A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say, and ignorance is bliss. Given the sharp decline of arts education in American public schools in recent decades, opera companies across the land have no choice but to test the truth of those propositions. Increasingly, U.S. audiences are musical illiterates who only listen, barely capable (if at all) of reading music, incapable of making any sort of music on their own.
And what are the consequences? Is the biodiversity of the operatic ecosphere on the point of collapse? Are Wozzeck and Lulu, Moses und Aron, Palestrina and Mathis der Maler, not to speak of the complete Janácek and Britten and other acquired tastes, bound for extinction? Are future generations condemned to a standard repertoire shrunk to the top ten titles?
For perspective on these matters, opera news went to four of the country's most thoughtful opera administrators.
Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera, is characteristically upbeat, as befits an impresario who has turned a respectable regional company into a magnet for international talent and international audiences, all the while enjoying the enthusiastic support of his local constituents.
"I never think of the audience as being less musically literate," he begins. "Over the nineteen years I've been here, I've given them a varied repertoire, and they sign up again and again, and they enjoy what they see. We don't sell Rusalka as well as Tosca, but who does? One funny thing with foreign titles -- if they can't pronounce it, they won't buy many single tickets. I don't worry about Götterdämmerung. We've specialized in Wagner, and everybody knows that here. But I don't know what we'd do if we decided to do Khovanshchina some day."
Is the repertory shrinking? "People say there are all these great works out there that have never gotten performances, because the audience is too stupid. Actually, the audience is a very great determiner as to what is good and what isn't. If the audience sits there and says, 'This bores the hell out of me,' they're probably not wrong. We've got about sixty to eighty standard pieces to choose from. That's a lot. But then, we'll do something like Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas. Elsewhere, the critics sneered at it, but my audience adored it. I've never had an opera that more people wanted to see again, and I'm going to bring it back."
How much of that had to do with the music? "Opera is a musical art form," Jenkins replies. "It's only 49 percent theater. Unless I love the music, I won't do it."
The word from David Gockley, general director of Houston Grand Opera, is less sunny. "When the public is besieged with worries about the future, they look more toward entertainment and nostalgia," he says. "These days, people generally seem set against anything sophisticated, difficult or challenging. In Houston this year, we cancelled Dead Man Walking and added The Merry Widow. I didn't like to do that, but it's a sign of the times.
"I do think that the lack of musical sophistication on the part of the average person has a lot to do with what people are prepared to see in the theater. Our Janácek -- two shows in the last three seasons -- just died at the box office. Of Mice and Men did better here fifteen years ago than it does today. Maybe this just isn't the time for grim realism.
"Music works on the subconscious. Whether you know that it's in 6/8 time or has a twelve-tone row may not matter if it's played really well. I've come across passionate opera-lovers who have never studied a note of music, some who came to it late, some who have played an instrument all their lives. What brings them to opera? I don't know that there are generalities. There's no rhyme or reason. At the same time, we always say, and I do believe, that a lot of music education would be very helpful."
Pamela Rosenberg, the new general director of San Francisco Opera, stands at the threshold of the most fascinating experiment in opera programming currently to be found in this country: a five-year plan, "Animating Opera." The brand of innovation she practiced at Stuttgart Opera, her address from 1990 to 2000, involved plenty of unusual, musically advanced repertoire but also edgy production teams, with nostalgia and mainstream entertainment values very low on her agenda.
Caught this past summer between rehearsals for the American premiere of Messiaen's daunting Saint François d'Assise, she takes the question of musical literacy as an invitation to range very widely. "I wouldn't say in any way that because people don't have enough music education in the schools, I can't show them Janácek or Messiaen," she begins. "But unless we wade in with massively more education, the audience will grow older and older, and not just in the U.S. Demographically, one fears that the next generation of people for whom it's normal to listen to classical music or attend symphonies or operas just isn't coming along."
As for curating her season, Rosenberg points out that her approach will not differ in kind from what she did in Europe. "I've always been adamant about maintaining a balance from Baroque to contemporary, with Italian and French and German repertoire, etc. So the balance for my first season in San Francisco is actually quite standard, except that the twentieth-century piece happens to be this Messiaen monster, and the Baroque piece -- Handel's Alcina, in Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production -- is being presented to them in a way that they probably haven't experienced before."
Aren't we talking about aesthetic education far, far beyond the musical here? "For sure. A lot of visual sophistication gets left at home when people come to the opera house. Many of our subscribers who have certain expectations of what an opera should be go to the Museum of Modern Art and get engrossed in Motherwell and de Kooning. Maybe they're less willing to deal with visual experiences at the opera, because you may need to look twice before you discover everything. At a museum or with a new building, they'll do that, but in the opera, they buy one ticket and don't see it again."
As Rosenberg's adventure in San Francisco begins, Dale Johnson, artistic director of the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul, sounds like a man in a groove. "I hesitate to say it," he says, "but we have a bit of a formula." Of five productions each season, three are mainstream. Rare bel canto has had a regular slot for years now. (The current choice is Norma; Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Padilla are on the way.) And then there is the wild card: this season, the U.S. premiere of Poul Ruders's much-praised opera The Handmaid's Tale, based on the Margaret Atwood novel; next season, Croesus, a forgotten Baroque gem by Reinhard Keiser, active in Hamburg in the early decades of the 1700s. (Both Handmaid and Croesus have been successfully recorded.)
To understand the profile, it helps to know some history. Four decades ago, when Minnesota Opera was founded, local appetites for Carmen and La Traviata were fed by the annual tours of the Metropolitan Opera. The new company created a niche for itself with less predictable fare, old and new. When the Met tours sputtered to a halt in the 1980s, Minnesota Opera understandably started paying attention to the region's conservative constituency. The move to the new Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in 1985 temporarily reinforced such tendencies. "But even in our most traditional years," Johnson says, "we continued with the world premieres and new works." (Where else might you have seen George Antheil's Transatlantic? )
In the early 1990s, Minnesota Opera invested heavily in coproductions, including an Aida directed by Colin Graham and financed by a consortium of a dozen partners. Individual successes or misfires aside, the path was fraught with compromise, and in the meantime, the company has decided to go it alone.
"We're more interested now in trying to look at what we stand for and what our audience expects," says Johnson. "Our shows tend to be a little edgy, nontraditional in execution. Another company won't want to go that way. So rather than buying into something generic, just for the sake of getting to do a piece we care about, we want to create a platform for a specific Minnesota style. No one else is going to do Handmaid, so let's find a way to do our own wonderful production and not worry about the rest of the world. Same thing in bel canto. No one else in this environment is interested in Maria Padilla right now, but our audience is."
In the end, does deepening musical illiteracy really affect the health of opera? Could it not actually make the impresario's job easier? Put on what you care about, not what you think you should. Chances are, the results will be much, much more exciting.
"A-plus! Gold star! That's it," Johnson cries. "Do what you're passionate about. That's what creates energy on the part of the company." In less troubled times, David Gockley's experience bore out the same point: what wins a loyal following is a vision, a view of one's own. Pamela Rosenberg certainly is placing her bets that way.
As Speight Jenkins insists, opera is primarily a musical form, but it's 49 percent theater. And theater? Now there's a hard question.
Theater is 100 percent many other things: acting, stagecraft, costumes, sets, a social setting for seeing and being seen. Music may be the royal road into the realm of opera, but there are many, many other ways in.