Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

"Opera News" and the Guild..We must save opera!

In the 70s, long before I’d ever seen an opera (let alone, appeared in one), I lived in a small farming community in Central Illinois. Our high school had approximately 225 enrolled. Despite that small number, we, at one time, had about 90 kids in the band and 90 kids in the mixed choir. There were 3 other choirs from time to time as well as a jazz band. The band, choir, and individual students received countless awards. School musicals were attended (and sold out) by people traveling long distances to enjoy these great performances. The gymatorium overflowed. It truly was a quality music program. And the students were involved with multiple other activities. These were the days when one could be active in athletics as well as the arts. To me, they have always worked hand in hand…being a singer is very athletic and I have trained myself along those lines all these years. There was incredible support for the arts and all else in my hometown. The pride was obvious.

Little by little, starting in the latter part of that decade, school boards and other administrators began chipping away at the arts. Funding was diminished. Roadblocks were put into place. The lack of support came from many angles. A few years back, I visited my old high school to find broken music trophies and plaques (what was left of them) thrown into boxes, ready for the garbage dump. The music library was all being thrown out. Instruments were heaped on the ground damaged or destroyed. It looked like the entire music area had been vandalized. But, it was not vandalized by miscreants. It was vandalized by apathy, lack of imagination, and a lack of culture. The spirit of dedication to the artistic spirit had been silenced and destroyed. There no longer is a real music program in the school. This was a program that developed numerous musicians and others who could carry music on with them through the rest of their lives. No more.
I had no interest in opera as a youth. But, I enjoyed classical music. Even as an undergraduate in college, I knew I wanted to teach music (in fact, I majored in Music Education). During my senior year, I was “recruited” to attend Wichita State University (full disclosure…where I am now the Director of Opera and a Professor of Voice). One of the first things I saw, when I arrived on campus, was a copy of “OPERA NEWS”. On its cover was our most noted Wichita State music alum, Samuel Ramey. I had rarely seen the magazine before that but knew, after that viewing, that it had to be an important publication. From then on, I would read the magazine nearly cover to cover and learned so much from combing through the pages. I learned history. I learned style. I learned of the artists that had sustained the art form for centuries and about the composers and directors who kept opera alive. I gained as much reading that magazine over the years as I did from a Donald Grout textbook.

The magazine focused, primarily, on American opera companies and singers. Even though I’ve sung extensively in Europe, I learned that I didn’t have to relocate to Europe. American opera companies and American opera were alive and thriving…and American singers were leading the way. I have always been a proud American opera singer…and have been thrilled to be mentioned in the magazine so many times and had a feature article about me in the magazine several years back. (I still wish they had printed a better picture…but, I digress). Opera was thriving on those pages and in the auditoriums as well.

Once we had real opera companies…people who worked together as a unit on and off the stage. Young singers gained from watching veterans in big and small roles. Resident directors and musicians were family alongside of technical and other backstage personnel. Support staff were cherished and vital to the well being of a company. Generations of people from the same family would work for the company. The company members would work together, dine together, raise families together, and give their best on stage to these theaters that were loyal and part of what made artists the best they could be. These were special venues that were cherished by all who would walk through the stage door each and every day. Alas…

Sadly, OPERA NEWS and the Metropolitan Opera Guild are to be no more. You can blame this on many things. Some blame the lack of funding to the NEA. As one who has served on two different NEA grant writing committees, I can attest that money does help in some ways…but, in this country, more money to the NEA is not the answer unless it is dedicated only to EDUCATION. We are paying for the lack of attention to the arts, our soul’s voice, for way too long. This is not fixable in the short term…but is a long range challenge that must be taken on. We have become uglier without the arts. We have become more confrontational without the arts. We have silenced people who haven’t even begun to speak to the music in their heart.

Some will say, “Well, OPERA NEWS is just being absorbed into the British OPERA magazine. This is part of the problem. We are farming out our culture. We need an AMERICAN Opera magazine that focuses on our artists, our history, and our culture. Otherwise, the homogenization (boring) productions will continue to take over the arts. We will have more tedious, lifeless, drab, dreary, and dismal productions. We will continue to see audiences dwindle as they have in New York and Chicago. We will not have the finest voices supported or even known about. We will continue to have an art form that has become less about singing (and the artists who create those sounds) than about something that doesn’t even resemble the art form. How many more “trench coat” opera productions can we handle? How much more rolling all over the stage and pushing the envelope creating something that the people don’t really want to see? People go to the theater and opera to be intrigued…but, most important, they go to be entertained. With all the ugliness in the world, they don’t want ugly preached at them night after night…and after spending so much money.

At one time, opera was seen and heard on television through talk shows and full presentations…often. American singers were household names. Opera, even if it wasn’t a favored cup of tea for many, was still a faction that people respected and knew something about. Newspapers and other publications had fine arts sections with dedicated critics. Alas, it’s now hard to find arts journalists in most US newspapers. We have surrendered live opera for movie theater opera (it’s not the same). We have lost so much alliance to local opera companies. We have students who only have a chance to view opera via their computers rather than see the glory that is the art form in person. We have a generation of singers who can’t name 5 tenors, sopranos, mezzos, or basses who graced the stage as recently as 25 years ago. How shocking it was for me to interview a prospective GRADUATE OPERA PERFORMANCE student a few years back who had never even heard of Samuel Ramey (the most recorded bass in history)…and his picture was sitting just over my shoulder in my studio (not to mention, he coached young singers just three doors down the hall).

ARTISTS need to be involved in this discussion. Alas, they have, for the most part, been shut out of the discussion. Without the artists, you have no art. It’s time to stop pretending we are serious about opera and opera companies…and get real. We’ve been pretending to care about the arts for nearly 50 years. It’s time to see if we really care…or if we are going to just sacrifice the beauty that is within us all. Will what we have left of the arts be thrown into boxes, ready for the trash heap, as at my high school? Will we put into place people who genuinely care about what the composer and librettist had to say…and can recreate those ideas effectively? Will we foster healthy and long lasting quality singing that can last decades in a human’s throat? Will we support young conductors who take time to learn music style and repertoire on smaller scales before being thrown into the machine? Will we have directors that are truly more interested in telling the story rather than expressing their own ego? Yes, there are quality musicians, directors, and others in the arts…but we are silencing and losing them. The agenda driven approach to presenting opera is failing (or has failed). When will the opera BOARDS and AUDIENCES speak up and say, “Enough”? Let’s give a voice back to the artists…new artists, yes. But also artists who have walked the walk and sang the song…and helped to make it possible for the art form to survive.
Let’s care about the “Gesamtkunstwerk” of life….let’s care about our souls. St. Cecilia, pray for us!