Zachary Woolfe has yet another article in the Times about the state of opera. My jaw dropped open around the second or third paragraph, no, wait, when I read the headline. Doesn't somebody bother to read this stuff before it goes into print? And then think, for even thirty seconds, about what they're reading?
Let's start with the headline, which I admit, Woolfe didn't write: "How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera."
My first thought was, duh, movies are attended by millions more people than get to live opera, because, duh, the biggest indoor opera house in the world, the one not far from Times headquarters, holds about four thousand people and can only put on one performance at a time, Ariadne auf Naxos notwithstanding. Movies have been cutting into live performances since the turn of the last century, just as recordings have reduced the need for live musicians in dance clubs, night clubs, all sorts of clubs. This is not a revelation. It's stating the obvious.
Then there's the first film that Woolfe discusses, Kevin Lonergan's Margaret. You may have read about this picture....which had a theatrical release of fifteen minutes before various ugly disputes got it pulled. It's now available on DVD and is supposed to be a masterpiece. I'd like to see it, but its portrayal of opera isn't killing, or even wounding, the form, because nobody has seen it.
He then mentions, almost in passing, that some of the issues he sees in American opera predate the recession by decades, such as the stagnant repertory and stubborn insistence on traditional staging. Again, duh: all you have to do is glance at the on-line archives of San Francisco Opera or the Metropolitan Opera to see that new and unusual works are rarely given more than one run and popular old works cannot be dislodged, ever. (It's a big surprise that, for once, the Met isn't staging La Boheme in its upcoming season. Or was that the season just past?) Opera is expensive; bills have to get paid; yes, you'll see a lot of Traviatas and Bohemes scheduled.
Next, and this is less of a duh: he completely mischaracterizes the role of La Boheme in Moonstruck. Let me make one of my own personal prejudices clear: I consider Moonstruck to be one of the greatest film comedies of the last fifty years. It's beautifully acted and put together like The Marriage of Figaro: the complicated clockwork of the plot works itself out, in the end, with all of the strands tied up nicely. Danny Aiello's double or maybe it's a triple-take in the scene at the end: priceless.
Anyway, no, La Boheme is not an excuse for nostalgia and a nice night out in Moonstruck. Ronnie Cammareri - that's Nicholas Cage - has a deep emotional connection to, and affection for, the opera. That's why he makes Cher listens to it, and why it's a big, big deal for him to take her to the opera. He's serious about the opera.
Next up: films have taught Americans a particular idea of opera. Let's start with this: Pretty Woman is from 1990, Moonstruck from 1987. Are they current, and currently interesting, to younger people? How much did they really influence people who were adults when they saw the movies?
Honestly, our ideas about opera are formed by opera houses themselves and how they present the form, and by rags like the Times, which write about opera every day. And did you notice that in the US, the big opera houses were founded by either the Italian community (San Francisco) or high society snobs (the Met)? And that people of all classes have always gone to the opera?
I'm totally with Woolfe on the timidity of opera production in the U.S. I am not sure how to get around that: it's not as though public TV or profit-making TV is making the work of Herheim and Bieto available on a regular basis. The federal and state governments are not going to suddenly put a billion every year into opera subsidies, freeing our companies from market demands.
But I think Woolfe might consider taking a look at companies that are doing better than the Met (San Francisco Opera will show three 21st c. operas during this coming season, all SFO commissions or co-commissions). And I definitely wish he'd work less hard setting up straw men to knock down.