A Case for Opera

Mariinsky Theatre (2019)

As a younger theatre practitioner, I’m often met with surprise when I inform people that my preferred medium is opera. In truth, there’s nothing I love more than walking into a rehearsal room and hearing the sounds of vocal warm-ups amid the usual chatter and piano noodling. There’s something about the leviathan that is opera that excites me, that moves me, that motivates me. Something ineffable, invisible, inspiring simply takes over me as I begin my process. But peeling back the musical mirage and looking at the parts of the whole, some things simply don’t add up. Shouldn’t I hate opera?
People ask me how I can love opera as a minority, when many of the most iconic works are blatantly racist. They wonder how as a feminist I can dedicate my time to a genre that oppresses and undermines its female characters. They wonder how as an LGBTQ+ ally, I can love a medium that ignores and erases Queer voices. They wonder how I can work in an industry long considered to be elitist and exclusive, but still claim to support workers’ rights and Democratic values.
So how is this possible? How can I reconcile these seemingly conflicting value systems? The answer is simple: I can’t. Opera as currently constituted is not a plausible match for the progressive and inclusive values of today’s society. What’s surprising is that it could be.
The purpose of the opera is to allow every element of the Arts to culminate in the creation of an entirely new universe. Opera shows the world not as it is, but as it could be. Opera is about fantasy, dreams, drama and farce. Of course the emotions and explorations thematically mirror the human experience, but they do so in a parallel universe of non-realistic expression. Where better, then, to celebrate diversity and inclusion than in a space designed for the marriage of empathy and exploration?
It isn’t acceptable to dismiss the composers and librettists simply because of their time period- there were people opposed to their repressive ideals back then just as there are now. However, the burden falls on us. Directors, designers, dramaturgs, singers, producers and managers- we will decide through what lens these works are seen. We can bend them, shape them, adapt them and recreate them to tell stories suitable for all audiences, not just those that are typically catered to. This isn’t the easiest road to follow, but confronting the past never is.
The opera world of my dreams is vastly different than the one of today, but there’s something about the music and the magic that allows me to believe that anything is possible. Here’s to making anything possible one step after another.

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