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.
The 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…!”
I 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.
Cecily 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.