It would be ideal if Opera de Montréal took their cue from other cities, where there has been a concerted effort to relax the traditional definitions.
An interesting thing happened on my way to The Charlebois Post recently: I noticed it had sent Richard Burnett to review a production of La Boheme – an opera. As an insider, I can tell you this was not a one-shot deal: there will be more coverage when the new season starts. Yet The Charlebois Post has not changed its mandate – it’s still “all Montreal English theatre…all the time”. You probably think you’re smelling a contradiction, but it’s not because of the word “english”. The artistic community has done a pretty good job convincing the world that opera is not a form a theatre.
Opera has long been treated as its own genre of entertainment, with its own critics, reporters and target audience. Here in Montreal, its producers seem to like it this way. Despite their need for new audiences, Opera de Montréal seems determined to isolate themselves from the theatrical community. Although they offer discounts for the under 30 crowd, there are no benefits for QDF or PWM members. They ignore promotion through the QDF calendar and continue to schedule work from the classical repertoire, ignoring modern composers like John Adams (Nixon in China, The Atomic Project) or those that deal with modern subjects (like Mark Anthony-Turnage’s recent opus to Anna-Nicole Smith.)
"I’d be likelier to point a visitor toward the Met than to Broadway."
Both these authors write in English, but I doubt that has anything to do with their being left behind, since modern French composers are also being ignored. The attitude has much more to do with the opera community’s eagerness to paint itself as the last promoter of high culture. Consequently, they are suspicious of anything that hints at being relevant. Back in 1935, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess confounded critics as being a hybrid of musical theatre and opera. The show was a failure and did not gain recognition as an operatic work until 1975. Similar histories have assailed shows like Candide and Sweeney Todd, both of which marry operatic music with the musical theatre form.
Opera de Montréal is not entirely to blame for our city’s great opera / theatre divide.
It would be ideal if Opera de Montréal took their cue from other cities, where there has been a concerted effort to relax the traditional definitions. Vancouver Opera routinely schedules modern works and world premieres along with the classics – their 2012 season even includes West Side Story, truly blurring the line between popular theatre and opera. Meanwhile, Charles Isherwood of the NY Times recently wrote: “If asked where to go for a reliably stimulating evening of musical theater in New York, I’d be likelier to point a visitor toward the Met than to Broadway.” Mr. Isherwood goes on to remark that “first-rate” musical theatre performances can only be found at the Met, rather then the latest musicals which have been crafted from “cultural spare parts”.
Admittedly, Opera de Montréal is not entirely to blame for our city’s great opera / theatre divide. Our theatrical community has also shown a reluctance to embrace opera. The media has certainly worked to keep them separate – the Gazette’s Pat Donnelly leaves opera to freelancers (despite the fact that she is a “culture reporter”) while the Mirror almost never discusses it at all. No one has ever nominated an opera for a MECCA (over in Toronto, the Doras celebrate opera in a separate category). During my days at Concordia, I had to fight to get opera even mentioned as part of theatrical history and at musical theatre school, we were encouraged to ignore pieces from opera’s cannon. And when was the last time an opera was performed by Concordia Theatre? Or NTS?
The result is that our community tends to think of opera as something foreign, as different from theatre as sex is from skydiving. It is viewed as entertainment for the intelligentsia, a trend which is as unfortunate as it is pretentious. Opera is different from theatre, yes, but only in the way that ballet is different from modern dance. It is a type of theatre, not a separate artistic form.
The Met’s recent production of Wagner’s The Ring was a multi-million dollar experience headed by no less then Robert Lepage.
There’s no reason why opera can’t have mass appeal; history has shown it can even have all the public-friendly technical wizardry of our splashier productions. The Met’s recent production of Wagner’s The Ring was a multi-million dollar experience headed by no less then Robert Lepage. As for the question about whether opera counts as “english theatre”, I would suggest that the surtitles above the stage mean it can easily be enjoyed by an Anglo crowd.
We have already proven ourselves to have an appetite for music theatre, but I would hope – no, I would pray – that it goes beyond vaudevillian burlesques like Schwartz’s The Musical and The Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus. The Charlebois Post’s decision to start covering opera may seem like a small gesture, but it is tiny steps like these that will hopefully encourage our community to view opera differently then before.