Identifying the Opera Problem


Stand by folks, I’ve identified the opera problem. What opera problem? The one where audiences are declining and the audiences which do attend often can’t say if what they heard from the singers was good or bad.
Opera began to decline once super-titles were introduced about 30 years ago. Yes? Yes.
On the one hand, a general audience could follow the story as it unfolded and even laugh at the jokes. On the other hand, the dramatic quality of the operas began to rise in importance causing audiences and opera companies to get the artform twisted.
Here is the hierarchy of opera:
  1. the voice
  2. the music (conductor)
  3. the production (director).

This is the current hierarchy of opera:
  1. the production (director)
  2. the music (conductor)
  3. and then some random singers, most of whom nobody knows that well.
That’s a bit unfair but outside of the Three-f’ing-Tenors, who are the opera legends of the past 30 years? When compared to the singers of previous generations, there are none. None.
Singers dominated opera for its entire history until about 40 years ago. Many will point to the 100-year anniversary production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the start of true “Regietheater”—director’s theater. That production, in 1976 by Patrice Chéreau at Bayreuth, was both the culmination of a tradition at Bayreuth and the start of a new and politicized opera tradition.
Previously Wieland Wagner had been producing a minimalist version of his grandfather’s opera at Bayreuth since the end of World War II. However, we must recall that Germany was devastated after the war and many of Wieland’s productions were minimalistic because that was the only option. What Wieland did have in his minimal productions was legendary singers.
Great singing creates great opera. Period.

The demise of the opera singer

The inclusion of super-titles has hastened the demise of the opera singer and accelerated the rise of the opera director with the conductor staying in the middle. Opera singers are being type-cast more and more often. In the past, an opera cast was based on finding the right singers. It is becoming more and more based on finding the right look. That transformation is not complete and, God willing, never will be.
Now we have a generation of critics who aren’t able to critique singing. In the New York Times review of Turandot, at the Metropolitan Opera, the writer goes on and on about the conductor and when he does mention the signers it is in terms such as “plush”, “steely”, and “reedy”.
Those are definitely words but they tell me nothing about the singers. I can’t tell if the singers are good, bad, or great. However, the review did mention that the tenor has lost weight and that you can see his workout posts on Instagram.
Garrett Harris

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Garrett Harris


Garrett Harris studied philosophy at university. He has been in over 65 opera productions with San Diego Opera, and has written about 1,000 articles for publication in The San Diego Reader.

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Paul Ricchi
Paul Ricchi
3 years ago

I love this essay and agree with it whole-heartedly. But I must raise one concern. The statement: “The inclusion of super-titles has hastened the demise of the opera singer”.
Is not followed by any support. How, exactly, have titles hastened the demise of the opera singer?

A. Minis
A. Minis
3 years ago

Opera als witwasproject voor criminelen?! Als dit waar is, had Kersten van den Berg nog gelijk ook toen hij het over een samenzwering had.

Philip Modinos
3 years ago

What you describe here is a symptom of what I believe is the true problem. The true problem with opera is that financial gain lies no longer in the hands of the audience. Make an audience happy = make money no longer applies. Opera has become a medium – a washingmachine – for money as well as an outlet for political favours. And the last thing the powers that be need is a famous singer and the temperament that comes with it to ruin the recipe. Production can run huge costs with artistic excuses when the materials and real expenses… Read more »

3 years ago

De huidige nummer 1 ken ik niet, is dit niet een circus directeur!🎼🌷🌷🌷🌷🎼