The title of this article implies optimism. It could just as reasonably end with a question mark. Until about a century ago opera companies depended on the regular inflow of new works. Older works were still performed, but it was the new operas that the public demanded. These new works were performed for a while and then were replaced by newer works, in much the same fashion as popular music works today. Then composers lost the ability to provide new works that satisfied their audiences or the audiences lost interest in new works or both. But for whatever reason opera houses became museums.
The last Italian opera to enter the standard repertory was Puccini’s Turandot first performed in 1926, two years after its composer’s death. The last German opera in this canon is Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919). His later operas are still performed, but he’s the last great German opera composer. The most recent standard work is Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945). An art form that cannot renew itself will certainly die. It appears that the endless performances of the same handful of operas, great as they are, and the continuous resurrection of justly forgotten works by masters signal the approaching death of this art form.
So what happened? A number of things. I’ll leave the most important for last. Composers became so self conscious that they could only write for other musicians. They professed to be indifferent to the tastes of their audiences. Atonal music may attract the interest of a professor of music, but it doesn’t sell tickets. New works keep appearing but they are rejected by the audience.
Twentieth century music, as did art in general, became obsessed with man’s place in the cosmos and in meaning beyond the notes. Isaiah Berlin called this sentimental art, a term taken from Schiller. In music this preoccupation with extra-musical meaning as well as music for music’s self alone starts with Beethoven and peaks in Wagner’s operas. Inevitably a style adopted by geniuses attracts followers, disciples, and anti-followers – all of whom are necessarily self conscious. But the talent level having peaked so high must fall off. Strauss and Puccini still meet the genius standard as do Debussy and Ravel. But the rote and rot eventually set in and art ossifies.
Berlin’s opposite from sentimental is naïve. Here the artist is not concerned with the cosmos or his place in it. His work is straightforward and direct, no matter how sophisticated. Examples of these artists are Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and finally Verdi. Among the universal geniuses, he is the last naïve artist. He can have no followers because you can only be a follower by being aware that you are a disciple and thus you are sentimental. There’s nothing wrong with self conscious art unless it’s excessive and without genius; and this excess (sans genius) is what seems to have consumed those modern composers who would write operas. Just so everyone is sure, Berlin did not use sentimental and naïve in their conventional sense.
But I don’t think that the above is mainly responsible for the absence of new operas that attract audiences. Opera is a victim of progress and technology. In the 18th century opera was the diversion of the affluent. It became a popular medium in the 19th century. In the 20th century the sound movie and its younger sibling television overwhelmed all the other performing arts.
Obviously most movies and TV shows are junk. But the same is true of the 50,000 or so operas written since it was invented at the end of the 16th century in Florence. Only a few hundred operas form the core of the standard repertory. Take away just 8 composers and there’s only a handful of works to perform. These 8 are (in chronological order) Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, and Richard Strauss.
The rarity ratio for great movies or TV shows is likely of the same order for that of opera. But movies and TV dominate the public’s attention. And as they have a mass audience they charge a lot less for a ticket even when they cost scores of millions of dollars to produce. An prime ticket at New York’s Met Opera costs $300. A ticket to a first run movie is about $6-10. Netflix and Amazon Prime run about $10/month. Every so often a director produces a masterpiece.
Opera cannot compete either in cost or novelty. It’s best hope is to survive as a niche medium. But its audience is getting older every year and no one living seems to know how to write a new opera that will attract and maintain an enthusiastic audience. Without vibrant new operas its niche will narrow to oblivion.
Opera companies, to their credit, commission new works that get fine productions. They attract some attention for a short time and then vanish. The Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès is in the midst of a run at the Met. I’ll comment on it after its telecast on November 18. I Lituani is a forgotten opera by Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of La Gioconda. Between 1903 and 1979 it was not performed anywhere. Since then it has received a few performances, mostly in a concert version.
Let’s compare the final few minutes of both operas and I think you’ll hear what the problem with modern opera is. Ponchielli’s opera ends with the death of a medieval Lithuanian hero who has caused the defeat of the invading Teutonic Knights followed by his immediate apotheosis. Adès’s opera based on a movie of the same name by Luis Buñuel ends with the release of upper crust guests from a party gone mysteriously bad.
I Lituani Act 3 finale Consider that this excerpt is from an opera that didn’t make it. Nineteenth century audiences expected new operas like this to make up the bulk of every season. That they lasted for just a moment was part of the game. Opera was truly a popular art. Every now and then a really good opera would stick. Today a new opera once in 3 or 4 seasons is a stretch as well as a big financial gamble for the company that produces it.
The Exterminating Angel Act 3 finale We know what happened to I Lituani; the fate of The Exterminating Angel is in the hands of the audience as is the precarious future of opera.