Is opera dead or can it redefine itself?
Caitlin Vincent, a lecturer in the creative industries, describes how we can interpret classical operas in a way that does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes or cultural appropriation
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
It’s one of the most significant challenges facing opera companies in the 21st century: an ever-widening gap between a repertoire that is frozen in time and an audience that is continuing to evolve. This issue is increasingly coming to the fore in opera circles, as the stories presented on stage seem more and more removed from the modern realities of #MeToo and efforts to achieve racial and gender equality.
Dr Caitlin Vincent is Lecturer in Creative Industries at the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. A classically-trained soprano and acclaimed opera librettist, Dr. Vincent has co-authored several high-impact industry reports and has published across digital performance, theatrical scenography, gender studies, cultural labour, and public diplomacy.
Dr Caitlin Vincent sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
Caitlin, if I meet you in the foyer of a performance back in the day and we were both sipping champagne and just standing there and we struck up a conversation, how do you describe what you do?
That's a great question and my goodness, do I long for those days of sipping champagne in the foyer of a theatre. I would say, first and foremost, I'm a researcher, I'm an academic and what I research is work in the arts. Then I would also say that I come to that from a background as a performer. I was an opera singer, I ran an opera company in Baltimore, Maryland for five years and I'm also an opera librettist, so I really care deeply about the arts and how people work, why people work the way they do in the arts and that really drives what I do at the University of Melbourne.
I was really struck by an article you wrote, 'Is opera stuck in a racist, sexist past', whilst audiences have evolved and they've moved on, we're more woke. My question to you is, is opera dead?
The thing about opera is people have been worried about its demise for about four centuries now. It's a very old artform. We first saw it emerge, when we're talking about western opera, in the 1600s in Italy and in the 21st century, the issue that we're coming across is the fact that opera, it's really defined by its museum works, these works - the greatest hits of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that are still the mainstay of opera companies worldwide.
The issue with these kinds of works is that they're the product of their time, right, and in that way, they can be very racist, they can be very misogynistic, they can have really problematic themes. We can accept them as products of that time, as historical artefacts, but the issue comes when you're having opera companies in the present day and performers and directors who are choosing to interpret these works in a particular way.
Sometimes what we're finding is that in order to maintain the tradition of these works, you have companies that are resorting to really problematic and outdated practices like blackface or yellowface makeup. This is where you start to get this rift between different kinds of audiences, between the really traditionalist audiences who say opera should be done exactly the way as it was first intended to be done and between more modern, progressive audiences that say, we love opera but it needs to be updated in order to reflect a modern-day society.
So, it's a real issue for opera companies, how can they continue to perform these historical works that are really popular and really sell tickets, while at the same time not alienating younger more progressive opera-goers that don't want to see blackface and yellowface on stage.
That's a really interesting tension. Whether we remove the sexism and the gendered violence and reinterpret the opera to be a bit more 21st century or whether we treat it as a historical artifact but surely there's somewhere in between.
That's the tricky thing, isn't it? One of the issues is that when you're talking about this traditionalist viewpoint, this idea that there's an operatic truth, there is one way that an opera is supposed to be done, that really relies on what has been called the scripture of a work. That's the physical score, the musical score; it's printed, you can hold it in your hand; it has the directions from the original composer and librettist. This traditionalist perspective uses that score to say, this is what it's supposed to be.
But opera isn't just a book. It's not just something that's published; it's a living, breathing performance and this is where we get into trouble because there is no one performance. There - you could say that there has been - there are as many different versions of the opera Carmen as there have been productions of it, because there's a different audience, there's a different set of performers, a different staging, a different venue, a different budget and so on and so forth.
But this is the - that tension, where there's this concern that in order to maintain the legacy of these original composers and librettists from 200 years ago, that the performances need to somehow be controlled and that if an interpretation somehow deviates from the expectations of that score, that that's a violation. This is the tension that we come on to.
There's a really telling example from a recent production of the opera Carmen that was performed in Florence back in 2018. The production was fairly traditional, except at the very end when the stage director decided to break from tradition and not have Carmen die. So, that's the standard traditional ending; Carmen gets killed by her former lover and that's the ending, it's a tragedy. Because domestic violence is such an issue in Italy, this company decided to shift that ending just a bit and instead, Carmen shoots her ex-lover, she doesn't die.
Tiny little shift, only changed one stage direction from the original score but the audience was outraged. The traditionalist audience were - they were so mad that they actually screamed in the auditorium, kill her, kill her during the opera. That gives you a sense of what the opera companies are actually dealing with. When they try to update even the most slight staging direction of one of these really popular canonical works.
The other thing you have to think about is that opera companies are not exactly a money-making endeavour. There are some real issues with funding, with financial instability, with audience appeal. There is data that says that opera companies that program canonical works, like Carmen, like The Magic Flute, like Tosca, are actually much more likely to get audience members to attend. Audience members are much more likely to actually buy tickets for these really famous, popular works.
Then once again, opera companies are stuck in this really tricky situation where they have to program these works that are historical and, in some ways, very outdated, in order to get people to come in the door, but then how can they stage them in a way that's not problematic?
Got it. What happens with cultural appropriation? It's really quite inappropriate these days and I'm thinking of productions like The Mikado and Turandot. What…
How do we handle those?
A lot of these works that we're talking about were written in a time that was really defined by ethnic exoticism and this idea of other countries that were very exotic. They were framed within a very - a white, European male perspective, so a lot of these works traded in very harmful stereotypes of varying degrees. That's just within the text, that's just within the opera itself, such as the opera Madame Butterfly; very deeply problematic, stereotypes about Japanese culture and women. But then the staging is where we get into trouble, because these works have traditionally been staged by putting white performers in makeup that makes them appear to be an ethnicity that they are not, so yellowface makeup or blackface makeup if you're talking about an opera like Aida or Othello.
The thing that I find problematic is when companies or directors say, we have to do it this way, we don't have any other choice. But the thing is, their hands are not tied and I find it to be somewhat lazy to say that we can't possibly come up with another way to interpret this story that doesn't require putting a large cast of white performers in yellowface makeup. I think that's just lazy direction.
The question is, how can we interpret these works in a way that does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes or cultural appropriation. We've seen some interesting strategies emerge at opera companies. One of the very popular ones which is very successful I think is the strategy of education, where you program problematic works like Madam Butterfly or The Mikado alongside educational initiatives that are designed to contextualise the works, to say, we are not just promoting this, we are not saying that this is something to aspire to. We are framing this work as a historical artifact and giving you the history that you need.
Yet at the same time, some of these works, the racial stereotypes are so deeply embedded into the stories, even into the music that it's very difficult to extricate them from these issues. I think that in the future it might be impossible to actually maintain these - some of these works in the repertoire.
But the other thing to think about when we talk about cultural appropriation, is who are the people who have been hired to interpret these works on stage? Do they represent diverse viewpoints, do they have any connection to the culture that is being portrayed on stage? If not, that's where we see this line between cultural homage and appropriation being crossed.
It will be interesting to see how that evolves in the future once of course performances recommence. I do want to talk about performances. On watching Eurovision, which is probably the closest to opera that some audiences get, there's an amazing digital scenery that's behind the performers and I've noticed too in opera performances of late that that also is a feature of live performance. It really enhances it because it's not just the landscape but sometimes mood or symbolism or fire or whatever that really enhances a performance. Do you think this is the key to perhaps updating opera?
It's a great question and I'd say that digital technology is definitely being framed as something of a magic bullet, something that can solve many of the issues that are facing the opera industry, such as ageing audiences, financial instability and a need to somehow reinterpret these historical works over and over again. Yet it is difficult because digital technology is not used in just one way.
If we're framing digital technology as the solution to many of these problems, which I think it could be, it's really important to actually understand how the technology is being used on stage by opera companies and what is the impact on the processes and procedures backstage, on how opera comes from the design table, from conceptual discussions to the stage. That's - a lot of the work that I've been doing is to track what is happening on stage and how does that disrupt things backstage?
One of the main things that I've found in my work is that when you're looking at the way digital technology is being used on stage in opera houses, it actually is really very much a natural continuation of what has come before. We think about the introduction of film into theatre in the early 20th century, even going further back, the magic lantern device, which was projecting imagery at the beginning of the 19th century. Even further back, the idea of these massive baroque stage machines that would create very spectacular scenes on stage.
Digital technology is certainly cutting edge and advanced in terms of the technology itself but the way it's been integrated with performers is really a natural continuation. Of course, we're seeing some really amazing extremes with that where we see performers actually appearing to interact with digital elements, so that's very exciting. But not - it's not necessarily a disruption, per se. But when we go behind the curtain, when we go backstage, this is where we're seeing the disruption from using digital technology.
One of the things that I've found is that the greater the role played by digital technology in a production, the greater the likelihood that a projection designer or an animation team are really highly involved in the creative discussions, even sometimes assuming the position of the stage director, which has always been the key creative force backstage. I've also found that adding a digital technology to a production really makes a difference when it comes to how long a production takes to develop, the kind of funding that it needs and the likelihood that it's being supported by a company that maybe has a lot of government support versus a company that maybe doesn't.
It's a really interesting time and we're seeing a lot of exciting evolutions in this field, so I look forward to seeing what happens with that.
Yes, I think that's really exciting. In some ways, the film aspect of it can enhance it but can it subsume it, as well?
Absolutely, and that's a real concern. For example, you can use digital technology essentially as a high-tech background. It can be almost like a painted background where the performers are standing in front of it; they're singing, they're acting and they don't really have any involvement with what's happening behind them. It's maybe - it sets a mood; like you said, it can be representing a scenery, clouds, a distant vista. But once digital technology becomes more of a performer in its own right, it starts to really attract the audience's attention.
This is where it can become a bit of a competing force; the more technology you have happening behind the scenes, perhaps the less likely that the performers are going to be able to compete for that attention. But I've also found that if it's a really well integrated production where the performers and the digital elements essentially share the theatrical space where they're really co-performers, then you don't have that competition, it's really a cohesive production. I think that those are some of the best ones.
There's a really fabulous production of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, which came to Adelaide Festival and Perth Festival a couple of years ago. The production, it's originally by Komische Oper Berlin, in Germany, and this is a production that is consumed; it's all-encompassing digital scenography; everything is integrated. You have performers that have digitalised bodies, you have them interacting with digital characters, it's completely integrated and it's an incredibly successful production. It's made loads of money, it's toured to - I don't know, something like 25 to 30 opera companies worldwide and that's really a success story for that kind of technology.
But at the same time, it was created by a company in Germany that received something like 90 per cent of subsidies from the government. It was able to have a very long design conception period, where they were able to work out these kinks and really develop this fabulous production. That kind of direction is not always possible for companies in Australia or the United States that don't benefit from that amount of time and funding.
I want to turn to the problem of COVID and as the saying goes, all the world's a stage but at the moment, all the web is a stage. I'm keen to know about your perspective of what COVID has done for the arts and the cultural industries.
Well, not - nothing really good, I would say, unfortunately. What COVID has exposed is essentially some really longstanding issues within the industry around employment, precarity of work and also the way that the arts are viewed by governments, by funding bodies and by the public.
The issue with working in the arts is that for many people, it's still seen as something as a hobby. If you choose to pursue the arts, it's because it's your passion; it's not because it's a job, it's not about work. That's a very dangerous perspective because it frames artists not as workers and so there are some real issues with exploitation and under payment and really being left behind by organisations.
This is what we've seen a lot with COVID, because companies have had to cancel performances, they've had to shut down for months and years. The people who have been left, who have fallen through the cracks have been individual artists, have been younger artists and really highly trained, highly skilled members of a workforce that have just really fallen to the wayside. Not necessarily qualifying for JobKeeper here in Australia and not receiving any support from organisations like the Metropolitan Opera.
These are really problematic issues and my concern is that we are essentially going to lose an entire generation of artists because they haven't been able to sustain themselves for coming on a year and a half. That's - the question is, how many people can actually afford to stay in the industry and how many will leave to pursue other forms of employment where they can actually be paid a living wage?
Yes, that's a very serious issue and you're right about a whole generation of artists and performers. I know myself as a spoken word performer sometimes, I'm not paid but the technical people are paid. Are there problems with giving away our expertise for free?
Absolutely. There's that joke that they say where the problem with working for exposure is you can die from exposure [laughs]. It's a longstanding joke, but it's very serious, because if you offer up your talent for free, if you offer up your expertise for free, then why would anyone pay for it? You're essentially undervaluing your own contribution, your own work. Which can have major ramifications, not just for you as a performer, as a worker, but also for the industry more generally.
We've seen this a lot. There is a very common thing of saying, if you're young, if you're a dancer, you're a young dancer, you're a musician, just do this for free, you'll do it for exposure and it's a really problematic model that a lot of companies have relied on in order to maintain their own financial stability. But it's also extremely harmful and we're seeing now that it's really - we're seeing it's a form of exploitation from the companies themselves who are actually within the industry. So, instead of companies really supporting the artists, there's - they're actually taking advantage of them.
We've seen it - this a bit with COVID, because companies are using artists and musicians for example for digital marketing, for the kinds of work that hasn't traditionally been paid, necessarily, this is becoming very problematic and they're not being paid for that work.
If we go to Europe, to places where companies have a lot of funding from the government, we're not seeing this as much. We're seeing more of a safety net for individual artists, we're seeing a cushion for the companies themselves so it's a much healthier ecosystem for artists in general and something of course that I wish we had more here in Australia to really protect those performers and those companies.
Yes, that's absolutely true and there's a fine balance I know as a public speaker between gratis events, mate's rates and of course, what is the industry standard for public speaking at a certain level? It certainly is a difficult situation. So, how do we rebuild cultural engagement? Do we need new financial models, what are people doing to find a new way to reinvent something that's good for our soul and that is the arts?
There have been some examples of really fabulous models that have developed, including one right here in Melbourne, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, which started right at the beginning of the pandemic back in March 2020 and was specifically designed to try to help support individual artists who had been left behind by their companies. The model for this is that it's essentially a streaming service; it streams recitals, performances, generally live, livestream but also potentially you can access them for up to a week after. Tickets are $24 and $20 of that goes directly to the musicians or the artists who are involved; $4 are left for the company.
This is a really great model where the money is going directly to the artists who are involved, which has been I think a godsend for many musicians over the past year. But there have also been some great benefits to this program in terms of creating access to really high-quality performances in regional Victoria and across the nation. Also, introducing artists and musicians from different states to a new audience. There have been a lot of really unexpected benefits to this model that have come out. I believe - the plan is that they've - they are continuing. This is not just a pandemic only venture, they are continuing to pursue this as a longstanding, more permanent organisation, which is really exciting.
I think that more generally when we talk about the existing arts organisations, this is where it's getting problematic because it's very difficult to form new models, especially when you've had a year or a year and a half where you haven't been making your standard revenue. This is where we see companies that are again reverting to those traditional, popular works, the really problematic ones; Madam Butterfly, La Traviata, works by Beethoven, instead of the riskier works that are really supporting contemporary voices, because they need to get bums on seats.
I think that's a big concern is that we're seeing companies that were really starting to push the envelope in terms of what they were programming, we're seeing them revert back to the tried-and-true classics, just to make sure they can get the revenue and that is perpetuating the cycle that we're seeing.
Right, we need to stop the cycle of the blockbuster. Are people writing new operas that are on par with the excitement of the narratives of old? I'm thinking of West Side Story paralleling Romeo and Juliet. Are people writing new operas or new versions of soulful narratives?
Absolutely, and I'm a librettist myself so there are many new operas being written. Just like back in Mozart's day, I wouldn't say that every single opera is a hit, but some of them are really fabulous and they are reflecting voices over time. You could even make the stretch, I will die on this hill, and make the claim that Hamilton is essentially an opera, the Broadway musical; you could argue that that is a form of opera.
There are lots of exciting works being produced but again, this returns us to that risk management issue where opera companies are hesitant to program these works because they know that they're not going to appeal to the traditional audience members who actually pay for tickets. They're very - it's very expensive to put on a new opera and there are some real concerns about whether or not you're actually going to get the money back.
I think that what we really need to do is try to embed support for emerging composers and librettists mid-career, composers and librettist workshops, really try to promote that talent, try to cultivate it in Australia, in the United States, in the UK in order to actually cultivate those voices of the next generation. Otherwise, we will just continue to program Madam Butterfly and Turandot forever [laughs] until eventually we can't anymore because they're too problematic.
Actually, I was going to ask you if you thought Hamilton was an opera because there's a fine line between musicals and opera. That's the sense I'm feeling is that they're merging, particularly with Hamilton.
Absolutely. Even if you think about an opera like The Magic Flute, which even I just said it's an opera. It's not technically an opera; there's dialogue, you could frame it as it's an operetta. In today's terms, it could be more of a musical; you have conversation happening between the characters. It's all I think a question of how we view opera and I'd say that opera does have a bit of a branding problem, where it is seen as being overweight women wearing horned helmets and having wobbly voices. That's sort of the public view of opera. But it's really not accurate.
Opera can be many different things. I think if you're getting into semantics, it's the idea that it should be sung throughout or at least "sung" and that it is potentially performed without amplification, without microphones. But again, that line moves; that's a line in the sand that varies. I absolutely think that Hamilton is an opera, an American opera, just like I'd say that West Side Story is essentially an opera which is why you see it being performed by Opera Australia and other operas.
But, I'm not sure that everyone would agree with me [laughs] on that, but I'd say let's just pull in everything into the opera circle that we can to really show the public that it is not just an elite, snobby, expensive, pretentious artform, but what it really is, it's an artform that expresses human emotions. That's what it is. There's no other artform that really taps into those deeply felt human moments than opera.
Beautiful, and I remember ages ago, the Australian Opera had a tagline, I think it was life amplified and I thought, yeah, it is; it's like life distilled to its basic emotional tensions. I love what you've said; opera isn't dead, it's redefining itself and its reinventing itself. Next time we hear the word, opera, or we see an opportunity to engage with opera, what would you like us to think about?
That's a tricky one, Andi.
[Laughter] Oh god.
You can sing your answer, if you want to.
I can sing - oh, no.
Oh, go on.
Let's see, mmm.
Just give us a few notes.
Oh god, it's been like three and a half years. I don't even know it's - it would be cobwebs if I opened - if I tried to do that, I have to say. I'm going to reframe that question entirely, Andi and say that actually, opera is all around us. I'd say we just need to open our ears and actually be aware that when we're watching a car commercial and we're hearing a particular music, that's an opera that we're hearing. We're hearing it on Sesame Street or ABC Kids, we're hearing it as the soundtrack of our favourite movie; or watching a Bond movie and seeing the villain is watching an opera.
I think opera is not just what we imagine it to be. I think it's about moving past our preconceived notions of what it is and what it can be, because I think that if enough of us say that we want to invest in opera, we want to invest our time and our interest, then the opera companies will be able to shift away from these outdated models and outdated forms of repertoire and actually really invest in new voices, new kinds of work.
That said, there are some operas that are not good as a starting point. I would not recommend that an opera newbie tries to go to Wagner's Ring Cycle which is 14 hours; I would not recommend that. I would say start with maybe one of the chick flicks of opera; Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is always good, Don Giovanni if you want to see someone get pulled down to hell and get his comeuppance. But it's about having those opportunities and I think it's really up to the opera companies to also make these opportunities accessible and affordable.
One thing that we've seen come out of the UK opera industry is that one of the companies, I think it's English National Opera, is offering free tickets to audience members who are under 21 and extremely low prices for those who are under 30. They're really saying that they want to commit to younger opera-goers to try and get them hooked on the opera bug, but I'm not seeing that happen here yet. Opera tickets are extremely expensive, they're inaccessible to a lot of folks and it's not exactly convincing millennials and Generation Zs that they should take the time to give opera a go.
Caitlin, I think that's beautiful; opera is everywhere, you're right. Doctor Caitlin Vincent, thank you so much.
Thank you, Andi, my pleasure.
Said like a true opera diva.
[Laughs]. With a curtsey and everything [laughs].
Thank you Dr Caitlin Vincent, Lecturer in Creative Industries at the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on June 1, 2021. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“People have been worried about opera’s demise for about four centuries now,” says Dr Caitlin Vincent, Lecturer in Creative Industries at the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.
“It’s a very old art form. We first saw western opera emerge in the 1600s in Italy and in the 21st century we’re coming across the issue that opera is really defined by its museum work - the greatest hits of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries - that are still the mainstay of opera companies worldwide.”
Dr Vincent explains that in order to maintain the tradition of these works, some companies are resorting to problematic and outdated practices like blackface or yellowface makeup.
“This is where you start to get a rift between different kinds of audiences, between the really traditionalist audiences who say opera should be done exactly the way as it was first intended to be done and between more modern, progressive audiences that say, we love opera but it needs to be updated in order to reflect a modern-day society,” she says.
So how can we interpret these works in a way that does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes or cultural appropriation?
One of the popular and successful strategies is education, Dr Vincent says.
“Companies program problematic works like Madam Butterfly or The Mikado alongside educational initiatives that are designed to contextualise the works, framing it as a historical artefact and giving you the history that you need.”
“The other thing about cultural appropriation, is who are the people who have been hired to interpret these works on stage? Do they represent diverse viewpoints, do they have any connection to the culture that is being portrayed on stage?
“What we really need is to try to embed support for emerging composers and mid-career librettists to promote talent in Australia, the United States and the UK to actually cultivate those voices of the next generation.
“Otherwise, we will just continue to program Madam Butterfly and Turandot forever, until eventually we can’t anymore because they’re too problematic.”
Episode recorded: June 1, 2021.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: In the Box by Mary Cassatt (Photo by Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images