Overture from Carmen, by Bizet.
When most of us think of opera we think of rotund, bearded men, gaudily garbed women (or rabbits) with Viking horns, and luxurious theatres filled with the elite. While many of the images we have of the Grand Artform have a strong relationship to the contemporary world of opera, something is…amiss. Fewer people are attending, and the appeal of opera is getting smaller and smaller.
No wonder: the opera has struggled to evolve for at least the last six decades. The major companies wrest with stuffiness and reverence, while their productions skew either too traditional or too abstract and political for the general viewer. New composers are still competing with Mozart and Verdi, and therefore tend to skew avant-garde to stand out; it’s rare to see a “new” opera from the last 60-80 years that has found any footing in the popular canon. We estimate there are as few as six! Meanwhile, many opera companies are being infected with a radical ideology undergirded by a lethal dose of nihilism. As they grow more political, these companies turn away from traditional measures of success/failure, such as audience engagement, ticket sales, and exportability, and dive into the Social Justice metrics of “what are we doing to right the wrongs of our inherently tyrannical society?”, “Are our audience, stories, and artists diverse enough?”, and “Who in a position of authority needs to be destroyed?”
We are professional singers within the Canadian operatic industry and we absolutely adore the opera; and, though we come to it from very different backgrounds – one traditional and one… not so traditional – we both share a passion for it and believe in its future. We also know that in order to keep opera exciting our industry has to make some uncomfortable but necessary changes. Unfortunately, criticism of operatic tradition is sacrilege, and, worse still, criticism of Postmodern (PoMo) ideology is met with hostility (Postmodernism is a movement characterized by skepticism and irony towards grand narratives and rationality). So, we’re in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, where “all roads lead to bigotry,” to quote Gad Saad, and severe professional and social reprisals. We’re grateful for the opportunity to write anonymously for Counterweight. It’s our hope that this article can give readers a candid glimpse of what it’s like to be an opera singer in today’s poisonous political climate, the various hurdles that we and the arts face, and, finally, what we think the solutions are.
Ok, showtime! Toi toi!
Who are we? We wish we could be more transparent, but we don’t want to damage ourselves or the organizations with which we work – we have no HR departments to report to in the event of discrimination. In the arts, you just stop getting calls.
While we realize that relatively few people identify as WokeTM, (according to recent polls and crushing defeats for the Labour Party in the UK and the NDP in Canada), we’ve observed that the ratio of Woke people is much higher in the entertainment industry…
Nessun Dorma from Turandot, by Puccini.
My path in opera was the traditional route: I sang in choirs as a child, and eventually sought out a private voice teacher. I got hooked on classical technique and left my other interests behind to pursue it. I was fortunate enough to attend an elite institution where I was fully immersed in the craft: I was exposed to studying several languages, to piano training, to ear training and music theory, to reading and interpreting musical scores, to stagecraft and vocal technique, as well as to participating in opera productions and choral ensembles.
I wanted to sing with the gorgeous, flexible tone of Pavarotti, the passion and charisma of Callas, the dignity of Domingo, the balls of Bastianini. I’ve always been quick to latch on to monumental challenges when I think there’s some extraordinary opportunity on the other side, and what I saw was an opportunity to be a modern super-hybrid operatic singer, and to bring a new audience to the operatic world I loved.
When I got out of school, I saw the bigger picture: nobody really cares about opera anymore. I’ve come to see that the whole industry is pouring time and money into works and artistic intricacies that mean virtually nothing to the consumers we so desperately desire. At best, we’re seeking innovation, though with a couple of arms tied behind our backs because of reverence for tradition. At worst, we’re seeking refuge in a destructive ideology… This isn’t something I can just stand back and allow to happen.
Son lo Spirito from Mefistofele, by Boito.
Waving around a toy sword at five, I knew two things: I wanted to conquer the world by the edge of my blade or be an actor. I became acutely aware of how unfashionable the former is, so I chose option B. To this day, I pity my parents and most of my teachers (and secretly my friends) because I was an irascible youth whose respect for authority could be described as “scarce.” Despite defiant tendencies, I did well in school and then trained as an actor.
Being an actor forced me to learn about myself and to inhabit the minds of other people, which improved my Theory of Mind considerably – this means I have access to insights into how others think. I’ve added other credits to my portfolio, from writer to producer, and so I have a fairly comprehensive view of creating art in Canada.
My interest in opera ambushed me at 19, and I was utterly felled. Through a series of generous people and auspicious circumstances, I became a trained singer by my late 20s and was singing professionally in my early 30s – with a steep learning curve.
When I started watching, and then participating in, opera, I began to see why attendance was down and people were unresponsive – or outright hostile. It was the same problem I saw in the other live arts…a problem I intend to remedy.
Dio, Che Nell’alma Infondere Amor, from Don Carlo, by Verdi.
We found each other on a production of a Verdi masterpiece (anonymity demands some reticence). We’re both addicted to thought experiments so we couldn’t help but discuss the quandaries we see in contemporary art, and opera especially. The prognosis is dire: opera has not evolved sufficiently to create a sustainable demand in Canada, and we think we’ve been able to boil down the decay to these essential points:
1. Much of opera is stilted by slavish devotion to tradition and precedence.
2. That which is NOT enslaved to tradition is enslaved to deconstruction (PoMo/Wokism), which is the approach that entirely dismisses human nature and believes that everything can be reduced to its constituent parts – essentially, that things are never more than the sum of their parts.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
3. Too much supply and not enough demand in the workforce.
4. Funding subsidies that select for immutable characteristics rather than artistic vision.
And before we proceed, we want to make it clear that no one person or organization is responsible for any of this. This is a diagnosis and prescription, NOT a condemnation. Our respect and gratitude goes to everyone who’s ventured to assume the mantle of impresario (producer of opera) and carry the banner. It’s difficult and almost entirely thankless. This exploration is to help us let go of needless baggage.
Don Giovanni A Cenar Teco, from Don Giovanni, by Mozart.
Opera has an enormous legacy. Its demands on the artist are no less lofty: the multivariant levels of skill required are stunning. Faced with this, one can’t help but develop a sense of reverence. And if one happens to miss that salient point, it will be installed by one’s teachers. Singers are taught that composers are infallible. This is helpful for respecting the material, but it’s a pair of cement shoes for innovation.
Reverence says that if you change the work in any way, you kill the genius. There are good arguments for this, the strongest of which being: if a master’s creation is like a building, and every structural piece depends on every other piece, you don’t take out support beams because you think it’ll look ‘neat!’… Until you do, and make something breathtaking and new. This is the Master’s Conundrum (a term we invented just now) which states that: “in order to create a masterpiece, it’s necessary that tradition is defied.” The details are a fascinating topic for another article, but our view, simplified, is this: learn the fundamentals obsessively and quickly, then ‘forget’ them and play.
What are some of the operatic traditions that get in the way then?
The language barrier: while most operas have English translations, most companies still prefer supertitles. Today, the audience’s eyes flit back and forth between the translation and the stage – because we go to the theatre to read, of course. And, as if this isn’t challenging enough, producers are forced to put the plot in the program. Imagine going to a movie and getting all the spoilers in the pre-roll.
Run times: many pieces are over three hours, and are much better served by being cut to two hours or (preferably) less. But even something as innocuous as trimming the musings of the dead falls under the stern purview of a ‘gatekeeper’, whose prescribed cuts are not to be exceeded.
And nothing keeps more gates than something called Performance Practice: a set of historically derived interpretations from bygone days that aren’t in the score (the “script”) but are imposed by the larger culture and institutions. This ranges from ways of performing the music, to tempo changes, to character choices, and to the Fach system, which categorizes singers and roles according to the qualities of their voices (range, volume, colour) such that only certain singers can sing certain roles, regardless of physical or temperamental appropriateness. While some of Fach is practical (related to the relative sizes of orchestras and voices), much of it is pigeon-holing (in our opinion), which results in creative atrophy and artist anxiety.
Dated plots: many of the plots are so rooted in courtly tradition that it can be difficult for contemporary audiences to appreciate them.
So, slavish devotion to tradition, to teachers, and to performance practice alike eliminate risk-taking and exploration, which are the most crucial components of exciting creation.
Alright then, so let’s make some new operas in English with humane run times and contemporary plots!
Alas, in the last 80 years only a handful of operas have made it into the popular canon, and not a single one has broken into the top 10. In other words, we’re creating new stuff, but it remains slightly less relevant than the average work in the historical repertoire.
New composers feel the burden of operatic innovation, but are seemingly very confused about what to do with it. With such a huge legacy, and the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini effectively being their competition, contemporary composers are trained to pursue the cutting edge of musical and dramatic invention, but they’re not reaching the hearts of regular human beings in opera. Why? Why are these brilliant people not finding their way into people’s hearts outside of popular culture?
We believe it’s because they’re on the edge of an enormous black hole called Postmodernist Deconstructivism.
Ariel from The Tempest, by Thomas Adès.
While slavish adherence to tradition harms the opera specifically, there’s another major blight that’s infecting all the arts: Critical Social Justice (CSJ) theory, or Wokism. CSJ is the active strand of Postmodernism whose tenets are that reality is unknowable, that human nature and objective standards do not exist, that understanding and peace between different (identity) groups are impossible, and that language alone constructs reality.The side effects of this philosophy are the beliefs that: everything can be broken down into disparate parts, and animosity is to be found everywhere. Full disclosure: we are very much against this worldview and will be ruthless when dealing with it – though we have compassion for most of those who are trapped in it. Our criticisms of the ideology must not be confused with attacks on all of its adherents. Many of these are our friends, after all!
CSJ and its framing of the world as a binary hierarchy between victim and oppressor has vehement adherents emerging all across Canada’s arts scene. More and more, the dominant view in the operatic circuit is about demanding the “righting of historical wrongs” rather than (what we like to call) “things for humans.” This attitude is infecting new companies and established entities alike. Organizations are releasing reams of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion statements which declare that the problem is that opera is too “white, elitist, and Eurocentric,” and that the “violence” that opera has perpetrated on visible minorities must be addressed.
The…violence that opera has perpetrated…on the people…who don’t see it…
The standard terms are paraded about – BIPOC, IBPOC, and LGBTQ2S++, while artists draw attention to minorities and the lack of “representation” in large scale productions across the country. In a previous draft we included the relevant websites, but we thought it more prudent to abstain for two reasons: 1) we don’t want to promote Wokism and 2) we don’t want to indict our friends and peers (more on this below). A cursory web search will yield all the Woke mission statements you could ever want.
While we’ll leave the full philosophical litigation of CSJ to the experts (Counterweight’s own Helen Pluckrose prime among them) there are specific problems with regards to opera that we’d like to examine.
CLAIM: The under-representation of minorities in opera indicates underlying bigotry.
Una Vela! Esultate! from Otello, by Verdi.
In a tiny number of houses in a pocket of Europe there have been some credible allegations of discrimination in the name of historical accuracy. Not in Canada though. Here the arts industries are scrambling to hire more “diverse” performers. Let’s do some number crunching though.
The opera is at once shrinking and expanding: there are fewer productions, and fewer performances per production per company, than there were 40 years ago and there are orders of magnitude more trained performers. Add to this Canada’s demography: according to StatsCan, black individuals make up less than 5% of Canada’s population; ditto for Hispanic/Latino, Asian, etc. Canada is approximately 75% white. We take no pleasure in these calculations, but we have to be thorough and look at the data.
Even when ignoring cultural resistance to arts involvement that comes along with some ethnic groups, what we’re really looking at is a numbers game. In our experience, maybe 3 out of 10 self-proclaimed artists are truly professional-grade hire-worthy (and this is an optimistic figure); while it’s a very painful reality for all us struggling out there, it is the reality (and this says nothing about the amount of available contracts, which is significantly less than the available talent).
If 75% of your candidates come from Column A and 5% come from Column B and 5% from Column C… it’s not difficult to see the outcome. The number of minorities getting involved is increasing though, as second and third generation families become acclimatized to “Western” mores; we’ve seen these changes already, and we predict that, even with a hands-off approach, we’re going to see even bigger changes in available demographics in five years or so (though there may be even fewer jobs if the trends don’t turn around).
So, if it’s true that certain groups are underrepresented, is bigotry really the most logical characterization? No.
Largo al Factotem from The Barber of Seville, by Rossini.
Another challenge is that musical artists from classical schools are not trained to think creatively – an acute problem in classical music, but a growing problem in all the humanities (see Cynical Theories). They’re trained to obey. While we know plenty of restive singers who bristle beneath the bloat of the academy, they know that there are twenty singers on their heels. This is yet another blow to innovation: in the Anglo-Canadian arts industries everyone is considered replaceable. Agents and bureaucrats are at the top of the heap here, which isn’t to say they aren’t nice people, but performers are largely regarded as expendable. Such is the danger of not having an entrenched star system with a concomitant culture of deep arts appreciation. The operatic circuit is a little more star oriented here, though very few local singers, if any, are household names.
Additionally, all the innovation that is going on is speeding off in the wrong direction with plots that are more Woke, music that’s designed to disrupt and discommode, pieces being translated into languages that are barely represented in the general population, and subverting exciting plots into cynical commentary on the evils of colonialism, men, and white people.
And we’re not even saying there shouldn’t be an opera in a native language spoken by a minute fraction of the world’s population, but far-left attitudes towards non-Western cultures anoint them as sacrosanct, and you’re just as likely to be accused of fetishizing or appropriating for attending their operatic productions as of being a bigot for not. For a glimpse of how some prominent IBPOC theatre artists think, here’s Yolanda Bonnell in Vice Magazine: “…to decolonize art and foster culturally informed criticism, I [request] that only Indigenous, Black, people of color review the show,” and, “…we are totally fine with a person of color giving us a bad review,” and “white folks do not understand what it is like to walk through the world as a person of color…constantly inundated with whiteness…,” and, “the more work we do in decolonizing and dismantling these structures, the more power we will find.”
Wooooow! Strap on those sneakers, and let’s check this show out!
Or would you rather check out of this show?
Der Hölle Rache, from The Magic Flute by Mozart.
From the tremulous and patronizing land acknowledgements where casts are coerced to apologize for “stealing land,” to the tedious cataloguing of pronouns, to the endless droning statements of inclusion, we could decry until your eyes bled, but behind the whingeing of the dilettantes and the dispossessed is a deeper, more pervasive, but less visible problem: the rejection of human nature, and the attendant oxymoronic misanthropy.
While Critical Social Justice theory preaches paranoia and enumerates the differences between groups of people (because the individual does not exist to them), what they miss (and despise) is that there are things that are universal to humans. Love. Honour. Duty. Freedom. Justice. Hope. Family. Faith. Loyalty. If you’re left-leaning like we are, you can probably feel something uncomfortable stirring within: “these capital letter notions are the province of mystical thinking and only lead to division!”
We, too, grapple with the Postmodern meaning vacuum: we’ve been able to obviate the No-Nos attached to “mythical” thinking by exploring meaning through our work, but for many of us, there’s no meaning left on the table, and no way to find it. We believe it’s time to accept that most human beings crave meaning which is attached to something larger than themselves. The statistics on loneliness are astonishing. We saw one poll that suggested up to 22% of Americans 18 and older have no friends (YouGovAmerica). This “people are an island…but are groups…but…” has to end.
We have two examples to illustrate, in microcosm, the outcomes of using opera against humans, rather than for them. Both are from the Canadian Opera Company (COC). We don’t mean to pick on them because we’re very fond of them, but they’re a big boy, and they can take it. Both of these examples illustrate the dehumanizing (and de-personing) inclinations of CSJ.
Act I Finale from Turandot, by Puccini.
The Old: the COC’s 2019 production of Puccini’s incredible Turandot. This is an opera distilled from a Mongolian legend about the daughter of Kaidu, a second cousin of Kublai Khan, who refused to wed until a man beat her in combat; as the legend tells it, no one ever did, and she rode alongside her father to battle instead. The story passed to Persia and then underwent some Sinification where Turandot was changed into an imperious Chinese princess with an icy disposition who gives out that she will only marry the man who can answer three riddles, and if he fails…death!
Puccini opens this story with a father and son being reunited in Peking after their kingdom is overthrown, and all this while attending the beheading of a failed suitor! A beheading! In the first ten minutes! The music of this opera is worthy of an epic: dense, sweeping strings carve out a river of melody and theme, while the brass rages above in a storm of ineluctable fate! From moments of crushing tenderness and beauty to passages of defiant heroism, the score is life changing.
The COC hired director Robert Wilson for the project, who is renowned for his avant-garde (read: deconstructivist) approach. To his credit, the mise-en-scene and costuming looked beautiful. Opera Canada sums up his influence succinctly: “on the whole, Wilson’s genius lay in his driving a clean wedge between his aesthetic innovations and the musical prowess of the original score.”
Of the show the official program says: “…Robert Wilson’s signature style embraces…precise, repeated gestures executed in hypnotic slow-motion…” And this is exactly what he did: the performers were meticulously directed to perform unrelated, repetitive motions with the goal being to divorce the audience from the visual, so they could hear the music.
Deconstruction at its height. As if separating stimuli makes for a better or more comprehensive experience. While we understand that certain humans prefer to have their stimuli separated for analysis (and there is real use for people who can do this), for most of us, experiences are multi–sensory phenomena, and the more senses, the better. Again, we mean no disrespect to Mr. Wilson whose illustrious career commands reverence: we’re sure he’s a capital fellow, but we disagree with his view of the species. As Hamlet says, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” And he’s right.
While the critics largely praised this show for its technical undertakings, there hasn’t been much talk of a moving visceral experience amongst the viewership. But Puccini is a master, and so perhaps it was the score that rescued the show from complete failure. But what about a show without a Puccini?
Plotina’s Aria from Hadrian, by MacIvor and Wainwright.
The New: The COC’s 2018 production of an original opera called Hadrian. (It’s difficult to track down extended footage of this, but we’ve included a sample of a tamer moment.) The COC commissioned the opera and engaged the writing talents of legendary Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, and the musical musings of Rufus Wainwright, with the world renowned baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role.
The story is a dreamscape exploration of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s love of a young man amidst a court displeased with his predilections. Again, while we applaud the use of English for the book, and commend the talents of the artists involved – all powerhouses of creativity, from voice, to performance, to musicianship, to design, to wardrobe etc. – the show was a deconstructed nightmare of incoherence and confusion. The score and the singers seemed to fight with each other to the point that world class singers were barely audible. There was no discernible melody. The story was fractured by intermittent flashbacks wherein one was never certain whether one was in the now or the then.
Thomas Hampson was absolutely wasted on stream of consciousness dialogue set to orchestral barking. It was impossible to connect with the characters because the score and orchestration (expertly arranged though they were) seemed to want to punish the audience rather than invite it. The parts people did proclaim to enjoy were notable only because there was an identifiable key in the music, and the chaos subsided long enough to hear a voice that wasn’t screaming. It’s akin to finding a shock from a carpet relaxing after being strapped in the chair all day.
Here again, we see deconstruction at its most absolute. In our estimation, this production is what an SNL (pre-woke) sketch about a new opera would look like. The real heartbreak here isn’t just the millions of squandered dollars, or the disappointed and alienated audience, or the inevitable demoralization for the creatives, but that there was a really good story in it. Ostensibly an “LGBT+” story, there’s actually a tale of forbidden love at the core that could easily make it in the mainstream. Imagine: a powerful Emperor who controls the world, but can’t control his desires, and must decide between his duty and his heart, all while being surrounded by a hawkish general, a disappointed mother, and a confused wife who all endeavour to separate him from his beau for the good of the nation. If you put a story like this to even the most humble of memorable melodies, you have an international hit.
But why? Why was it that Daniel MacIvor and Rufus Wainwright missed it? Why did it happen like this? Why do some of our best and brightest keep veering farther in the wrong direction when 80% of North Americans are tired of what has essentially erupted as Critical Social Justice theory, opera-style? Well…
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Au Fond du Temple Saint from Les Pêcheurs de Perles, by Bizet
Ticket sales in the fine arts (ballet and opera) have declined considerably: by about 40% over the last four decades. Over the same period, Canadian universities have added and expanded programs for operatic training. Every year, we estimate that approximately 200 students enroll as classical singers in Canadian Universities. Just to give you an idea of what kinds of opportunities there are, we estimate that there are about eight full time Canadian opera singers making a reasonable living, spread over twenty roles annually. Eight singers take the top twenty positions!
This divide between training and employment is a troublesome trend for Western countries, even outside of opera, as 35-50% of post grads are in non-graduate jobs. But we suspect this figure is even higher for professional artists. To give you a taste of the fabled and much feted Bohemian lifestyle: in film/TV, as a principal performer (not background/supernumerary), if you make $35,000 or above a year you’re in the top 5% of earners in ACTRA (film and television union, where at least 21% of respondents make zero dollars), and we estimate that if you make over $10,000 per year as an opera singer, you’re likely in the top 1% of the Canadian industry.
Hebrew Chorus from Nabucco, by Verdi.
And what do these poor artists turn to with their mountains of debt? Critical Social Justice theory. There are many reasons why this authoritarian viewpoint appeals to those who embrace it – a litany we’ll leave to the pros in the psychological literature – but what we see on the inside is this: “eat the rich,” crush the debt, quash the regular Joe job, live in ease and splendor as a world-renowned creative. A delusion so absolute it can’t help but elicit pity.
We’re critical of Wokism because it will, without a doubt, put our industry into a permanent sleep, but we’re also very compassionate about the difficulties faced by our peers. These artists are educated in heavily structured and immersive microcosms focused on Rousseauian ideals of self-expression without any sensitivity to real world practice, only to be thrust into a career marathon that is financially damning in a world that’s devoid of opportunity and is getting fed up with self-indulgent moralizers. Add to all this various curricula infected with an intellectual tradition that rejects objective reality and human nature, and which suggests that life is a zero-sum game between groups, and it’s no wonder so many artists and youth are at once gripped by egregious entitlement and existential dread.
We have solutions. The first we address to the artists, our friends:
A) We must understand that we aren’t owed anything.
We’ll speak from experience: once we accepted this, helpful things started to happen: i) we stopped being angry because we realized we had no actual enemies (outside of ourselves), and ii) because we were able to stop thinking about what we were owed, we were able to let go of ineffective strategies, like making war with everything. Now that we’ve stopped punishing everyone, this has made our work not only more palatable and more interesting, but more fun.
B) Ask yourself: why do opera?
What is it about opera that separates it from other disciplines? What is it that people like? If your answer resembles “changing the world through activism,” or “because it’s better,” you’re in the wrong game.
The second solution we address to society at large: we must begin creating new incentives for realistic employment while finding a fair and efficient way to limit student debt. No longer can we tell children “if you work hard enough, and if you put your mind to it, you can be anything!” without adding “but statistically, that’s pretty improbable.” While debt may seem like a “shouldn’t have wasted money on gender studies” problem, we assert that the debtors are forming a formidable voting bloc, that they feel aggrieved, that they want to tear everything down, and that they may very well one day vote away freedom for security. This is a problem that affects us all.
How does one balance negating the Dunning-Kruger effect (we’re not as cool as we think we are) that’s so rampant in the West with the necessity of giving people hope and a reason to apply themselves? Putting more emphasis on everyday vocations (as we have during the COVID-19 pandemic) could be an answer, but this is the question we need to start addressing now for the generations of tomorrow.
Speaking of debt: where do these companies get their money?
Overture to La Gazza Ladra, by Rossini.
Revenues are dwindling in the operatic world (The Toronto Star recently declared that the COC has managed to stay in the black…because of parking fees and bar concessions…). We can imagine the questions: if opera’s so expensive, and new works are no more popular than the average canon work, how is opera managing to exist at all? And how can we claim that works based in CSJ are not popular when they seem to exist all over the media?
Opera is subsidized mainly by the government and donations from wealthy patrons. The Canadian Association for the Performing Arts says that, on average, 60% of funding for small to mid-sized companies and productions comes from the government. The big companies average about 30% – though, to be fair to the COC, 14% of their budget is from grants. Only 24% is derived from the box office. But let’s be explicit in saying that the arts have always been subsidized by wealthy patrons or guilds; only since mass literacy and disposable capital have artists been able to become the mega wealthy. We don’t contest the subsidizing of art – it’s necessary so that the spectator doesn’t have to pay the full price of a ticket.
What does the government want in return for its resources? Here’s part of the mission statement from the Canada Council of the Arts: “We see our approach to supporting equity in the arts as an issue of inclusion…of building the sustainability of the arts in Canada…it must be intrinsically tied to advancing diversity within the professional arts sector…” Sound familiar, and largely meaningless? This comes from the keynote address from the Council’s 2016 opening gala – you’ll find the speech drenched in all the expected word soup. And here’s one of the main questions from the grant application itself: “If your proposed activity touches upon Indigenous traditional knowledge, linguistic or cultural intellectual property, please describe your relationship to this content and how appropriate protocols are/will be observed or addressed.” (Italics ours.) We’re compelled to ask: would we be as comfortable if the government asked us if we’re properly observing or addressing the appropriate protocols when dealing with Mozart?
The Ontario Arts Council has specific grants for indigenous and culturally diverse projects, and yet their priority groups for all grants are as follows: “Artists of Colour, Deaf Artists and Artists with Disabilities, Indigenous Artists, Francophone Artists, New Generation Artists (30 and under), and Artists living in Regions outside Toronto” (italics ours). The Ottawa Arts Council just announced an Emerging Artist Award that can only be claimed by IBPOC when over 75% of Canada’s capital is white identifying. The granting bodies have even gone so far as to recommend that one of the authors indicates a bisexual status on an application because it will “improve your chances.” We don’t hold the granting officer accountable for this – the officer is just trying to help.
Many of these “priority groups” have to do with identity. We love how generous our government is; however, is awarding money to projects based on the race or ability status of the recipient really the most effective way of encouraging innovation or audience interest? One must always ask: what incentives are we creating? We think it’s pretty obvious what the incentives are, which is why we’re seeing artists and organizations clamber over each other to be the most woke. Even the famous Stratford Shakespearean Festival has issued a harrowing and self-loathing mea culpa on supporting “systemic racism” while headings like “truth and reconciliation” ominously adorn nearly every AGM report in the country.
Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre, by Wagner.
1. We as Canadians have to encourage the government to dispense with priority groups and replace them instead with markers for success like audience engagement, artistic milestones, cross-market appeal, and damn good stories and music. Yes, keep the experimental threads, and yes, be forgiving of the occasional commercial failure, but do not reward immutable characteristics. Reward character. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on arts funding annually (over 270 million is the benchmark for the coming year owing to how punishing Covid has been), and these are your taxes: we think it’s only fair that they be disbursed in such a fashion that no one is precluded from, or shamed for, enjoying their fruits. When it comes to supporting the arts: let your wallet do the talking. Don’t waste your money on the art of identity.
This will, by default, select for artists who are interested in creating stories made for human enjoyment. And, we predict, it will ultimately serve the “priority groups” better because work that targets a larger audience will bring their visions to more people.
2. Be vocal with arts organizations. If you feel like you’re being condescended to or insulted, let the organization know and, conversely, let them know what you liked! Audience support is their heavenly manna and these organizations will listen or they will die. You can send a politely worded email or you can even be proactive and tell them what you would go to see. It’s unfortunate that the Woke crowd is also the one that fills out the most surveys and engages publicly the most frequently (in our experience) so that companies get an inaccurate sense of what people like. In fact, generally get in the habit of doing surveys and offering feedback on as many things as you can – and recruit your friends to do the same. Not just for the arts, but for anything.
3. Do a quick website dive to see a company’s mission statement. If you see the familiar mantras, don’t attend. This one hurts because in a way we’re taking the audience away from our peers who are struggling to get something off the ground, but sometimes some ideas serve everyone best by being left underfoot.
4. Support independent productions. While these will seldom operate at the scale of the big houses, here is where you’ll see artists untethered from the slow, cumbersome machinery of boards, big budgets, and bloat. They’re nimble, fresh with passion, and they’re always where the next big thing happens first. Success here brings them to the big houses. These performances also tend to be more intimate, and the creators are much easier to interact with directly. While you’ll certainly encounter broad fluctuations in quality, you can also have more direct input, and can participate via your feedback in the development of tomorrow’s successes.
And, if you’re sitting in a show and thinking about your To Do list…
5. Never be afraid to leave at intermission. Our friends would club us for this, but it’s true. We urge respect for performers but, if it’s just too much to bear, leave. The organization will notice, it will come up at their AGMs, and it will make them reshuffle their programming.
6. Interested in acting now? A few colleagues will be putting together a website that lists independent opera productions around Canada’s major cities. Even if you’re not Canadian, keep an eye out because many of these will be streaming. The site is still in development, but if you want to receive a notification e-mail when it’s up and running, head to www.indieoperahub.com and sign up!
At the end of this winding journey you might be wondering: is there something worth saving? Yes. Opera changes you, and if you’ve been following along with our playlist, you’ll have heard what we’re talking about.
As was said by the great Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who revolutionized another Italian artform (cuisine!),: “we cannot look sentimentally to the past; we have to look critically, bringing the best of the past forward.” So, that’s what we suggest: we bring the best of the past forward, and leave the rest behind.
Or…we continue with our current plot as we approach the final act and the cis, body-positive, able, female-identifying Soprano is about to sing…
Then, it’s curtains.
Calaf is a singer, pianist, composer, dancer, writer, and overall bleeding heart. He should probably learn some martial arts or something… & Mephistopheles is a singer, impresario, writer, and actor with too much free time on hand. “Idle hands…” as they say…
- The “break a leg” of the Opera. ↑
- In both the public at large and especially in parents resisting it in schools. ↑
- A translation projected above the stage. Invented by the Canadian Opera Company in the 1990s. ↑
- There are a few companies in Toronto who insist that pieces are performed in English, many of which are run by a veteran impresario, Guillermo Silva-Marin. These are: Toronto Operetta Theatre, Summer Operatic Lyric Theatre, and Opera In Concert. He’s been an asset to the community for decades and has provided wonderful opportunities for developing talent. ↑
- For the record, we strongly disapprove of this word, and question its usefulness. There are no monoliths. ↑
- Derived from polls on weariness towards political correctness. ↑
- 2019 ACTRA Census Report. ↑