Not your grandma’s opera

An opera fan takes the measure of both tradition and adaptation, and weighs in on the question: Can old be new again? 

By Sasha Barish ‘20

It’s August of 2016, and I’m sitting in the dark with a flashlight around my neck and a headset over one ear. I’m in an abandoned train station – enormous 100-year-old Norman windows covered in spray-paint graffiti – but on the platform in front of me, a woman is singing in a high coloratura. I poke my head through the curtain behind me, into the dusty telephone room where the performers get dressed. “Supers,” I say. “Supers, this is five minutes until you bring the podium on.”

I spent the summer before college doing a stage management internship at an experimental opera company. It was tough, and I learned a lot. Sometimes I felt out of place because of my age and my inexperience. I couldn’t go out for drinks with the rest of the crew, I sat quietly while everyone talked about mutual opera friends they’d all worked with and I was the under-18 legal liability that made one singer hesitate to get naked onstage. I had to be taught everything from scratch, from cuing entrances to helping with costume changes to making prop documents to dressing the set before the show. The biggest lesson I learned, though, was that the stereotypical world of our grandparents’ opera is not all the opera that’s out there today.

An article I saw in the Harvard Political Review when I was waiting for college decisions paints a very bleak picture of modern opera. The article states that due to both social factors and the nature of the art form itself, opera is and always has been the entertainment of the elites. If opera is to survive, writes the author, it will need to “attract a new, diverse group of fans of the art itself, rather than the experience of consuming it.”

Even before my experience with showbiz, I’d had conflicting feelings about this view of opera. When I was growing up, my mother or grandmother would take me to the San Francisco Opera. There were certainly a lot of old white people in the audiences of the opera-house, but the seats high up in the back of the audience – dubbed “nosebleed seats” by devoted regulars – cost about $25 for a night of music and beautiful staging. I knew that affording and even prioritizing opera was a privilege, but I also saw that there was no shame in liking musicals, and I couldn’t see much difference. I saw that any art form can be meaningful for anyone, because people of all kinds love music and stories.

A nosebleed-seat subscriber I know once argued that opera is fundamentally different from – maybe even more intellectual than – other forms of performative art. Cartoons and even musicals tell you how to feel about a story, he said, and the archetypal, deeply sad or happy show-tunes leave less room for interpretation than opera arias do. I’m not sure what I think of that.

Working for a less traditional opera company, I saw a whole new part of the story. Though the most famous members of the opera community were older and more traditional, the people I worked with over the summer were younger, progressive and passionate about music. The operas I had seen growing up were of a narrow canon, most of them grand romantic tragedies, but the shows we put on in our abandoned train station were full of kinky sex, dissonant music, social parody and everything in between. The tickets were cheaper, on average, and the audiences were younger. It was opera, but not like my grandma went to.

This fall I started at Harvard College, where the tension between tradition and modernity in opera is evident. Even in my first orchestra gig on campus – The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ adaptation of The Mikado – I’ve seen classmates embittered in this debate. I love the lyrical, satirical music of the operetta, but I feel uneasy about its history of racial stereotyping, yellowface and misogyny. The creative team members says that their production is an attempt to engage critically with problematic aspects of the original show, while protestors say that the changes to the setting and text are too little, too late.

Beneath these discussions are the questions that creators and audiences grapple with every time the curtains open for an opera, that are latent in almost all art forms. Whether it’s an opera-house launching another production of an opera for the 20th time or a novelist writing a “hero’s journey,” everything we create is somewhat new and somewhat a child of the art that came before. Why do we keep experiencing the same stories and songs over and over for years, decades, centuries? Why put on a play all over again in a different time, a different place, a different iteration, or why make “new” art at all? And when we recreate a preexisting piece of art, how much of its past do we have to deal with to enjoy it in its new form?

There are some questions that don’t have answers. I’m overjoyed, though, to see all of the opera and musical theater that my classmates are creating. In Harvard College Opera, students produce the standard repertoire of opera themselves, Lowell House Opera brings together people from Harvard and beyond for opera productions, and the Gilbert and Sullivan Players foster community through their canon of operettas. In these and other shows I can see that young people here – not just older white divas! – are struggling with a very old art form and bringing it into a new age. I’ve got my eye on the world of opera at Harvard, and I’ve got high hopes for its future.