Claire Mutchnik

A century or two ago, opera was all the rage. People would flock to the opera houses to hear new music and see the novel productions. They would sing the arias in the streets and review the operas in the paper as if they were sellout movies. The tenors and sopranos were regarded with as much fame and devotion as modern-day pop stars. Going to the opera was the event of the season.

So what happened? What does the current generation think of opera and why do they feel this way? This past week, I sat down with some of my peers from the class of 2024 to see what they think about the art of opera.

At the beginning of each interview, I asked the simple, though seemingly complex question: “What is opera?” For the most part, my classmates understood what opera is in its rawest form: “a story conveyed through music,” as Jackie Testamark ’24 said. Yet, everyone had their own perception ranging from “really high, really low singing in that special sort of tone,” as David Donnan ’24 said, to “a really big stage with just one person in the middle… and [a] deep kind of voice,” as Leleda Beraki ’24 said. Though these descriptions, in some instances, are not incorrect, they lack the sense of what makes opera so captivatingly beautiful.

This generation, when it thinks about opera, generates phrases such as “fancy dresses,” “people in suits,” and “a royal… thing to do.” They associate a sense of remoteness and inaccessibility with opera, as if the general public cannot and should not listen to it. I think this inaccessibility is rooted in opera’s foundation in classical music, use of foreign languages, and exorbitant prices.

The common perception is that watching an opera requires you to read music, but this is not true. You absolutely do not have to understand classical music to appreciate it! Think about all of the movies and TV shows that you’ve watched and I bet at least one utilized a piece of classical music, possibly even an opera aria (a long, typically dramatic solo). I bet you enjoyed it, even if you didn’t realize it. But if that’s going too far, at least tell me that you appreciated it.

Most people believe that you have to speak a foreign language to understand opera, like Donnan believed: “I think that a big part of it is that they were traditionally written in a lot of other European languages and people don’t understand them.” Even if you are able to speak the opera’s language, such as French, Italian or German, it would be nearly impossible to decipher the text as it is sung. There are always surtitles (captions projected above the stage) in the native language of the country in which you are viewing the production. An opera is comparable to a foreign film with subtitles, and who doesn’t love those? So, I don’t want to hear any excuses that you don’t speak Italian, therefore you can’t go to the opera… capisci?

Yet, the added value of surtitles cannot negate the money that is required to attend the opera. Before the season was canceled due to COVID-19, tickets to see one of the most popular operas, Puccini’s La bohème, this February at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, started at $30 in the top balcony and climbed to $445. Yes, this seems expensive. It is expensive for the average person, but is this any more expensive than a Broadway musical? Not really. So why have Broadway shows risen in popularity over the last few decades while the interest in opera has drastically declined?

When asked this fundamental question, Testamark replied, “It’s not highly publicized. It’s not something that we listen to mainstream media-wise… Opera really isn’t put out there for new people to be introduced to it and [to] start absorbing as their regular content.” Whereas you might find advertisements for the newest Broadway musicals on Spotify and all over Times Square, you won’t find any for operas. Most people don’t consider opera to be “regular content” because of how rarely it is depicted in the mainstream media. When it is shown in movies and on television shows, it is almost always associated with the elderly and with evil. Think Lex Luthor plotting Superman’s demise, Tom Cruise facing off against the latest Mission Impossible villain, or Lionel Luther’s best opera music moments in Smallville (both Part 1 and Part 2). Nowadays, it is rare to find a love of opera represented in the media, which in turn influences the viewers and listeners to not appreciate opera.

Another interesting point that Beraki raised is the fact that our generation has a very short attention span and is more commonly drawn to that which is artificial, easily comprehensible, and current: “I think we’re drawn to things that are shiny and new, and I think just short-term, whereas with opera, I guess you’d have to analyze it a lot more and think about what’s the meaning behind it.” For the most part, I would say that, yes, you do have to analyze and think about opera more than you would about other forms of music and theatre. Yes, it is important to read the surtitles during the opera, and yes, it is helpful to research the plot beforehand so that you can keep up with the story as it is sung. However, these tasks are not essential and should not be a barrier!

You can still relish in the dense orchestration, in the vibrant timbres of the voices as they weave together, and in the grand sets and costumes that transport you through space and time. On my parents’ honeymoon to Paris, they saw Puccini’s Tosca at an opera house where the surtitles were in French and the opera was in Italian. Che casino! Neither of them understood what was happening, but just by listening to the music resounding through the hall and watching the singers’ faces imbued with rich emotions, they were enchanted.

And so, the imperative question remains: what can we do to increase this generation’s and future generations’ interest in opera? Is this something that we even should do?

Testamark believes that we can start by “inviting opera singers to more of these highly publicized events like… Jingle Ball” and by requesting “more effort on the part of radio stations and the media just… putting opera out there and getting it out to as many people as possible.”

In theory, this idea is marvelous. Exposing our generation to opera in highly publicized situations would promote opera as a gorgeous, commonplace genre of music that we should be excited about. Yet, as Testamark very accurately said, “When you go to an opera you’re going because you want to enjoy the music, not because you want to have the most amazing time of your life.” So, maybe advertising opera as regular, mainstream content is not the most direct route towards familiarizing the modern generation with it.

Beraki believes, though, that we should continue to strive towards this goal: “I don’t think that any form of art should be lost, so everything should be preserved and appreciated in some way.” One of her ideas was something a little more avant-garde, where she suggested “meshing opera with something else… [such as] classical music getting mixed with rap… [which] sounds super beautiful.” While there have already been some attempts at mixing classical music with other genres, Beraki rationally suggested that “it might dilute [opera].” 

Opera is an art form that has flourished in its pure form since the turn of the 17th century, so I agree that mixing opera with other genres might take away from its beauty and lush history. However, there have been some attempts to modernize opera by changing the theatrical settings to more modern times. In 2019, I saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Palm Beach Opera, where instead of taking place in an 18th century palace, it took place in a 1920’s nightclub. While this is not a fusion of genres, it is a fusion of the past and (sort-of) present. In other words, opera companies are trying to set their productions during time periods to which the modern people can better relate.

My concluding question was quite simple: would you see an opera? And no, The Phantom of the Opera is not an opera. Karen Wang ’24 replied, “Honestly, I would. I feel like you should do everything at least once.”

Donnan answered, “I would definitely see an opera! I think I want to see La Traviata because I saw Il Trovatore and I liked [it] a lot.”

Beraki replied, “Yes, I would like to see one just because I’ve never seen one, but then also, I don’t think I’d have a huge appreciation because I don’t know enough to really understand it.”

As previously mentioned, an appreciation for opera does not stem from understanding, but instead from open-mindedness. Thus, if you truly desire to understand opera, I guess you’ll just have to find out yourself using your free Met Opera on Demand account through Yale or by viewing the Opera Theatre of Yale College’s production of Dido and Aeneas this November. Or you can check out my playlist “Opera Favorites” on Spotify!

Jacqueline Kaskel | jacqueline.kaskel@yale.edu