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Opera is Dead...Or is it?

Rutgers professor and younger generation of artists offer insight into saving opera in America

Newswise — New Brunswick, N.J. (April 2, 2019) – A National Endowment for the Arts survey last year found that the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one opera each year dropped from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.2 percent in 2017.

Experts have attributed opera’s troubles to high ticket prices, an aging audience, and a failure to modernize. The Metropolitan Opera, for example, has rarely performed operas composed in the preceding 50 years, which The Washington Post likened to The Beatles' I Wanna Hold Your Hand being considered “cutting-edge” today.

Attracting a younger audience is not a quick fix, said Kim Griffin, an MFA student and opera costume designer at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers–New Brunswick. Griffin, who has loved opera since she was a child, said the Met and Lincoln Center are discounting tickets for people under 40 years old. And other Mason Gross students have noticed even more targeted ways to appeal to younger generations. 

“I won tickets to a dress rehearsal to Elixir of Love (a 19th-century Italian opera) through a Snapchat raffle, but I’ve seen Instagram and Facebook giveaways, too. It’s their way of getting millennials in the door,” said Andrew Moore, a 23-year-old opera singer and MM student in Opera Theater Rutgers, who recently won an award at the 61st annual New England Regional Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions at the New England Conservatory. “I think it helps, but the main issue is making people aware of what opera can be and what it can do for them.” 

Eduardo Chama, co-head of Opera Theater Rutgers at Mason Gross and a Grammy winner for his collaboration as a soloist in the recording of the opera Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov, said that lowering prices and giveaway tactics won’t fix the fundamental problem. 

“Young people will pay thousands to go to Coachella or hundreds to watch a Broadway show or get backstage passes to see a celebrity or attend a sporting event, so it’s not a matter of making it cheaper,” Chama said. “It’s a matter of making it important and showing them these shows are as monumental an experience as a music festival and that these performers should be just as famous as tech giants.” 

The United States has few opera houses – 125 – when compared to many other countries. For example, Germany, which is roughly the size of New Jersey, has 89 opera houses.

“People don’t admire the arts in America the way they do in Europe and Asia, and it starts at home,” Chama said. “We take kids to soccer practice, to watch sporting events, and we teach them to admire CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg. But in Asian countries, there’s a boon in opera and they are building new opera houses and people are waiting in line for hours to meet the singers. It’s not that we need to trick the youth into coming with free tickets. It’s that we need to teach them this is important.” 

Moore, however, says free days and tickets might just do the trick, noting that the only way to show the youth how great opera is to take them to a show. 

“Field trips and free days for students are a great way to physically show them this art they might otherwise never see. The more youth are exposed to performing arts like this, the more it becomes the norm,” Moore said. 

Chama noted that when schools need to cut funding, they tend to start with the arts and music programs. This in turn shows kids that art is not that important and, in Chama’s opinion, further deepens American disregard for it. When these students become successful, because the love of art was never instilled in them at an early age, they feel no obligation to give to music programs, and the donors are disappearing. 

“The image of what is art is changing. Young successful people in high tech and investment industries don’t donate to the opera or galleries or museums because it doesn’t give them the exposure they would get if they donated to a celebrity’s cause. Microsoft has billions in charity but doesn’t support the arts as much as science. Art is as important as medicine and science, but if they aren’t donated in the same proportions, they will die out,” Chama said.

Though it might seem the U.S. opera climate is grim, since 2014, there has been a renaissance of composers and singers pushing the opera scene forward. New operas like Breaking the Waves by Missy Mazzoli and Silent Night by Kevin Puts are gaining international acclaim. Artists like Renée Fleming have been featured in the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water. Also, the Met showcased its first opera performance composed by a woman since 1903 when it presented Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in 2016.

Getting the younger generation to embrace opera will take time, but Chama and Moore agree that it’s imperative. As they say, opera paved the way for theater and musicals and has been the “mother of performing arts” since the 16th century. Moore considers it the most powerful artform

“There’s this scene (in the 1987 film Moonstruck) where Cher’s character has never seen an opera and she goes to see La bohème, composed by Giacomo Puccini, and she begins to cry,” Moore said. “Maybe some people say it’s because she’s with the man she loves, but I think it’s because she’s witnessing something powerful and she feels it deep inside. It would be a shame for people to miss out on that feeling.”

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