Until the fat lady sings
// Katherine Alpen

When thinking of opera, people tend to imagine Viking helmets and elaborate theatres with well-to-do audiences pretending they understand what the singer is saying. The overall stereotype of opera is that it’s a stodgy, inaccessible art form – and the extent of an outsider’s knowledge tends not to be much more than the Looney Toons version of the The Barber of Seville.

However, opera, like any other part of the art world, is constantly evolving. In January, the University of Toronto updated the classical medium with their piece called Rob Ford: The Opera, a surrealist take on the life of the current mayor of Toronto.

Ford, elected in December of 2010, has had his share of scandal. There have been reports of him using ethnic slurs during council meetings, allegations of drunk driving, and charges of marijuana possession, among many other controversial actions. One might ask why, then, he would be the subject of an opera.

In a recent interview with Global Toronto, Michael Angelo, a teacher in the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, explained the inspiration of the piece, which came to him in a Starbucks. As he described, his original idea was more in the vein of traditional opera: “I’m sitting there, writing an updating of Antigone by Sophocles … I’m so earnestly doing this, and everybody around me is talking about Rob Ford. People waiting for their macchiatos, people in line, and people beside me, and you want to say, ‘Be quiet, I’m doing great art here.’ And suddenly, it occurs to me, this is what I should be doing. So, [I] delete Antigone [and type in] Rob Ford: the Opera.”

Here at home, the Vancouver Opera House (VHO) also knows a thing or two about evolution. Since 1999, the company, which is the second largest in Canada, has introduced five premieres into its regular seasons, including the controversial Nixon in China, an opera about Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, written in 1987.

Opera is currently considered to be an art form that lags behind the times, but James Wright, general director of the Vancouver Opera explains it wasn’t always so: “In the 19th century especially, [opera] was very, very relevant. Most of the stories were contemporary stories; people were writing operas based on novels that had just come out and things that had just happened.”

Like opera in its heyday, ideas expressed by contemporary opera composers are turning more to modern ideas, such as celebrity and recent political phenomena.

“There’s a very successful work, it was in London at the Royal Opera House, based on Anna Nicole Smith,” says Wright. “Before it debuted, there were a lot of raised eyebrows thinking, ‘What are they doing? They’re pandering to a very low common denominator.’ But when the work was premiered, the press generally and audience response was very positive and they felt that this was a serious treatment of celebrity and celebritization.”

The key, it seems, to opera’s survival and renewal, it its foundation: storytelling. “Stories are just as meaningful to us as they were a hundred years ago, because you know the big stuff in our lives doesn’t change.” Wright says “We still fall in love and we’re still dumped and we still do things that we regret, [and] we still believe in revenge when were wronged.”

Most commonly seen as a spectacle that mainly mature audiences enjoy, there has been a lot of effort put into getting youth more involved in the opera, with wide success. According to Wright, the common misconception that young people don’t enjoy opera is totally off the mark: “I think it has a lot to do with exposure, the opportunity to experience it … Oftentimes, when young people are exposed to one of the great works, it really makes a huge difference to them.”

Wright adds his own perspective, regarding the programs the VHO has had in place for some time: “We have up to a thousand students, mostly high school students, that come to our dress rehearsals. They pay about $12 … [for] the best seats in the house. And they watch the final dress rehearsal … and the audience of young people is so rapt, they’re just so involved in the production. … The performers love to perform for the student audience because they’re so receptive.”

Additionally, the world of opera is becoming more attractive to younger generations for reasons that go beyond student tickets or classical storytelling. Wright explains, “Opera is developing a more spectacle-based, multimedia dimension to it. People don’t stand there in front of bleak, flat painted scenery and stand there and sing. There are more actors, there’s a lot more use of technology, of lighting, of special effects, and I think that’s very appealing to a younger audience.”

Opera is in the middle of a rebirth, not only in the eyes of artists but also those of the public. It is formidable that something so old can still learn new tricks. I think we can all be glad about losing the Viking helmets too.

//Katherine Alpen, writer
//Graphics by Marco Ferreira

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com