Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Classical Symptoms

My opera education differed radically from that of many others. Instead of reading one musicological tome after another, I stood in the theater each night, watching and listening as singers learned new roles. Instead of comparing umpteen recordings of the same aria performed by singers who were by that time quite dead, I listened to artists as they continued to stretch their talents and grow before my very eyes. Night after night, I witnessed the operatic art form come of age in my own country and in my own time. The uniqueness of my experience left me with a perspective on the art form diametrically opposed to the consumer-oriented mind set of so many members of today’s audiences.

Recent advances in digital technology have produced such exciting breakthroughs in the quality of recorded sound that it seems like the technological revolution is causing more and more opera fans to stay home as opposed to attending live performances. Lately, some of my friends have spent so much of their earnings purchasing compact discs that I’ve begun to wonder if a group shouldn’t be formed called “CDs Anonymous.”

Thanks to the new technology, videocassettes of live performances are simultaneously allowing more people to become better acquainted with the operatic art form and, in many ways, the experience of watching an opera video is similar to that of watching a travelogue. One can instantly be transported to the Met, La Scala, Glyndebourne, or the Verona Arena for an armchair adventure which captures a specific operatic moment and preserves it for posterity.

What worries me is that, even as opera succeeds in reaching new audiences, the mass consumerism spurred by the home entertainment center is discouraging people from going to the theater. I think that’s a tremendous insult to the army of professional singers who (although their performances may not be available on compact disc or videocassette) are exceptionally strong performing artists who deserve our undivided attention.

Singers continue to grow according to a unique set of variables and their voices, bodies, personal and professional lives all undergo changes which are rarely taken into account when a videotape from an earlier part of their careers is randomly dropped into someone’s VCR. Because a great deal of performing involves taking risks and struggling to improve one’s art, the hard copy emblazoned on a digital or videotaped product might prevent consumers from supporting artists (live and in person) as they age and, like the best of wines, continue to mature.

I am by no means opposed to people acquiring books, records, compact discs, videocassettes, and other spin-off products which can only add to their appreciation of the operatic art form. After all, building a musical library satisfies the obsessive demands of any operatic gourmet’s palette and most people prefer to go shopping for tangible goods.

The problem I envision lies much further down the line and is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenal success of America’s video porn industry. In a perverse way, opera videos are remarkably similar to skin flicks. Both products offer the consumers a distinctly vicarious set of rewards. But, when push comes to shove, the video is no substitution for the excitement of participating in the real thing.

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This article originally appeared in the November 1988 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.

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