognize when someone can't sing, to the point that characters in plays who are supposed to be opera singers needn't even be cast by anybody who can sing passably!

America: opera is pretty. You should listen to it every once in a while.

Oy. This is depressing. I haven't seen the show in question, but I've definitely seen things in plays and movies that were supposed to pass for opera singing that, well....weren't. And very few people seemed to be aware of the difference.

But how do you combat such a problem? And is it even something to be combatted? If people are listening to something and enjoying it, why spoil it for them by letting them know that what they're hearing actually sucks ass?

I think the reason to try to educate people is that when they realize what they are missing, they might be able to get to an entirely new level of understanding and passion about this art form, and with that knowledge, their appreciation of the art form can only be deepened. If they went crazy for somebody just because he sang passably and in a foreign language, imagine how moved they could be if they were aware of what went into opera singing, and were able to appreciate it in it's true form!

I guess the only chance we have with this is in education. Unless we educate young people in this country about what opera is and how it can make you feel, we can't really expect audiences to yearn for anything more than a movie star who can sort of sing on pitch.


Anonymous said...

Yes but how do we educate people when things get financially tight, we make cuts in education (not that we do much education about opera, but this is something the industry could work much harder on) and the first thing to go is arts programs? Anyone passionate about their art needs to be just as passionate about educating an audience in the art form every chance they get.

sestissimo said...

ABSOLUTELY anonymous - everyone has to do their part or we don't really have a future!

Liz said...

I am speaking as someone who always preferred music other than "pop" out there. I loved the old MGM musicals and later TV shows featuring opera stars of the time. Now, after 4 years of viewing most of the Met HD movie theater series, I have come to realize that I actually am being educated and can better evaluate a singer. Thanks to Peter Gelb I believe there are a lot more like me out there today. I really enjoy seeing different performances of an opera and comparing them...something that I never would have been able to do before.

Anonymous said...

One thing I always say to those who are either unfamiliar with or new to opera: well, opera sung badly by wobbly, ugly voices is about the most unpleasant thing in the world. I go on to say that the key is to hear it sung beautifully, and powerfully. I say that when it is, it is one of the most glorious things one can experience.

I think so many people have only a fleeting acquaintance with the caricature version of opera, and it's no wonder it is a tough sell sometimes. The other thing I take pains not to do is to discourage those who enjoy things like Andrea Bocelli recordings and the like. I politely say he has a lovely voice (which he does), and also that he is a microphone singer. I continue by saying that the 3 Tenors were actually stage opera singers, and that they could also give powerful acoustic performances in opera houses, without microphones. (No need for conspiracy theories or emotional debate here, pls.)

This distinction may irritate some, but it is an important and yet simple concept to discuss. Obviously the best thing one can do is to recommend one of the definitive recordings, or perhaps a collection of arias by one of the great voices, or even better to bring up one's favorite Youtubes, ones that do justice to the art. As folks say, it is up to all of us!

Sibyl said...

For many many years I have been taking anyone I thought could appreciate it to the theater to see opera. I try to get people to live performances because one's physical, almost tactile, reaction to an un-mic'd voice filling the house is so much a part of what makes opera unique. That visceral connection with the singers is like absolutely nothing else. As for the friends and relatives I've taken to the opera, some have taken to it, some have not.

Lucy said...

Well, there's always the method of friends educating friends. Leaving the important debates on widespread musical education to better heads than mine, I'm with Sibyl, dragging friends along to opera whenever possible! Similar results: I haven't had a single instance of someone (admitting to) not enjoying the evening, but it's a subset who have subsequently joined me in addiction.

Thanks to Anonymous (II) for their tactful and concise comment on Bocelli, which I may borrow. I've awkwardly "Ummm..."ed about him many a time.

Lily said...

The biggest bar to opera being popular on a mass scale in the U.S. seems to be that it is in a foreign language. That is what I have concluded after numerous people have asked me how I deal with the language barrier. Then of course I tell them about the surtitles or subtitles, and I can see them almost considering going.
There is still the big "It's foreign and high art and I am neither" hurdle. My fellow Americans seem to wallow in lacking cultural accomplishment. We are in a period of lowbrow fashion. This was not always so and perhaps might not be so again, but meanwhile, there's no doubt that to survive, opera needs to reconnect with the masses here.

The other half seems to be that Americans have a big issue with opera being (in the main) European. Most Americans now are generations away from being European themselves. I don't know the origin of this bias, but I can feel that it is there.