Is opera dying?

Sumi JoYesterday I saw perhaps the best performance I’ve ever witnessed in an opera: Sumi Jo’s Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The audience gave her a massive ovation after each aria, and lept to their feet at the end of the show for the longest standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of in Charlotte. I know, standing ovations are a dime a dozen these days, but yesterday the audience knew she had dominated the opera, and skipped several standing-ovation-worthy performances in order to save their appreciation for her.

Our family has chosen opera as the means to give our kids a regular dose of culture: there’s enough going on onstage to hold their attention through long, sometimes boring classical works, and they can follow along with the story by reading the supertitles. We enjoy it, and the kids are beginning to build an appreciation for it. Yet yesterday’s virtuoso performance by Sumi Jo was witnessed by a half-empty house. A few weeks ago, when I had extra tickets to La Boheme, I couldn’t give them away. Perhaps Opera is on its way out as a major form of cultural expression.

Let’s face it, there’s a lot not to like about opera. Most operas are about twice as long as the average American’s attention span. They’re almost always sung in a foreign language, and even when you see a rare English language opera, you still can’t understand what anyone is saying. The requirement that everything be sung makes it difficult to tell a very interesting story, and the whole thing is so artificial that it’s often difficult to feel the passion that the singers are trying to express onstage. Perhaps in twenty years or so we’ll see smaller opera companies, such as our Opera Carolina, begin to shut down as people look for flashier forms of entertainment. Perhaps in a hundred opera will be a quaint relic of a bygone era.

Yesterday, though, for me and my family, opera was as alive as ever.

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One Response to Is opera dying?

  1. Anne Fernald says:

    I love opera, but living in very rural Indiana, I’ve kind of stopped following it. So, channel-surfing during my daughter’s nap, I caught the WWII memorial dedication. The woman singing (at first I could only hear her voice) was a rich-voiced African-American by the sound of it. Certainly not Kathleen Battle and younger than Jessye Norman. I was amazed and sorry that my opera knowledge had already gone so far out of date. So, I kept watching until the name showed up on the crawl. The singer: Denyce Graves. How did I know that name?

    I figured it out after the nap: she’s the one who sings the great, amazing, hilarious “Operatic Lullaby” to Elmo on my daughter’s favorite DVD. Sigh. Parenthood: my only slim link to high culture.

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