Saving Opera: Back to the Future?

Saving Opera: Back to the Future?

In 1980, when I began working at the Metropolitan Opera as a volunteer doctor, I was fortunate to catch the tail end of a golden age, hearing (and seeing) artists such as Renata Scotto, Grace Bumbry, Jerome Hines, and Cornell McNeil. I was there (and on call) when Leontyne Price sang her last Aida. The 3800-seat house was full every night. Subscriptions, especially parterre boxes, were family treasures that were passed down from one generation to another.

But that was then. Nowadays, a full house is the exception rather than the rule. Performances remain excellent, production values high, and the orchestra and chorus unsurpassed in the operatic world. I have long joked that a bad night at the Met is better than a good night anywhere else. So, what has changed

What has changed, in short, is everything else. Those first-generation Italians and other Central Europeans who grew up with opera are gone. The audience is younger, more casual, and more varied. And they live in a different time.


In 1597, when Jacopo Peri composed Dafne, considered by many to be the first opera, the world had never seen such a spectacle. Opera, as the name implies (vs its singular form, opus) was the coming together of many works: acting, visual spectacle, singing, dancing, and instrumental music. And opera had a 300-year monopoly: the first true operetta, Offenbach’s Orfeus in the Underword, didn’t appear until 1858, and the two coexisted happily during a time when some of the greatest operas were composed. Since then, but especially over the last few years, audiences are increasingly turning to musical theater, popular music performances on stage, in addition to records, CDs and internet performances. Every form of music is at our fingertips, and a night of entertainment no longer requires a gown, tuxedo, and opera glasses.

But the change in audiences is not simply generational: it reflects a general cultural change that is self-propagating. Our children occupy themselves with a hundred internet activities which are not just entertaining but addictive. Attention spans are shorter. We have become increasingly visually oriented, and the ability to focus intensely listening to music (or even a story) is not nurtured in these potential future audiences. With computer-generated fantasy movies, the pyrotechnics of open-air concerts and the Superbowl half-time show, our visual and auditory senses seem saturated. If Marshall McLuhan were around, he would decry the decline of “cool” media and a torrential increase in “hot” media.

Further, music is less often a part of many children’s upbringing. It is the first program to get cut in school budgets, and private music lessons are considered important (and affordable) by only a certain demographic, but not everyone. For many reasons, audiences are dwindling. It is difficult to avoid the sense that we are seeing the twilight of this art form, with an uncertain future ahead. New operas are still composed, and even premiered. But, as an NPR program a few years ago questioned, how many get a second performance?

Is opera slowly, inexorably going the way of the madrigal, the viola da gamba and the theorbo? By this, I mean a continued but greatly reduced survival, with a niche audience? And how can we ensure that opera will continue, not just to survive but thrive?

Some would argue that, to attract an audience, today’s operas must be more topical or controversial. I disagree. It’s true that some operas were controversial in the past: Un Ballo in Maschera, dealing with the taboo topic of regicide, had to relocate from the Swedish royal court to the safe and unprovocative locale of Boston to be acceptable. The Marriage of Figaro, poking fun at the aristocracy, also stirred up some debate in its time. And no less a figure than Joseph Stalin banned Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, although ostensibly on musical grounds.

Today, between TV, radio, podcasts, and other media, we are saturated with topicality and controversy. No one goes to the opera to have their social conscience raised, and if they do, they likely won’t come back a second time. Opera is not a seminar on cultural trends, it is entertainment, and I would argue that for opera to remain viable, it needs to double down on what is unique to this art form, rather than to compete with other entertainments on their terms.

What, then, are the characteristics that make good opera unique?

Two visual aspects of opera that have perhaps not aged well are its exoticism and its visual opulence. Being transported to ancient Ceylon (The Pearl Fishers) or mythical China (Turandot) in themselves no longer create the frisson that they did in 19th century Europe, and a couple of horses on stage cannot compete with a Disney Pixar fantasy. However, computerized projections and special effects effects have revolutionized this visual aspect of opera.

What about the story? Many librettos seem contrived and convoluted. Worse, some of the greatest operas of the 18th and 19th century are, by today’s standards, politically incorrect.  Reflecting the prevailing mindset of the times, they now seem painfully sexist and racist, and directors are kept busy scrubbing the performances, removing uncomfortable anachronisms. In Mozart’s The Magic Flute, we wince when Papageno, startled by Monostatos, muses “There are black birds, why should there not be black people?” And the plot of Così fan Tutti, musically  one of Mozart’s greatest compositions, makes us squirm, from its misogynistic title to the “joke gone sour” of the finale.

And yet, remarkably, some stories remain relevant. Not because they tell of far-away places or recount historic events, but because they speak to universal human themes. Love and hate, heroism and cowardice, jealousy and revenge, friendship and betrayal, and a good laugh at a trick well played! These are just topical today as they were 200 years ago. Whether our heart breaks for Cio-Cio San or we laugh at Dr. Bartolo, it is the humanity of opera that transcends the centuries, and that we connect with. When, at the end of Falstaff, the singers turn to the audience, the fourth wall disappears: this story was about all of us, after all!


In a good libretto there is also dramatic complexity and character development. Unlike in Kabuki or Commedia dell ‘Arte, convincing opera characters are not embodiments of fixed characteristics, they are human. In Aida, Amneris may be imperious and jealous, but she is also a woman in love who, to the very end, is willing to forgive and save Radames. A good libretto is a vital component of good opera, and when composer and librettist work closely together, the result is incomparable. The published correspondence between Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal takes up three volumes for a reason.

But the crux is the music, and contemporary opera shares the fate of contemporary orchestral music. It simply doesn’t touch us the way that Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky do. And it is not the story but the music that draws audiences to the opera: Prima la musica, dopo le parole. A great operatic composition is a unique melding of voice and instruments, a story told through music as much as text. And composing an opera, music that interweaves words and melody, meaning and intent, requires a different skill set from writing an orchestral piece. While some contemporary operas don’t measure up to those of the past, this is not to say that opera is fixed in formaldehyde. Opera can be reinvented: Wagner did that, as has every great operatic composer in his time. So, by all means let’s push forward, with good stories, integrated with skillfully composed music.

But for opera to survive, to get those bums into those seats every night, we cannot discard the past. New is not better, it is just different. There is a reason why audiences will return, year after year, to experience the same great works over again: it’s not their novelty, but their quality. This is why we need to keep alive the great operatic works of the past, works that are melodically appealing, dramatically convincing, works that convey emotions that we all share. Well sung, skillfully staged, and presented with respect for the composer and librettist, opera will continue to bring back audiences night after night, clapping, and humming as they go home.

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is the noted author of Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website