The musical world panicked at the announcement that Columbia Artists Management, Inc. (CAMI for short) has seized operations as of the end of August 2020. One of the most influential players in the world of opera (indeed of classical music in general) CAMI was assumed to be one of those entities that was too big to fail. The dissolution of CAMI (it is conceivable that some of the individual agents might return post-COVID) is a signal for many of a sort of Operatic Armageddon. Even in biblical terms, Armageddon is understood as a sort of cleansing! With all the empathy that I feel for fellow singers and musicians, I have been writing on this blog for over 10 years about the unsustainable nature of the operatic business model as it has been since the 1990s. I’ve always said that a correction would be at hand. The pandemic revealed how fragile that structure has been and how even top artists became vulnerable at the height of the pandemic.
I often point to the success of The Three Tenors as an event that determined the realities we are now living. Before The Three Tenors became superstars, Opera, like Ballet, and Classical Theater, were specialty art forms, that were distinguished by high-level skills requiring years to hone in. After the fame of The Three Tenors reached meteoric levels, pop singers began covering the tenors’ hit arias and songs. For worse, arias like Nessun dorma became as much pop music repertoire as they were classical, as is evident in variety talent shows like America’s Got Talent and others. On the heels of The Three Tenors’ success, The Three Sopranos emerged, followed by The Irish Tenors, 10 Tenors, Il Divo, 3 Mo’ Tenors and others. From this crossover mania, Andrea Bocelli became the ultimate incarnation. Unfortunately, the paying public made no distinction between Bocelli as a pop singer singing operatic music and a bona fide opera singer. To add insult to injury, many people responsible for the casting of opera singers did/do not understand the difference either.
The popularity of The Three Tenors crossover concerts (done in large arenas with microphones) was not discussed at the time. The usage of microphones in those situations paradoxically made those events fundamentally non-operatic! Why?
The ability of the opera singer to be easily audible without a microphone in the presence of a large orchestra is not only a question of audibility! The vocal setup that produces that kind of audibility also produces a sound that is close to a primal utterance that impacts the listener emotionally. It is not an accident that The Singer’s Formant has the same frequency range as the acoustics of the human inner ear. In other words, when the microphone replaces natural resonance, it also removes the primal utterance that would impact the listener emotionally.
The popularity of The Three Tenors inspired interest in opera among a large number of young singers around the world. In the United States, for example, the number of schools offering operatic training increased exponentially, but unfortunately without the quality that serious performance schools had offered. Thus, every year for the past 30 years, instead of hundreds, tens of thousands of young operatic aspirants graduated from music schools, with the hope of achieving operatic stardom, like The Three Tenors and Renée Fleming, the first soprano to emerge with pop star status. Netrebko and Kaufmann followed.
This pop star model unfortunately took the model of the pop world. Public relations teams begin to crown every new singer as the second coming instead of allowing them to be raised to popularity by the audience’s response. The singer’s physical appearance became as important (in some cases more important) than the vocal-musical-theatrical talent. Lastly, the rise of the pop star opera singer ran parallel with the rising dominance of the Internet and digital musical consumption. When opera companies can make more on an HD Simulcast in movie theaters than they can make from a week or even a month of ticket sales in the opera house, the importance of the opera house itself became reduced in the minds of general directors more concerned with their financial bottom line than the quality of opera experienced in the house.
The result is a small number of pop-star opera singers traveling all over the planet to present their limited repertoire. Therefore the repertoire that is experienced in the opera house is extremely reduced and worse, hundreds of thousands of aspiring young singers, unprepared for the ever-changing nature of the new market, are left without hope.
In summary, hundreds of thousands (instead of hundreds) of new operatic aspirants came into a system that does not make a clear distinction between real opera and popera (short for Pop-opera)! Those hundreds of thousands became the target of a worldwide opera business. Since schools do not prepare these singers for the business they embarked on, private voice teachers, repetiteurs (pianist-coaches), stage-directors, pilates teachers, Alexander Technique and Feldenkreis teachers, Yoga teachers, photographers, fitness coaches, business coaches, all, became the private experts that young operatic aspirants would consult in order to fill in the gaps left by inadequate operatic training.
The unforeseen byproduct is that hundreds of thousands of potential opera audience members became singers themselves, usually giving up on their operatic dreams with such bitterness that they would not return to the opera house as audience members. The passionate amateur, who would have been an operatic patron, became a disillusioned operatic failure who distances himself/herself from the operatic field altogether.
It is not by accident that the Viennese newspaper, Wienerzeitung, came out with this article, which essentially indicts an operatic hierarchy that concentrates great wealth on top-tier singers, while ignoring the excellent lower tier singers, who often are more viable in the theater than their star colleagues. Another recent article (cannot find it at the moment) reports that 75% of classical musicians in the UK are considering leaving the field altogether.
That 75% of classical musicians should leave the profession is not an emergency. It is a correction! A correction of an ill-conceived model based on the totally different art forms of popular music and cinema.
If Popera is a lasting newly emerged art form, then let it develop! However, it must be distinguished from the art of opera, which is based on aesthetics that are totally different.
The reality is that a great time commitment is required to become a viable opera singer. Not many people can commit the time to it that is necessary! There are enough jobs for the thousands of bona fide opera singers worldwide. However, the hundreds of thousands should be happy, passionate amateurs, who participate in excellent community productions in their cities and populate the audiences of their regional opera houses.
The rapture is here! It is not something to fear. It is a correction of excesses that have emerged in our field over recent decades.
© 1 September 2020