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The Opera Revolution of the Socially Conscious Generation Begins Today

This is a blog post by guest contributor Jessica Marlor, who is a music student at Smith College.  This is the first of three articles about her specialty of opera that she will be writing for the Performing Arts Abroad blog this summer. This summer she is collaborating with music composers in London and also has a personal blog,  She suffers from a chronic illness, and blogs about writing a modern opera while dealing with a disability.  Jessica says about her blog: I think it might be a nice thing for some of your students to read, especially those who may be dealing with a chronic illness. Through my own experience, Ive learned how powerful it is to hear about people doing exciting and creative things despite a physical/mental/emotional limitation or disability.”

Many musicians deify the European aesthetic. For centuries, Europe has been the epicenter of musical genius; a real-world Eden to the composers that built the classical canon from the ground up. Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky, Verdi, Strauss— The list goes on; all European, and all immortalized by their work and legacy. Any passer-by on the street can list famous classical composers, but what percentage of the composers named are non-European? My guess, is close to 0%. There are thousands of unnamed composers around the world who have a prolific portfolio— but non-European composers are largely unknown. While Europe has been the creative birthplace of inspired pieces for centuries, does Europe uphold its creative musical legacy?

In the United States alone, there is an abundance of talented young composers building upon our modern aural palate. I personally have been inspired by the work of composers such as Aaron Copland, John Adams, Philip Glass, Eric Whitacre and Kate Soper; the work done today in the United States is rich with depth and complex aural texture. In terms of creative genius, the United States has reached its zenith, becoming a melting pot of sounds, textures, and innovation. The United States is the musical superpower for the 21st century.

Yet why do I, as a modern opera composer, fight tooth and nail to live and work in Europe as a professional musician?

The reason lies in the way that art— specifically music—functions in the cultural landscape. In Europe there is a reciprocal relationship between artists, governmental bodies, and patrons, a process that I believe has led to the demise of our cultural center. Art in the US has the propensity to be fed by wealthy US donors, and thus caters only to the US elite, the 1%. While this seems like a stretch— allow me to explain my theories and how they differ vastly from the cultural landscape of the United States. Since most of my research is based in the opera scene, I will use this as a medium to show the disparity between US and UK arts organizations.

In order for culture to thrive, the government must commit itself to broadening the scope of performance and presentation. Both the governments of the  UK and the US fund non-profit organizations through the Arts Council (UK) and the National Endowment for the Arts (US) to oversee the distribution of government sanction aid to arts organizations. But while the US only funds the National Endowment for the Arts and the John F. Kennedy Center the UK government utilizes a myriad of different trusts and lottery systems to fund the various cultural exploits of the UK. The US government supports the arts by funding the maintenance and upkeep of the John F. Kennedy Center. The UK government funds the National Lottery for the Arts (£262M), the Arts Council, the Catalyst fund (£100M), and NESTA ( a government funded trust of £250M).

To see a full breakdown of each of the UK Policy and the US policy click on the hyperlinks.

But how the government funds music is only a fraction of my point. Really, I am more concerned with the way that opera companies respond to their audiences— something that the United States has yet to understand. A few particular UK opera companies work with their audiences to create a homogenous body of work that reflects the audiences themselves, rather than the wishes of the sponsors.

Let me illustrate this problem a little further. Without government sponsorship, US opera companies must seek capital from other sources— traditionally from wealthy opera-hungry donors. Thus the 1% donates to opera companies to support them, and in return the opera companies must piece together a season that will encourage these wealthy donors to continue their patronage. The wealthiest US tax bracket, as we all know, is predominantly older white, cis-gendered men, so the opera companies must choose to produce works that reflect the aesthetics favored by these audiences.  As you may already see, this creates a vicious cycle where the wealthiest donors are more or less creating our cultural landscape. opera has become corporate, ladies and gentleman.

Where the US opera companies are lacking in funding, they fill the gaps with private or personal sponsorship. It puts artistic directors in a hard place— keeping them pinched for cash and the only way out is through attracting wealthy donors. The 1% — the image they present, the values they support, their very identity is represented in the work that is presented to the nation. This troubles me greatly. How can opera stay afloat when 99% of the population does not see itself in the operatic landscape? Music is powerful because we identify with it, how can we be moved by something when we do not see ourselves represented accurately? The face of opera reflects those who can afford to support the arts, and not much else.

Opera, although it is my lifeblood, frustrates me deeply. As a white cis-woman, the leading ladies that I see in the opera are spineless housewifes, hopeless romantics, tragic heroines, evil seductresses. None of these women even remotely capture the complexities of growing up female in the United States. When opera begins to reflect humanity, then opera will become relevant.

Today, and especially in the United States, there is no lack of relevant cultural work, but performance opportunities are few and far between. The opera companies of the nation simply do not have the means to support these eclectic works.

The UK however, is able to indulge the development of relevant opera because their funding is reliable. Unlike the plight of the US companies, UK opera organizations are able to indulge the work they believe in because they are not bound to the demands of their patrons. They have the freedom express their creative minds, and program their seasons to attract a diverse audience, rather than a wealthy one. This freedom is key in retaining the artform. Finding a sustainable and invested audience allows opera to grow as an artform, reflecting the zeitgeist rather than resisting it.

Many of my peers suggest that opera is a dying artform. I often counter this statement with, “Our audiences are dying, not the artform.” I believe that we must listen and learn from our audiences in order to create a sustainable opera culture— perhaps our very conception of what opera is must change. In the UK today, opera is changing its nature to fit the demands of the modern audience, a practice that is vital to the survival of opera. While older works are still presented, and enjoyed, new opera takes center stage. Tȇte a Tȇte opera, a new opera company focused on presenting new opera for new audiences, stages a new opera festival every year. With over 100 performances, and 40 new operas, Tȇte a Tȇte opera reaches out to artists throughout Europe to commission and create productions that are unique and cutting-edge. Their work to make opera accessible, creative, and fun is admirable and certainly a step in the right direction.

One company in particular rises above the rest in terms of their commitment to making opera accessible and meaningful. Streetwise opera was founded after a comment was made regarding homeless presence in London:

“In 2000 a resident of the Passage night shelter read out a quote from a politician in the newspaper. The politician had said that, ‘The homeless are the people you step over coming out of the opera House’. The comment made some people angry and others saw it as an opportunity – if THEY were in an opera it would challenge the public’s attitude to homeless people.”

This group has re-defined opera to give the disadvantaged an opportunity to build self-esteem and community. They work with composers to present new works, focusing specifically on issues of the time. Streetwise opera works with over 600 people annually to develop self esteem through new or reimagined works. opera companies such as Streetwise re-define the image of opera to better suit the public, and create meaningful change. They present every-day struggles through the voices of those who have struggled deeply. They create small-scale change within their communities and large-scale change in the way that we conceptualize and value opera. Our country must look towards creating meaningful change through creative expression, as Streetwise has done.

But I must stress— The opera companies in the United States are doing the best they can with what they’re given. Last year, I served as Artistic Intern for Washington National opera (a subset of the John F. Kennedy Center) which commissions and stages a new short opera every year. Last year I was able to sit in on the tech week rehearsals for An American Soldier, an inspiring opera based on the real-life suicide and trial of Army private Danny Chen. This opera chillingly represents the dangers of bullying, hypermasculinity, and pack-mentality, all through the eyes of an Asian American soldier. A work such as this tackles the issues that I see in modern day opera. It addresses the difficulties embedded in modern society, and works to connect with a more diverse audience. I am proud of much of the work that is done in the United States, but the sheer volume of socially-conscious work being produced in the UK far surpasses that of the US. The fact that one small-scale company such as Tȇte a Tȇte opera can produce over 40 socially-responsible, audience-centered operas in one week, and a wealthy company such as the Kennedy Center can only produce one a year baffles me to no end.

Opera must begin to listen. Opera must begin to learn, to adapt, to the peoples and realities of the world today. Open its ears to the pulse of the nation. opera must develop its cultural heart in order to carry on to future generations. In the words of Tȇte a Tȇte: the opera Revolution begins today.

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