Opera has long been criticised as a luxury of the elite. More stereotypes surround it than any other theatrical genre: unintelligible languages, astronomical stage budgets and ticket costs, melodramatic storylines, prohibitive length, and the greatest divas this side of Mariah Carey’s Winnebago. But opera is as much about music as it is theatricality. Take the continuous music of ballet and Broadway’s singing, and you get the bare bones of opera. The flesh, blood, and soul stems out of the merger of this dichotomy. Any indie buff will tell you that nothing compares to seeing a band live. If the presence of five skinny guys in skinnier jeans slamming away at Gibsons can exponentially improve that one album you torrented last week, imagine the effect a 100-piece philharmonic orchestra, ten feet away and filling a 3000-seat theatre with the swelling notes of a 19th-century masterpiece of musical history, will have on your vague memory of some Classical Hits CD in your grandparents’ car.
From their origins in the late 16th century, operas were originally confined to court entertainment. But by 1637 Venice was publicly producing operas in an early Baroque style that was looked down on by the upper classes. Opera’s tragicomic crudity was the pop culture of the masses, but various reforms throughout the centuries – as well as changing attitudes towards music in general – refined the general reputation of the genre to what it is today: an outdated bourgeois past time.
According to Patrick Hansen, director of opera studies at McGill’s Schulich school of music, this is a “silly” stereotype. “[It] really is an old-fashioned thing put out by the media in the late 20th century,” he said over the phone. He pointed out that OPERA America, the umbrella group for all North American opera companies, has proven through studies that while ballet and symphony audiences are shrinking, opera audiences are growing. And the key demographic reflecting this growth is the 18-25 range. “One of the reasons for this,” Hansen continued, “is music videos. Once MTV came along and videos became popular all over the world, they started telling stories through music. That’s what opera is, it’s very very visual, we’re telling a story.”
With their transgenerational appeal, stories are the best way to introduce opera to a younger audience. This fall, Opera McGill started its educational outreach program in both French and English primary schools across the city. The workshops are comprised of nine presentations in both English and French schools centred around Hansel and Gretel – the opera composed in 1923 by Engelbert Humperdinck that will be staged by Opera McGill in November. “It’s really important to reach kids about opera before they start forming opinions that it is either boring, or only for the rich, or other such terrible stereotypes,” Hansen emphasised. But it’s not just primary schools – Hansen is planning to take abridged performances of January’s production of La Boheme into CEGEPs this coming spring.
Bigger opera companies can extend similar outreach programs on an even greater scale. Pierre Vachon, Communications-Marketing director for Opera de Montreal, spoke on the phone about the efforts the company makes to create education programs that focus on young people. “We open rehearsals three times a year to 12 to 17 year olds, so that they can attend free,” he continued. “[We hold] a matinee for primary school students between 10 and 12 years old. They come once a year and we do a workshop with them.” The biggest educational outreach program offered by the company is CoOpéra, an annual workshop for 125 fifth- and sixth-graders that runs from September to May. “For an entire year they are working with opera,” Vachon said. A 2009 documentary on the project entitled Les Petits Géants won the Gémeaux award, a prize for French Canadian television, last month. As well as going to primary schools, Opera de Montreal performs ad-hoc in Berri-UQAM metro station at rush hour to promote every production they do – a strategy to “have first hand contact with the artists,” said Vachon. “[It’s saying we’re] accessible, we’re urban, we’re like everybody else except we sing. [It helps] us to make it almost trivial. I want [opera to] be there, be everywhere… have fun with it.”
On the level of production itself, Opera de Montreal is trying to hire younger singers. Vachon described Rigoletto, their current work, as “traditional, [with] traditional ages, 40-50 [year old cast members]. [But with ] certain productions, La Boheme for example, the entire cast and soloist are young, almost as young as the roles they’re playing, [so they’re] very sexy, not traditional divas.” Casting younger singers is essential to ensure that music graduates are encouraged to go into the art.
As a live theatrical performance, staging is critical in opera. That is where both Opera McGill and Opera de Montreal have managed to succeed in creative ways – involving students not only in the backstage elements (singing and acting classes, writing workshops, and costume departments, for example) but in the visual presentation of the work itself. Speaking about Opera McGill’s project, Hansen said, “we asked the students (usually aged 8 to 11) to create artwork with crayons and markers depicting a scene from the story. We have hundreds of pictures of gingerbread houses, forests, witches, etc. We are going to be using these pictures projected onto a backdrop to create the set “design” for our production.” Vachon highlighted how the company responds to the desires of young people regarding the opera experience. “We did a younger survey: would you like a more traditional or more modern view of the opera? 90 percent preferred traditional. [They said] “we want to go back in time and we like the 16th century sets and everything”… We need to dream, we know it’s spectacular and we want the spectacular to wow us.”
Hansen presented the case differently, though. “Opera has changed dramatically over the past decades, we’re literally not your parents opera,” he said. The downside of this, according to him, is that it becomes harder on the older generation that still wants traditional staging. This isn’t happening – instead, companies are pushing the boundaries of what live theatre really is through the creative process of opera.
Vachon acknowledged that there are “a lot of preconceived ideas about the expensiveness of ticket prices,” and this is probably the greatest turn-off for students. But thanks to renewed interest in spreading opera to a younger generation, avenues are opening up to making this more affordable. Opera de Montreal releases a set number of tickets at $30 for 18-35 year olds, and Opera McGill’s performances are free.
A few weeks ago, I received a ticket out of the blue to Opera de Montreal’s current production, Rigoletto. A pitiful hunchback, jealous courtiers, a beautiful maiden, her royal lover, a hired assassin, his whore of a sister, mistaken identities, sacrifice, curses, revenge, murder, played out in a red velvet cave to music that has moved audiences for decades. Nothing compares to seeing opera live, and this passion isn’t dying. McGill’s opera program – while fiercely competitive, with only six currently doing the master’s degree – sends its graduates to opera programs all over the world. The focus of these outreach programs will ensure that these hopefuls will have an audience when they make it to the stage.