Defrocking the canon

There have been a lot of discussions lately about diversity in opera and how, particularly, race and gender are represented in very limited and problematic ways, especially in the canonical operas of the long 19th century.  The latest to come my way is a very good panel discussion hosted by the COC (on their Youtube channel) and moderated by Aria Umezawa.  This one tackled gender issues but, inevitably broader questions came up and that’s what I want to explore here.  You might want to watch it either before or after reading the rest of this piece.


The only revolution to ever start in an opera house….

Lets start by making a few statements about the state of the opera world (at least in North America):

  • Our stages are dominated by a small number of operas from the long 19th century (Mozart to Puccini).  Take the last ten complete seasons at the COC as an example.  There were 66 shows in that period.  6 operas were done twice, another 5 were warhorses like La Traviata and no less than 25 others were from the long 19th century.  That’s a total of 42 out of 66 shows or pretty much 2 out of 3.
  • Modern performance practice allows directors a fair amount of freedom but considers the text and music to be sacrosanct.  It’s worth noting that this was not always the case in opera.
  • The opera world is hierarchical with its management hierarchy very (white) male dominated and its boards dominated by the wealthy.
  • The current opera business model is failing.  Each year the population rises but the opera audience falls.  Desperately trying to lure the traditional audience back with “traditional” productions of canonical operas hasn’t worked anywhere.  Neither has anything else though I would argue that all we have seen is a bit of tinkering such as “festival seasons” rather than radical change.  The business is heading off a cliff; faster for small, regional companies than for the big boys but heading there nonetheless.

So now let’s make some statements about what the advocates of diversity are saying:

  • We should be telling stories that relate to the lived experiences of our audiences and potential audiences.
  • We need to expand our audience to reflect the increased diversity of our communities.
  • We will only get diversity of culture, gender and race in or productions if a diversity of race, gender and culture can fully and safely participate in the creation process.
  • The canon doesn’t need to be scrapped but it needs to be interrogated intelligently to explore ways of dealing with the problematic issues.
  • We should reconsider whether the text and music should be thought of as sacrosanct.
  • All of these issues have been explored much more fully in spoken theatre and maybe there are lessons to be learned.

Now, I’m very well aware that many people will disagree with a good deal of, at least, the second list here but let’s run with it for now and talk about implications and how some of these aspirations might be realised.

What might a strategy for dealing with the issues in the second list look like and what implications would it have for the existing opera business model?  Allow me first to make a few generalisations about strategy.  I’m made quite uncomfortable when I listen to some of these well meany conversations that there is a lot of talk about aspirations but not much concrete about how to realise them.  It’s a problem that’s not unique to opera.  Most organisations are not particularly good at strategy.  So, strategy is about choices.  It’s about what one does and, perhaps more importantly, what one doesn’t do.  Every organisation has finite resources so going on doing the things it has always done means, essentially, that there will never be enough time, money and energy to do the things it should be doing.  The implications of that are clear.  If two thirds of your resources are going into “sacrosanct” productions of long 19th century works there’s not much left to spread over the rest of the existing repertoire plus new works plus radical reworking of old ones.  The first step must therefore be to defrock the canon.  A company serious about diversity would have to set a much lower quota for canonical works and be much less rigid about performance practice.  Resources could then be redirected to shows designed to tell new stories and reach an expanded audience.

Here’s one proposal for how that might work for a six production season.  It’s not intended as a blueprint but rather as a starting point for a much needed conversation and obviously it gets adapted depending on the size of the company:

  • One opera from the long 19th century done in a fairly traditional way.
  • One canonical opera handed over to a diverse creative team to do with it what they will.
  • One new piece addressing a contemporary issue.
  • One other work from a living composer.
  • One production of an opera from outside the long 19th.
  • One production targeting an identified non-traditional audience produced with extensive participation of artists from that community.  This could be an existing, even canonical, work.  Think how Shakespeare is used to do just this in spoken theatre.

This has obvious implications for what happens off-stage.  It would require a seriously revamped marketing and donor engagement approach for example.  It would also require the traditional hierarchies to give up quite a lot of control but that’s essential anyway.  Almost my last thought is to point out that hierarchies are rarely changed “bottom up”.  Appointing “disruptors in residence” is great PR but it’s meaningless if they aren’t allowed to disrupt!  And “disruption within strictly defined bounds” is nonsense.  So the commitment to real change will have to come from boards and general directors or it won’t happen.

Now to be perfectly honest I don’t actually see any company doing anything remotely like this.  It’s far too risky.  I expect we’ll see the sort of “diversification” that we saw in management consulting in the 1990s.  More women and PoC will be hired so long as they have the exact same mindset as the white men they are replacing.  More workshops and seminars on diversity will happen.  A few cosmetic (literally) changes will be made such as getting rid of black/yellow face.  But the canon will remain over-represented.  Production practice will be largely unchanged.  Marketing will remain largely focused on the (literally) dying traditional demographic.  The audience will continue to shrink by a couple of percent per year.  But most general directors will reach retirement before the company goes bust so why take (very real) risks?

7 thoughts on “Defrocking the canon

  1. I agree with most of the items in your first list, except the last one. I don’t think that the business model of opera is failing, nor that smaller companies are failing faster. To the contrary, the number and scale of smaller opera companies in Toronto and other cities has increased exponentially in the 21st century. The audiences are there for those producers, as well as for top-tier companies like the COC. And while it’s true that the COC’s audiences have slowly declined from a peak of near 100% capacity at the opening of the Four Seasons Centre, its box office figures are still the envy of other theatre producers, all of whom have experienced a comparable drop in attendance over the same period.

    What has changed for the COC, the National Ballet and other large-scale theatre is the role of going to the theatre as an obligation and indicator of social status. The people who go to opera, ballet and theatre because they love it are still buying tickets, but those who attend because they feel their social position or aspirations require it are fewer every year. The social status of the opera box has replaced by the stadium box, and no amount of changes to repertoire, cultural diversity or scheduling will reverse that.

    Nonetheless, I do think that most of the reforms laid out in your second list are needed. Not in a desperate attempt to improve the box office receipts, but as a necessary correction to keep the art form viable for future generations. No, we can’t only keep serving up the same half-dozen composers over a century later, no matter how good they were. But we have to ask why did the nineteenth century, particularly the latter half of it, gave us most of the repertoire we know today? The answer, of course, is that that was the last time opera producers went through the kind of cultural renaissance that we’re looking for today. Opera went from being a highly specialized style of theatre performed for (and often by) the most elite members of society, to a very public entertainment that sought to please not only the aristocracy but the middle classes and anyone who could afford the price of a ticket. To do that, it stopped dramatizing tales from classical mythology and told stories that were familiar to wider audiences, often adapting popular novels and plays that portrayed not gods and historical figures but people recognizable to the members of the audience. And the music adapted too, from being formal and “classical” to incorporating familiar themes and popular musical styles into scores that were dramatic, romantic and above all, entertaining. Opera composing in Europe was a highly competitive business that worked tirelessly to produce a steady stream of new product for its huge, sensation-loving audience. (We have to remember, of course, that the vast majority of these new operas enjoyed only one or two productions and were forgotten, but although lasting successes were statistically rare, the sheer volume of output meant that there ended up being a lot of them.)

    But because that explosion of popular opera produced so many enormously popular works, producers were able to coast along on its wake for most of the next century. New operas continued to be written, but because introducing new work was now something companies did to seem “modern” than as a necessity of competitive survival, the output dropped below the level of sustainability.

    Perhaps now, if we aren’t able to rely on the old standards anymore, the spur of do-or-die will force companies to commission a sufficient volume of relevant, popular work to leave a stock of new warhorses that can carry us into the 22nd century. And yes, you’re absolutely right that that means telling real stories that portray the lived experience of the audience, not myths and abstract philosophical arguments.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I had hoped to start a discussion rather than have people wildly agreeing with me. The audience decline issue is an interesting one and perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. Certainly companies that “do different” can create a buzz and an audience. I was thinking of the more traditional smaller companies that basically just recycle the canon. They are definitely struggling. Look at Calgary or Vancouver and, of course, closer to home we have seen the demise of pera Hamilton and Lyric Opera Ottawa.

  2. Opera is a business after all. How would your proposed season sell?

    I have found very few of the operas composed since the “Long 19th Century” — great phrase — to be very good, or even good.

    As Wulf noted, there were lots of operas written in that time period and relatively few still are performed. There’s a reason why, quality prevails.

    I go to opera to be entertained not to watch commentaries on contemporary issues. If I spend six nights a year in the 19th century, I am happy.

    • Remember my starting point… “If opera companies want to take onboard the issues raised in the various conversations about diversity then…” If opera companies are happy to see themselves as purveyors of historical entertainment where problems of gender, race and class can be ignored then it’s pretty much business as usual bar the 2-3% declne in the audience every year. I do disagree about with your comment about the quality of more recent operas. I’ll take Strauss, Britten, Janacek or George Benjamin over any bel canto composer!

  3. Such a great discussion starter here…I agree that what’s often lacking in what has been–let’s face it, a pretty long-time call to reform opera–is strategy! Actually sitting down and saying ‘we’re going to do this…to change this…’ For most large/mid-sized North American companies, I think a lot of what you suggest in terms of actual repertoire choices/changes could be achieved. It would mean re-allocating funds from say, hiring ‘the best’ conductor, the ‘best’ singers, the ‘best director’ [not saying any of that is bad but in cash-strapped NA, something has to budge], and distributing those funds to perhaps a greater variety and scales of productions. I think some companies in Canada have already started doing that a few years ago, Opera de Montreal being the main example. That is, taking a bit of a risk on contemporary opera, putting it on in a smaller/alternative space…maybe utilizing your young artists… I guess most Canadian companies are reluctant to take on these kinds of experiments for fear of not drawing in an audience? Or, because costs of putting on productions in their own houses is so, so high [unionized staff, front of house etc etc – yes, everyone deserves to make a good living but….], that they simply can’t take any risk as they need to draw in top dollar-paying ticket buyers…all..the…time. But something in this model really needs to shift if we’re to see any of the changes you suggest. At the COC we could be on the cusp of something like this with the new leadership – Perryn Leech seems pretty motivated to make these type of changes. Question would be – will his Board…will the public go along with him? I especially love the idea of handing over canonical operas to a diverse, creative production team. One would expect a very ‘contemporary’ approach with newer works…but what has been possibly lacking are some serious attempts at deconstruction of older works…the COC’s Abduction from the Seraglio by Wajdi Mouawad a couple seasons back being an exception.

    • In retrospect the COC’s decision to drop a production and put the money saved into even bigger main stage productions looks like a lost opportunity. It’s difficult t take risks when you are only just getting by with the current model. One reason they say that peasant societies don’t innovate! But eventually it becomes a choice between a slow death and taking some risks.

      • Absolutely regarding the COC dropping the ‘extra’ Ensemble Studio show – it was the company’s chance to showcase new works, unusual older repertoire, interesting directors etc etc. It also gave patrons a wider view of what opera can be..i.e. doesn’t always have to be with a huge orchestra on a big stage. The cant that giving the young singers a chance to appear in more major roles on the ‘big stage’ [by giving them a dedicated performance of one of the regular, mainstage operas] never really seemed authentic to me…and then after just a few seasons, they gave up on that idea anyway with a couple years of ‘staged excerpts’ which gave the singers even less of a chance of tackling complete roles. It certainly seems that at the bare minimum initially, a return to an Ensemble show in the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre or a similar venue would be a ‘quick fix’ way of starting to expand the season and address some of the points you make in terms of diversity.

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