Each September, when the curtain rises on opening night of the opera season, the media pays close attention to the evening's festivities. Only for a handful of journalists, however, is the performance a musical event. To many, it's a fashion circus (the local installment of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) and the reporters who get the most print space are the ones who describe the evening as an orgy of conspicuous consumption. As a result, the message the media delivers to the public is that opera is a feeble excuse for the rich to flaunt their wealth.
Last year, the San Francisco Sunday Examiner's Image magazine published a cover story appropriately titled Let Them Eat Cake which detailed how 970 San Franciscans spent $11.5 million in seven "fabulous, fabulous days" surrounding the opening performances of the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera. Although the people mentioned in this article were thrilled to be treated as celebrities, the message delivered to readers was anathema to most people working in opera.
If we can't do a better job of educating the folks who shape the news, then the negative images of opera perpetuated by editors who know nothing about our art form will continue to repulse those who never have and probably never will attend an operatic performance. (Such people outnumber opera lovers by a ratio of 100 to 1.) Thankfully, change is on the horizon. Although the cynical greed, political corruption, and artistic cowardice embraced by the Reagan administration have spread to Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain, the social pendulum has already started to swing in the opposite direction. Angry reactions to repressive and elitist ideologies are being expressed from London to Los Angeles; from Texas to Tiananmen Square. It now looks as though the 1990s may surpass the Sixties as an era of protest, liberalism, and social upheaval.
In February, tenors Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo were performing at a benefit concert (whose proceeds went to fund leukemia research) when 52 people were injured outside the theater as a crowd of 1,500 clashed with police. Angered at the ostentatious display of wealth being paraded before them by the audience attending Vienna's Opera Ball, rock-throwing demonstrators chanted "Eat the Rich!"
Each nation experiences a period of tremendous decadence in society during which there is a sudden and incredible explosion of creativity. At this very moment, the United States is ripe for opera to become a contemporary art form and, in many ways, the hypocritical excesses paraded onstage in Where's Dick? are symbolic of what has been wrong with America during the 1980s.
This exciting new opera by Michael Korie and Stewart Wallace (which recently received its world premiere from Texas Opera Theater) holds a frightening mirror up to a society in which child abuse, evangelistic con artists, gratuitous violence, and a national dependency on drugs have become part and parcel of our cultural landscape. Nevertheless, in examining our nation's current priorities, it's easy to understand why so many people in the arts feel disillusioned.
In June, a genuine fear of political and economic reprisals initiated by conservative forces led the management of Washington's famed Corcoran Gallery to cancel an exhibit of the late Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial photographs. Congress was asked to bankroll $193 million to underwrite the pomp and glory delivered by military bands while the $170 million proposed as the entire budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (a paltry sum with which to stimulate artistic growth throughout the 50 states) has come under political attack by Congressman Jesse Helms.
The arts are a vital avenue of expression which must never succumb to political oppression. Yet, with little understanding of the artistic process -- or the freedom of expression guaranteed to creative minds by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution -- Senator Helms has publicly and self-righteously denounced the work produced by artists like Mr. Mapplethorpe as "trash!'
Beauty rests in the eye of the beholder. And that's why so many of the acutely intelligent people who work in opera and its fellow disciplines don't hesitate to hail Mapplethorpe's controversial photographs -- and a seminal opera like Where's Dick? -- as important pieces of American art while denouncing narrow-minded ideologues like Senator Helms as our nation's truest trash. Perhaps those who were aghast at the insidious double standards, evil forces, and ghoulish characters depicted in Where's Dick? should ask themselves whether it is the opera which actually horrifies them so much or the sick society that this daring and iconoclastic piece of art reflects.
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This article originally appeared in the September 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.