The Opera Questionnaire: Cecily Carver

The Opera Questionnaire: Cecily Carver

If there is one person who we can blame the most for the fact that I started this blog back in 2010 (David Miller was Mayor… YNS was just taking over the Philly… screamers were screaming over Tim Albery’s Aida…), it’s Cecily. I discovered her own blog All Time Coloratura while desperately looking for Toronto-area opera blogs and found out the COC had scooped her as a digital publicist that very month (Cecily has since returned to IT and feminist gaming). I emailed her about the logistics of starting an opera blog, telling her that I had no idea how to run the thing, that there were so many wonderful opera blogs already, that I didn’t know if I’d add anything, and if I’d get the tone right, eccetera, and she said “But you must start it, it’ll be great! Never you mind the details, you’ll figure them out soon enough. Just get going.” So I followed her advice. We can blame her for what ensued.

We’ve met and talked and kaffee-klatsched a number of times since, and it’s always been a pleasure. This latest edition of The Opera Questionnaire will give you a hint of how brilliant and lovely she is.

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Cecily CarverThe work (or the scene) that is most likely to make a teen intrigued?

As someone who became an opera addict during my teenhood, it seems to me that opera is very well-suited for teenagers already – with its romanticism and big emotions. My adolescence wasn’t particularly painful or traumatic, but I was a very inward-focused, anxious, and emotional teenager. I was half in love with most of my friends but also desperately shy.

I lived in a drab city with drab weather, I didn’t drive, and since my high school was far from my home, I spent a lot of time riding the bus. Most of my music-listening was done while riding a bus through the city streets in winter. Opera fit me like a glove back then, because I was hungry for beauty and romance. I wanted beautiful clothes and beautiful surroundings, and wanted to be beautiful myself. Opera sounded beautiful, it looked beautiful on stage, and it took all my feelings and dressed them up and painted them in bright colours. And because none of my friends listened to opera, it made me feel like I was a special person for liking it.

A lot of what I liked were things I’d be a little ashamed to admit to now in serious company, like Rachmaninov, Puccini, and operetta. But those things were absolutely perfect for a shy teenager full of feelings to listen to on long bus rides through the snow. Tales of Hoffmann was a favourite. I also really liked Mahler (Still do. When I read the TSO’s brochure every year my first thought is usually: When is the Mahler).

The trouble with trying to “intrigue a teen” in opera is that it’s usually presented in such a pandering way. “Mozart was like a rock star in his day,” or “Rigoletto is all about sex and violence, just like those movies you like,” etc. Teenagers tend to be resistant to loving things that adults try to foist on them, especially if it’s wearing “high culture” clothing. And, opera is such a strange and stylized beast that trying to present it as connected to mainstream pop culture in any way is doomed to failure. A lot of ad campaigns for opera make me cringe, for this reason.

I don’t know if I’d have loved opera as much if it didn’t feel like something I found on my own, something that belonged to me.

I did make opera mixtapes for my friends. I would still make opera mixtapes for my friends if they asked me. To actually answer your question, I remember one selection that usually went over well was the trio from Der Rosenkavalier.

The opera (or the scene) with which to intrigue a pop-music-savvy adult?

With my own friends who are not Opera People, I’ve had the most success with John Adams and other composers who are (mostly) tonal without being old-fashioned.

And a film buff?

The “culturally elite” adults – the kind who go to art-house films and art galleries and keep up with literature, but who have never set foot in an opera house – I think they’re most likely to be intrigued by something subversive, ironic, or political. Anything by Kurt Weill is perfect, I think, as is the aforementioned John Adams, or maybe something like Anna Nicole. Usually I can convince someone to go to the cleavage-and-sequins traditional productions of romantic-era rep, and usually they have a good time, but they tend to approach it like a tourist, rather than someone engaging with a living art.

The best argument to use with opera traditionalists who argue that productions should be done the one “faithful” way and no other way?

I try never to have those conversations, because I usually end up boiling with rage. When part of my job involved sometimes encountering angry traditionalists, I never argued, just let them talk and asked questions. It amazes me how some of them can be still so angry about a production they saw years ago. I always want to say, “It must have made a very profound impression on you, for you to still be talking about it three years later.”

If you want to be tactful and persuasive, I think the best approach is to ask them more questions about how they think it “should” look. When pressed, they usually don’t want to return to the days of painted backdrops, suitcase arias, or park-and-bark staging. Often they have fond memories of a particular production they saw decades ago, which itself would have been different from what came before, and they can be brought around to the idea that production styles have always changed.

Often they’ll say things like, “I’m not opposed to updated productions, as long as they’re done well.” That’s usually a cop-out, and usually means “nothing that might be uncomfortable or confusing,” which is why Toronto critics are always patting themselves on the back for loving the Robert Carsen productions that come through town. But at least it’s not totally reactionary.

On the other hand, if you want to be snarky, the idea of “the composer’s intent” is ripe for ribbing. Any serious Regie warrior should be able to pluck numerous examples of composers who “intended” to make a quick buck, or placate a famous diva, or capitalize on a short-lived trend. They were also constantly re-jigging their “eternal, timeless” masterpieces for different audiences and changing tastes.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

Oh, all the time. Most recently during Tristan und Isolde, which was a semi-embarrassing cry-fest for me. Tristan also marks the only time I’ve cried during a director’s concept discussion, and I know I wasn’t alone in that one.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?

Never dozed off as far as I can remember, but some operas I find dreadfully boring. I will never understand the appeal of Simon Boccanegra, Capriccio, or La clemenza di Tito.

What kind of behaviour by the fellow audience members do you easily tolerate and what kind inevitably distracts?

I’m pretty tolerant of coughing these days, especially after having attended the COC’s spring run while sick and miserable myself, but any kind of whispering annoys me to no end. Also, I’m a small person and often the person sitting in front of me blocks my view of half the stage. Usually they can’t be faulted – tall people love opera too – but if they lean forward in their seat it blocks the stage out entirely and I gnash my teeth in frustration.

Name three performances about which you always say to your friends, “You had to be there…!”

TristanI really do feel like the recent Tristan was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And the COC’s 2010 Aida looms large in my mind for many reasons, and has informed so much of how I think about opera that I love to talk about it with people who have seen it. I saw Against the Grain Theatre’s Turn of the Screw in all four performances (full disclosure: AtG is run by my close friends and I am a member of its admin team) and it really achieved a level of intimacy and involvement that is much more difficult to accomplish in a bigger, traditional venue. The most memorable operatic experience of my life might be when I saw Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung (originally a COC production) in Edmonton in 2006. I hope they revive it soon.

Your choice of arias or segments that illustrate how well opera understands love and desire.

R. Strauss is it for me here, especially the end of Rosenkavalier. Opera (and probably most art forms, when I think about it) are reluctant to deal with love that is not assumed to be permanent, that ends for reasons other than all-caps BETRAYAL or MISFORTUNE or DEATH, that when an opera deals in a mature way with the fading of love, and the ways it can be transitory and changing, it is so much more interesting and sophisticated.

If you’ll permit me to quote myself, I also wrote this a while ago about Carmen, which despite the ways in which it’s gotten tired-out from overplaying I think is just a dynamite piece of music theatre:

“The love-from-first-sight-until-death-yours-forever-most-beautiful-woman-in-the-world-I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-can’t-be-with-you attitude that characterizes a lot of the operatic repertoire – Verdi, I’m looking at you – can seem naive and one-dimensional to an audience accustomed to more complex relationships. Carmen, however, gives us a “love story” where passions ebb and flow; where lovers are alternately kind, cruel, and manipulative; where sex is a concrete and foreground presence rather than a subtext; where love comes into conflict with career and family and it isn’t immediately obvious that love should come first. I was struck for the first time by a moment in the last act where Carmen tells Escamillo that she loves him more than she’s ever loved any other man. It’s possible she tells that to all the men, of course. But that the librettist didn’t even bother to pretend that Don Jose was Carmen’s grand amour, that her most passionate romance might be with a supporting character, struck me as key to what makes Carmen so different from other operas.”

Your choice of segments or arias that show that in effect opera is as political as art gets.

All operas (like all narratives) are political in some way, because they all communicate something about how the creators think the world should be. What makes for a good monarch, a good woman, a good parent? And what are the ills that, more often than not, cause things to go horribly wrong? And, of course, we live in a time of interesting productions that interrogate these messages, whatever they are.

It’s interesting to think about the ways that historical operas bend the stories of their subjects. Like Donizetti’s Tudor operas. The history they’re based on is already jam-packed with confrontation, betrayal and death, so why did the operas wind up with wildly different plots? Why, in Roberto Devereux, do we have Queen Elizabeth I going mad and dying of grief after wrongfully causing the death of her lover?

Wagner is also really interesting for this. Scholars argue a lot about what he’s trying to tell us about the world, especially in the Ring Cycle. We know that a lot of it is racist and unsavoury. At the same time, “burn the whole thing down” is certainly part of the message, and it’s a woman who does it.

The Met in HD – overall good or overall bad?

I myself don’t like it (and almost never go), but whether it’s “good” for opera is an open question. I think it’s a mixed bag, like most things.

It’s certainly made opera more accessible to people who for whatever reason can’t get into an opera house. I’m always a little tickled when I see ads for the Met playing before whatever mainstream popcorn movie I’m seeing at the Cineplex. Whether it’s “introducing opera to a new audience” is definitely debatable. From what people tell me, and from what audience statistics are showing, the audiences aren’t any younger and less white than for live opera – quite the opposite, in fact.

Also, a lot of opera companies are now competing with The Met for their audiences. I know that many people in smaller communities who used to make trips to their nearest opera company are now opting to stay put and go to the Cinecasts instead. I can’t blame them – it’s cheaper and more convenient, after all – but I think this is a real shame.

The idea of the Met as the gold standard in opera, the Best in the World, also mildly irritates me. I’ve seen a fair amount of live opera at the Met, but when I think of the most memorable opera experiences of my life, they’ve mostly been elsewhere. The Met gets away with a lot of mediocrity.

I worry that the opera world in North America will concentrate into a few massive companies doing HD broadcasts on one end, and community theatre on the other end, with all the mid-tier companies wiped out. Not that I have anything against the big players, or against community theatre, but a healthy opera ecosystem should have a number of companies of different sizes. It’s a bit like the concern about “big box” retailers gobbling up everything around them. I remember the outcry in the 90’s about giant bookstore chains destroying the independents. Now those big chains aren’t faring so well themselves.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

I’m an R. Strauss girl all the way. I try not to think too hard about it.

A work that keeps revealing new and new layers of meaning and pleasure each time?

Figaro and Don Giovanni do this for me. I always hear something new.

Imagine I’m an opera house or a funder. Pitch to me some new opera commissions.

I would be tickled by an opera that mimics the structure of reality television, while turning up the frightening maw of glitzy emptiness to the maximum. Big personalities, meaningless contrived conflict, consumption, glamour, camp – what could be more operatic? Let’s put Angela Gheorghiu in it.

I’d also love to see more opera as cinema – written to be filmed, Umbrellas of Cherbourg-style. That’s largely unexplored territory.

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dmg_toronto_logo_200_altCecily Carver, an opera-lover since her teens, was the Canadian Opera Company’s social media co-ordinator (and later, digital marketing manager) from 2010 to early 2013. She is also the community outreach advisor for Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre and the author of the now-dormant opera blog All Time Coloratura. Her non-operatic career involves building software and running the video game community organization Dames Making Games. You can learn more about Cecily’s work at http://cecilycarver.com.

 

12 thoughts on “The Opera Questionnaire: Cecily Carver

  1. Contrary to what many might think nowadays, opera is most definitely NOT for everyone.

    Sure there might be a couple operas that one can appreciate and love at first but, in general, opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form. Opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population.

    Why?

    Because listening to and assimilating the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving).

    1. Yes, I am of the belief that opera will probably always be a “niche” interest, and efforts to “mainstream” it are usually doomed to failure. It’s also true that becoming an “opera person” requires a hefty commitment of time and attention.

      But I really, really want to get away from the idea that most people don’t like it because they’re just not smart enough, serious enough, or refined enough. That’s an extremely narrow view of culture and appreciation that is unfortunately shared by a lot of opera-lovers. Opera, as close as it is to my heart, is one pursuit among many.

  2. @ Cecily

    “But I really, really want to get away from the idea that most people don’t like it because they’re just not smart enough, serious enough, or refined enough”

    ——

    Hmm, not sure about this part.

    I believe that a person’s ‘aesthetic perception and sensitivity’ is largely ‘programmed in’ (genetic). In most cases people come to an appreciation/love of the great masterpieces without getting it from their parents, teachers, or formal study and simply through exposure from attentive and repeated hearings.…. That sensitivity to music and opera is almost like an aptitude; you either have it or you don’t and therefore it is useless to assign blame or censure.

    Just to be clear: Opera IS for everyone in the sense that it’s available to everyone who wants it and that it’s not just an entertainment for the educated or the upper classes (total nonsense!). If you go to the record shop to buy a “Pelleas et Melisande” disc or a “Doktor Faust” DVD they won’t refuse your money because you’re a garbage man instead of a professor. Also, going to the best opera houses might be a bit too expensive, but so is going to concerts from the biggest names in rock or popular music.

    But let’s be realistic: most people don’t even have the patience to listen to twenty minutes of music of any kind, preferring as they do to use it as a background noise while they are busy doing something else – let alone that they would have the patience to concentrate on a two or three hour opera.

    Some dose of elitism is not the terrible thing that politically correct speech would indicate.

    1. I appreciate your commenting, Matthew/Genevieve, but why two different handles for the same commenter? No need.

      Second: what do you base this belief on: “A person’s ‘aesthetic perception and sensitivity’ is largely ‘programmed in’ (genetic).” Are there any studies that establish a causal connection between genes and aesthetic preferences? Which are they? Never heard of such a thing, but I’m sure you have your references ready for us.

      But the overall argument you’re making is… that it’s OK if a decreasing number of people listen to and care about opera, and that wishing that opera continue having an audience even after we the current generation of opera lovers all die is somehow wrong and “politically correct”? I could not disagree more.

      1. Yeah, I too am a little baffled by the quote “A person’s ‘aesthetic perception and sensitivity’ is largely ‘programmed in’ (genetic).” Whence does this idea come?

        Realistically, most tastes are things to which we become accustomed. If you grow up in an opera-listening household, and like it yourself, which is far more likely: That you are “genetically programmed” to like opera, or that you grew up with an awareness and a knowledge (even appreciation) of it?

        It’s like food. If you grow up in a household that eats one kind of food all the time, you may not be prepared to eat something exotic or different. This doesn’t mean that our tastes in food are genetically determined. Nor does it mean that you will never be able to eat that food. It just means that given sufficient exposure, you may just start to learn to appreciate it.

  3. I also disagree with the idea that :”A person’s aesthetic perception and sensitivity is largely programmed in” (genetic).” That’s a rather broad assumption, and doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny. I am a Metis lady originally from a tiny community of 900 people in Northern Alberta, and I love opera. So much so, that it and “classical” music are the only genres of music that I have on my ipod. My favorite composer is Handel. I think I would have loved this music if it had been readily available to me when I was growing up. I love the power and quality of the beautiful voices, also the music and high drama. We don’t have access to this genre of music in many remote areas of Canada. What a pity.😦

  4. I tend to agree with the idea that short attention span is the, or at least a, prime obstacle — all sorts of anecdotal evidence available upon request — though in my experience this seems to have to do more with culturally-acquired expectations about the function of narrative form than anything else. And I wonder if this isn’t the inevitable result of foregrounding the stage element, but…

    1. Yeah, that’s a valid point, the attention problem is there, but we all have it. And it’s not only about attention–it’s also about lack of leisure time as our work day lengthens and we increasingly seek a near-comatose state out of leisure and entertainment. I also think the attention thing was always there to a degree; before the parterre went dark for good, people were allowed to do stuff *while* being members of the audience.

      I should add that question to the OQ! “What would you allow the audience to do during a performance, if you were a performer or theatre owner?” I think a dance section would be nice somewhere in the back for some performances (baroque!), a tweeting section I wouldn’t mind, an eating and drinking section I wouldn’t mind terribly either.

      1. Well, yes, there’s that too, although for that very reason I consider the opportunity to focus on an opera for three hours — and nothing else — something of a vacation, which is to say an opportunity to be actively pursued.

        But what I’m talking about specifically is the time/inclination a person new to opera has to devote to sussing out the nuances of a given piece — usually nil, in terms of inclination, in my experience. I find mostly people think (or claim) they want to go in cold, and I suspect this is because they’re thinking of it strictly as narrative, and they don’t want to know how things play out in the same way they don’t want to know how a movie ends. (Of course it could just be that nothing disheartens them more than the idea of me going on about what a cool thing Handel/Mozart/Verdi/Wagner/Berg does right there in the strings/woodwinds/brass/etc.)

        But the end result of this is the score becomes merely the sdtk to the action onstage, and the whole experience ends up being generally forgettable, including the singing. I don’t think this has to do with genetics or education, but rather with what people think opera is versus what it really is.

        Or, if you wanted to really drive a truck through it, with what people think narrative is and does, and how it does.

        1. Sorry for being a little late to this interesting discussion.

          High art will always be for a minority…. It’s as simple as the Bell Curve of standard distribution of IQ. Think about it: one of every two persons you meet in all walks of life, is necessarily, by sheer statistical theory, of below median intelligence! Call me elitist if you will, but individuals in the two halves of the Bell Curve will necessarily have very different tastes and attention spans. This is precisely why there are so many different entertainment options, and artists who cater to different populations. Some people will like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. Others will like Hans Hotter and Yvonne Minton. Will these populations ever overlap? Never.

          Now of course there are people who love several genres of music including opera (I’m one of them, and most of us are). That’s not what I meant. The point I’m trying to convey is that lovers of some kinds of vapid, mindless, superficial, low-quality pop music won’t overlap with lovers of opera. Go out there and actually find the people who love Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, try to expose them to opera, and see how many converts you’ll make. While all rules have individual exceptions and I was talking of two *populations*, I’d say that it would be close to zero percent. Not zero, but close to zero, simply because those folks lack the necessary focus, attention span, processing ability, understanding, and sensibility to be able to appreciate opera. And again, they might like some bits, laugh at some comic opera scene, find some melody beautiful, and all, but they won’t become opera lovers. Similarly, take a very seasoned and sophisticated opera lover and expose him/her to Justin Bieber and Britney Spears: the person won’t have any patience with this kind of music, as a rule (some individual exception might still happen, although it would be hard to find one). Populationally speaking, though, no, there wouldn’t be an overlap.

          People think it’s a bit extreme – no, it isn’t. There are millions of people who like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. There are a few million people who are committed to opera. No, these populations don’t overlap.

          Now, I don’t mean to say that opera lovers can’t love pop music and vice-versa. Get away from the extremes, and you’ll find more overlap, of course. You may find a large population seating around the median of the Bell Curve, one standard deviation up, one down, who will have sufficient attention span, sufficient musical sensibility, to enjoy several musical genres. There, you will certainly find people who may not love opera yet due to lack of exposure and/or prejudice, who *can* be converted, once they are introduced to it. Well, I operate this kind of conversion all the time, among my students (I teach a field that is not music-related, but I make a point of introducing my students to opera as well, from time to time). Still, while I do routinely operate this kind of conversion, it doesn’t happen that often (more on this, below).

          So, yes, there is a point in advocating for opera, exposing people to it, getting more fans, so that demographics are renewed and the art form is kept alive. But this doesn’t mean that opera is for everyone. It just isn’t. Even among the population of highly educated graduate students I teach to, many of them (the majority, actually) don’t get interested, and find it rather boring.

          So, we should rephrase the debate to say – opera is *available* to everyone who tries and no one is to be *prevented* from getting access to opera; this said, not everyone will love it (and this is a fact).

          Every time this debate comes up, someone says, “well, but opera at one point was very popular, like in Venice when several opera theaters catered to the masses and were frequented by the masses like today’s cinematic multiplexes.”

          Sure. But those were different times. Opera was THE ONLY game in town. It occupied that niche. Still, it was mostly a certain kind of opera that achieved that sort of popularity – the buffa kind; with exceptions, of course, but mostly, as a heir of the popular commedia dell’arte. Those theaters weren’t bringing to those masses, some sort of long, sophisticated French baroque serious opera sung in French. No, they were showing the SLAPSTICK KIND, in Italian. Otherwise, opera throughout its history has always been more geared towards THE ELITIST side. Hell, it was *created* by an elitist group, a think tank in Florence (the Camerata). It was created by intellectuals, to be presented to the nobility. Still today, in *any* opera house in the world, if you study the demographics of the patrons, you’ll find a higher level of education and a higher level of average income, as well as an older average age, than those of the population that attends Justin Bieber and Britney Spears concerts. Fact.

          Does it mean that it shouldn’t be offered to populations with lower educational level, income, and younger age? Hell, no! That’s the exact opposite of what opera companies worldwide do – many have outreach efforts geared towards inner-city school-age children, etc. But is the conversion rate excellent? No, it isn’t. But is the effort valid? Of course it is. Not only because some of these kids will convert, but also because opera and classical music can have transformational effects, and can actually drive these kids away from drugs and gangs and into playing an instrument, getting focused on their education, etc. I firmly believe that classical music in general is a positive force that can shape people’s lives.

          I once, for fun, estimated the conversion rate of *my* efforts to introduce opera to the graduate student population I teach to, in one of the elite universities in the United States (a really, really, really elite one). Of all the students I expose to opera, what percentage of them actually do become bona fide opera lovers, buy tickets, buy recordings, attend opera, and continue to do so after they graduate from my teaching? I came up with 6%. This, in a population of graduate students in one of the top ten universities in the United States. Not more than 6%, unfortunately. Well, hopefully it is better than that in the long run, since maybe I’ve planted some seeds, and opera is an acquired taste. Similarly, if you expose children to coffee, they won’t immediately become coffee drinkers, but eventually, they will.

          So, clearly, opera is *not* for everyone.

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