The Dystopian Operatic Future Is Here: Be The Change You Want!

One of the greatest disappointments for the world of opera in the last year was the precarious nature of Jonas Kaufmann’s health. Whether the debated article in “La Nación” speaks some level of truth or is totally inaccurate as Kaufmann’s managers said is less important at this point.  More to the point is Kaufmann’s own statements on his website regarding a vocal hemorrhage.  Hemorrhages occur under many different conditions, including singing with an infection, when vocally fatigued, and under straining or stressful conditions and can happen to any singer with a heavy schedule.  This is less about Kaufmann’s technique, although much is made of his tendency to sing a bit dark and breathy when singing softly.  However it can be explained  quite logically  that Kaufmann’s issues are related to an unusually punishing schedule that stands to reward the short-term goals of opera houses that benefit from Kaufmann’s popularity rather than the singer’s longevity that would have benefited the art-form in the long run.  Kaufmann is just one more victim of a system that is determined by short-term benefits of economically beleaguered opera houses rather than the philosophies that would help determine the long-term health of the operatic art-form.

The current Operatic Dystopia has been generations in the making.  Luciano Pavarotti spoke often about his teacher saying he should hurry and make a career because he would be “The Last Tenor.”
This is prophetic to the extent that not Pavarotti but his contemporary Placido Domingo has emerged in some respects as “The Last Tenor.”  With respect to the great tenors singing a more specialized Fach, in the business of opera, it is often regarded that the tenor of choice should be one like Domingo who has been able to sing a vastly diverse and varied repertoire and has the stamina to sing over 200 performances in a year.  This combination brought Domingo’s market value to legendary and unique proportions that enriched him, his agents and the opera houses and concert organisations that sold out concert after concert.  However, one thing must be kept in mind.  Not all of Domingo’s concerts were well-prepared and well-sung.  Not all of his concerts were operatic in nature and not everyone has the robust physical stamina that he has.  While one can hope for a singer with the musical proficiency, physical stamina, linguistic facility and varied repertoire of Domingo to emerge, the field of opera cannot be carried on the shoulders of any single singer.  When Domingo began, Pavarotti and Aragall were hot names, and Corelli was still active along with a host of full-voiced tenors from all over the world who could carry the same repertoire when needed and would be allowed to do so.  The world did not go into a tailspin if Domingo had to cancel.  Yes, patrons who came to see the great Placido might be disappointed if he were indisposed but there were respected substitutes who could jump in and do a professional job, appreciated by an operatic public that came to experience “opera” for what it is as opposed to what it is defined as, for the benefit of a growing audience that has no idea about the nature of the art-form. With Kaufmann being crowned as the only viable tenor who can sing Puccini and Verdi, Massenet and Bizet’s Carmen and Wagner too, the operatic gate-keepers have ham-stringed themselves into a narrow-minded search for a single person who can fit the Domingo-Kaufmann mold.  Not only are they not succeeding in that limiting task, they are also ignoring viable singers who could fit part of the bill and also ignoring in the process that although the economic health of opera is enhanced by a glowing figure like Domingo and perhaps Kaufmann, the ultimate long-term health of opera depends on many components that have been totally ignored by the establishment despite pleas from practically every responsible voice in the field.


It would be silly and unimaginative to think of the dystopian state of opera as an isolated incident.  Opera is just one flashy example of a world in chaos without a guiding philosophical consensus other than consumerism, quick personal gains at the expense of many justified by a sense of impending doom.  In the 21st century, if we are not living through a biblical Armageddon, the thinking of the average person reflects precisely this doomsday scenario that would justify a hedonistic, nihilistic lifestyle that suggests one should enjoy every luxury possible in the moment considering that the world is about to end.  This may sound somewhat dramatic and over-the-top but this is the world we have built for the last several generations dominated by TV, Movie and Computer screens that teach the subliminal message of money, possessions and pleasures of all kinds in the short term regardless of the consequences.  We see Wall Street exposed as the enemy with frequent discoveries of ponzi schemes at an institutional level, whereby bankers and investment agents lure their clients to invest and reinvest while they themselves take money out of the system in the form of commissions and bonuses.  The hard-working investor in the end ends up the victim.  The gate-keepers come out in the end with the benefits while the investors lose their shirts.  The middle class investors in particular work hard for little remuneration, invest what they can in an effort to get ahead but are in fact the ones who lose the most.  These good people become terribly disenchanted with a system that benefits those who run it at the expense of the many who pay into it.  They rebel by looking for any alternative that they can find.  In the case of politics they look to elect anyone who speaks to their personal interests including those like the United States’ Donald Trump who profess ultra-nationalist/white supremacist ideology guiding the disappointed masses toward identifying an easy enemy in the form of immigrants, the press and the very establishment that such politicians aim to control.  Yes it seems like a Sci-Fi nightmare!  How does it relate to opera?

The parallels are obvious.  The average talented artist understands opera to be a discipline that requires a long view. The many skills needed to sing opera at a high level require time, effort and determination.  The current narrative devalues all three and replaces them with immediate gratification, manifest destiny and physical appearance.  In such a fantasy world, a great voice teacher is one who turns a switch and makes you sound like Domingo; a talented singer is one who is born with all the qualities necessary and requires little or no guidance to take his/her place in the firmament of operatic Gods; and physical appearance is a genetic gift that requires no real effort to maintain.  To counterbalance the vast number of aspiring singers who are released from the conservatories every year, high profile competitions irresponsibly reduce their age limits to deny the singers who require more time to develop into viable professionals, while hiring artist managers with little musical training or vocal understanding to pick winners based on that “it” factor–which has to do with their abilities to be noticed on magazine covers rather than their abilities to transmit emotion and musical refinement through their voices in the company of a large orchestra in the large hall seating thousands of spectators.

In such a fantastic dystopian operatic world (which happens not to be fantastic at all, but rather the one we are living in currently) a massive number of aspiring singers who invest a lot of money into the system are left on the sidelines to wither even if they achieve the required skills to do the job.  Like the political middle class, we are left with a lot of aspiring singers accruing large financial debts supporting a failed system that rewards the chosen few (manifest destiny) at the expense of the studious majority.  The chosen few unfortunately are not up to the rigors of the field for the most part (there are always exceptions).  Singers at the top of the field lose their voices in a matter of a few years but continue to sing because of name recognition.  The rules claim that singers cannot attract an audience unless they are known already.  Yet it is common knowledge that singers become known by doing great work consistently.  The old rules were governed by the idea of “A Star is Born!” and “There is Always Room at the Top!”  In such a paradigm, the gate keepers were (fittingly) the audiences.  Now the gate keepers are casting directors and agents who could not care less about the health of the art form but rather about the health of their pockets in the short term, if it means feeding the system that gives them relevance.


Who can we point to in our times as symbols of excellence in our field? 

Vocal Excellence: Which singer has had a long career and continues to sing healthily?
Interpretative Excellence: Who has sung a role long enough to discover new possibilities in that role?
Musical Excellence: Which conductor has the time and willingness to defy the system and insist on musical and stylistic considerations as opposed to allow singers and orchestras to have their way for expedience’s sake?
Dramatic Excellence: Which stage director at the top of the food chain has the luxury or will or musical sophistication to insist on dramatic intensity relative to inspired musical source material (as opposed to inflicting physical mannerisms onto dramatic moments for lack of stagecraft and musicianship)?
Career management: Which artist manager cares enough to protect their singers from destroying their talents when there is money to be made in the short term?
Composition Excellence: Which composer has not only the musical skill but the knowledge of opera in all of its intricacies to be able to produce an opera that works vocally and dramatically, without the excuse of needing to revolutionize music theater in one stroke?
Theaters: Which opera house will look at its community and the operatic art form together and come up with solutions that both invigorate the public while investing in artistic educational and development?

The answer should be all!

But alas, most companies are trying their best to keep up with the current production let alone plan the next one or determine any kind of vision for sustainability.

The system is broken!  It is not serving the singers who make the effort to become what they were told they should become.  Great artists!  Instead it rewards the flash-in-the-pan artists who excite the public for a short time and then they move on to the next one.  In such a system, there is no legacy, no vision, no future!  Therefore we are here!  The future is bleak! Empty!

Therefore there are no singers for a real manager to consider developing over a long time.  The conductors don’t have to understand singers because that singer will probably be forgotten in a few years and they do not have to understand the difference between symphonic conducting and operatic conducting because they just have to survive the evening without losing the effect of the hairspray that sustains their conductor-hair. The stage directors don’t have to create memorable productions that will be talked about for generations, just something that lasts a news cycle. Therefore we are in a state of perpetual decline.

Not unlike global warming, those who stand to gain from fossil fuels and the money generated from it politically will deny that the planet is in serious danger.  They will probably die before the ultimate environmental catastrophe occurs.  Likewise, those at the top of the operatic food chain will continue to chant that the health of the operatic field is better than ever because they will have gained enough of an economic parachute by the time the entire system collapses.  News flash!  It has already collapsed.

The Phoenix

The system is broken but Opera is alive and well.  Even in the dystopian nightmare that is our system,  some visionary directors, conductors and singers persist with one foot firmly set in tradition and the other searching for an artistically adventurous future.  It is their rare performances that continue to inspire young artists.  But inspiration is only the beginning.  
Anyone can become an operatic artist, but few have the commitment to do all that is necessary to become a dependable professional.  It’s a lifelong pursuit that requires a determined artist with access to knowledgeable and constantly growing teachers  and a professional environment that values true vocal-musical-dramatic talent and not just an empty shell that is visually interesting enough to fool the operatically illiterate, that is curious enough and has money to buy an expensive ticket.
Art has a way of re-emerging phoenix-like through the ashes and flames of the decaying past.  And so shall it be!  
The reality being as bleak as it is, what does an operatic professional do?  In every way possible we should work for the excellence of our art, avoiding mediocrity whenever we can.  This is not easy! Even in my little heavenly oasis in Sweden, I find myself too often having to convince students about the need for consistent, persistent hard-work and too often being convinced to reduce my expectations for the sake of the student who finds it too difficult.  
The best we can do for opera is aspire in our own lives for excellence.  We must push ourselves to become better singers, teachers, conductors, directors, agents and casting agents.  Those elements are already there, doing their best in a system that obstructs their progress at every turn.  But those people do not give up.  They look for opportunities to make a difference.  And so we continue!  In the best case scenario, those positive elements already active will emerge just as the decaying system crumbles. And if we are lucky we will not even feel the dramatic shift but simply enjoy the result.  But that is improbable.  I predict we are close to seeing the majority of opera houses shut down in the next couple of years and thousands of singers and conductors and directors give up on opera.  A skeleton crew of visionaries will be left to rebuild from the ashes.  
My analysis is far from pessimistic.  I am only commenting based on what I observe in the trenches daily, whether extremely talented artists having a difficult time progressing in the field or truly well-meaning and effective agents giving up on the field because it makes no sense.  I am in fact very optimistic about the future of opera.  However there is a need for a cleansing of sort before this field can go forward.  A year or so ago I eliminated over 800 acquaintances from Facebook that I felt inspired a very negative feeling whenever their names popped up on my screen.  After doing this, I found that my social media experience became very constructive and positive.  Opera will go through a similar cleansing and I suspect it will be spontaneous!  As this occurs the operatic landscape will take on a more productive profile and I suspect those elements truly invested in its development and future will be the ones left standing!

In 2016, Fausta Truffa was the operatic story in my estimation.  For several weeks, her angelically pure, heart-driven voice shed a light on the darkness that often envelops the subject of opera!  Old, Amateur…Perhaps two of the worst words that opera people can utilize these days.  Yet the two noblest words I believe should define opera’s future are synonyms of those two:  Longevity, Love!

© 12/31/2016

4 thoughts on “The Dystopian Operatic Future Is Here: Be The Change You Want!

Add yours

  1. Glad to see that you're back! I have a quick, though OT question for you, since you have gone from viewing yourself as a bass, baritone, and tenor at different times in your life. As my I have developed my voice, I've found that I now feel most comfortable singing as a bass-baritone or even lower. The sounds seems to ride the vocal cords effortless, so to speak. Can you say that there is any kind of sensation like that as you have found your “true voice?” Thanks for your time.


  2. I felt I had come home the day I sang my first tenor aria! It wasn't easy at first though, because my body was not used to behaving that way and I had trained some wrong habits to “sound” like a baritone or bass. Now I can say it feels like it's rolling effortlessly! It took time to make peace with my vocal color, which sounds to my inside ear like a lyric bass but fluid! Outside it sounds like a full voiced tenor! Even though Otello and Siegmund sound the most natural I love the ability to sing Hoffmann and even Nemorino, which can only happen when I use the same quality for all of it: full-bodied, fluid and brilliant!


  3. The reason for what you stated in the article, is that agents and managers now only want to sign and promote tenors who are a jack of all trades. This is because there is limited work, and they simply want to be able to get a singer any role any gig they possibly can. It is rare to have top singers sing the same role 100s of times.
    Top agencies generally have a rule that they will not sign you unless you can gross 100k US dollars per year revenue. That means mostly that they must be willing to sing any gig they can, any role that's available.
    It is those top agencies that really control the business in terms of who the stars are. The opera companies themselves mostly just work with those agencies who supply them the singers.
    In order to go back to the old way, singers need to find a way to make it profitable again for them to specialize, and not have to be a singing Jack of all trades. For example, Kunde will sing a Rossini Otello, and then he will go sing a Verdi Otello. But what should he ideally REALLY be singing?


  4. Excellent contribution Alex! Kunde is a tenor whose voice is high enough (short vocal folds) to handle the higher bel canto tessitura, yet whose fold cover is thick enough to produce a robust sound. He can truly sing both roles! Kunde was a bel canto specialist all his life and in his late 50s and 60s began to take on more traditionally spinto roles. I would not put him in the same category as those Jack-of-all-trades. The agents are wrong. It's a dangerous paradigm that kills voices early. One should build a repertoire based on what feels appropriate and good, and wander gently afield to develop repertoire. There are still bel canto specialists, early music specialists, Mozart specialists, Wagner specialist, and then there's the main stream. Lensky, Nemorino, Romeo, Tamino, Tom Rakewell are roles that can all be done by one singer without violating his vocal type. One does not need to throw Cavaradossi or Calaf into that mix to be viable!


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