It’s rare enough that I choose to watch a film at all (I’m just not a fan of the medium in general), but lately, my tastes have become alarmingly specific; I’ve been watching operas. More specifically, I’ve been watching the movie adaptations of operas that were briefly prevalent during the later ’70s and mid-’80s – the 1986 version of Verdi’s Otello that stars Placido Domingo in blackface, the 1983 adaptation of the same composer’s Rigoletto that boasts one of Pavarotti’s defining performances, the 1984 version of Bizet’s Carmen with Julia Migenes in the sexually aggressive titular role, the acclaimed 1979 version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and so on. Generally, they’re good fun and they’re entertaining enough, and since they’re effectively just music with pictures they’re perfect for someone like me. Yet, one thing is undeniable – they’re not a patch on just listening to the music on its own.
|This all ties into something that’s bugged me about opera for some time. Whether you choose to use the term ’snobs’ or ‘traditionalists’, there are a lot of big opera fans that will insist that it’s almost not worth owning an album until you’ve seen the opera performed live; that the music is just one part of a bigger event. On paper, this is completely true – the whole point of opera, in the beginning, was to combine every art form into one spectacle. The composers handled the music, the performers handled the acting and occasionally the dancing, the librettist took the role of playwright and handled the poetry, while extra hands were on deck to provide the high fashion, and sculpturs and painters occasionally got involved the stage design to a degree, too. It was a fulcrum where everybody could meet, a forum for artists to meet and collaborate, regardless of the form they had found themselves working in.|
This rather romantic (and Romantic) view was, unfortunately, destroyed by one thing – recording.
The reality of opera is that, since around 1950, the money has come from two very different sources. Performances are fine, but as they’ve only ever been affordable as a regular pursuit to the rich, the audience they appeal to is narrow. Recordings, on the other hand, are different – thanks to labels like Naxos, you can pick up a good recording of any notable opera for less than £10 (or $15 for our American readers). More expensive recordings with bigger names and better sound have remained available, and have consistently sold well, largely to the same audience that can afford to attend opera performances on a monthly basis, but there is a whole new audience for this music that budget recordings have opened up. Which of those would you rather throw your attention toward? Recordings, of course; that’s just good business sense.
The necessary result of this is that opera has become all about the music. Costumes and facial expressions simply can’t be captured on record, and in the English speaking world where the majority of records are sold, it’s doubtful whether the Italian sense of poetry was ever truly appreciated to the full extent it deserves (even the Germans, themselves major players in music consumption, fall some distance behind their southern neighbours in terms of world-famous operas). The music is all that’s left; and because recordings are now where the money really lies, there’s been a knock-on effect on performances. In this day and age, why would a young, talented fashion designer or choreographer get involved in opera when he knows he find much greater acclaim elsewhere, probably for less work? And how many of the people reading the article could tell me who, say, Francesco Piave and Emanuel Schikaneder were without looking them up? Acting has become a lost discipline in the form, too – opera singers are still expressive, of course, but the reality is that very few people enjoy opera because of the acting. They want great singing, first and foremost, and anything else is a bonus; there’s a reason why, even though Justino Diaz out-performs Placido Domingo as an all-rounder in Otello, he can only dream of achieving the same fame and respect.
So the next time anybody insists that you have to go and watch an opera to truly understand or enjoy it, just smile quietly to yourself in the knowledge that they’re talking shit. Take it from somebody’s who never been more than disappointed when they’ve been invited along; not just by the lack of any appeal but music, but also by the crazy decisions some conductors and directors make in order to compensate for it (I’m fairly certain that neither Shakespeare nor Verdi envisioned Othello’s Iago dying by lethal injection, yet that’s what I once witnessed with raised eyebrows). Go buy yourself a copy of Carmen or Lakme and enjoy it on your own terms; you won’t be missing an awful lot.