The New Urban Opera House
Opera is a child of the city. It was born in 1600 in Florence, the cradle of civic humanism, in the homes of a wealthy group of intellectuals who were investigating Greek drama. With its agglomeration of poetry, drama, music, costume, sets and stagecraft, opera became a popular entertainment that spread to other urban centers with a supply of musicians and artisans large enough to create and articulate the spectacle. It was accommodated privately in the houses of the aristocracy and the nobility, who were eager to sponsor such novelties to express their social position and advance their political ambitions.
By 1637 the interest in opera had become so great that the first commercially viable public opera house opened in Venice, sponsored by the Tron family. At the Teatro di San Cassiano the nightly paying audience sat on wooden benches downstairs, while wealthier patrons occupied bijou apartments with entertainment spaces for socializing and withdrawing. These were available for sale or to rent upstairs for the whole opera season, each with a balcony window overlooking the action.
This first small gesture of wresting opera away from entirely private subsidy and making it available to the general public is an important milestone that introduces traceable market forces into the art. So great was the public’s attraction to these social/theatrical events that by the end of the 17th century nine commercial theaters were operating in Venice, many devoted to opera. The need to attract an audience drove productions to favor deliberately popular plots with overtly erotic appeal, as opposed to the patron-flattering material of Florence, and to incorporate elaborately sensational elements, often involving innovative and even dangerous stage machinery.
Opera’s commercial architecture and its social success became inseparable. It was a magnificent entertainment where the aspiring classes mingled and conducted their business, and it was for their accommodation that the theaters were structured. The five or six strata of boxes laid out the social hierarchy like a checker board for every patron to see, and each opera house provided the opportunity to jockey for social position, with rank radiating out from the second tier of boxes and from the center.
Just as in 17th century Venice, today’s market and social forces drive how opera houses are designed and what is staged there, but instead of a thriving scene of contemporary entertainment by living composers, it is a predominantly historicist and non-local cultural expression with most pieces taken from a mainly European corpus of standard repertoire spanning four centuries, usually in a foreign language, that appeals to a mainly aging and elite audience.
The singable melodies and deliberately popular opera plots that made Handel a household name in 18th century London are more likely to be found in today’s musicals, which for the newcomer are often an easier entry point into sung drama. There, craftily memorable tunes are taught to the audience by repetition, and startling stage sets (The Phantom of the Opera) and flashy spectacle (The Lion King), which the opera monde deems slightly vulgar, thrill the entertainment-hungry audiences.
The interests of those paying the bills in opera today favor historical reenactment and preservation, perhaps inevitably because of the curatorial burden of so much accumulated repertoire. These interests have not kept pace with, indeed have proudly ignored, trends in contemporary entertainment. Nostalgia has an inertia that sells mainly to the older ticket buyer, and the weight of history has turned what was once a popular entertainment into a historicist library for the aging American wealthy.
Happily, small, new, and renewed opera initiatives in English, often in unusual places, are shedding the association with fusty venues and are introducing new audiences to the art. In Europe new custom music for performance in lighthouses and agricultural buildings is not unusual. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama recently performed Bizet’s Carmen in a cattle market in northern Scotland. Such directorial vision is again, like the entrepreneurs of 17th Century Venice, reclaiming urban space for the future of opera.
In the US it’s more likely to be the presentation of standard repertoire in unexpected venues; in 2008 The Dido Project staged Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the Samsung showroom in Columbus Circle in New York to a standing-room only (young!) crowd. Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has staged opera in a cemetery (Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice) and a rug showroom (Bizet’s Djamileh.)
Having had a successful concert performance at the Carolina Chamber Music Festival in September 2012, the comedy-thriller by this author, The Ghost Train is looking for a first staged performance. It is based on Arnold Ridley’s 1923 play and 1941 movie of the same name, and is to be performed in abandoned or underused railway stations or industrial spaces. The audience and the characters experience the drama together since the venue is the stage, and considerable resources are saved by not having to build a set.
The 16th Street Station in West Oakland is a likely venue, if a solution can be found to secure the building for temporary occupancy. It was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and has languished unused, apart from serving as an occasional film set, ever since. A performance or two of The Ghost Train would draw welcome attention to the site, and would help bring awareness to a too-long forgotten wedge of industrial Oakland.
Austerity is a good thing for opera, because it is the other parent of invention. Happily, there is a small core of young activists, most of them impoverished, looking to opera’s urban roots and contemporary sensibility to reactivate it, to wrest it once again from private interests and to put it back into the public realm by appealing to its modern possibilities.
If opera serves scant higher purpose than to reinforce the social pecking order it needs to rethink its politico-musical mission or few will mourn its irrelevant death. Intertwining it with urban revitalization projects is a good place to start.
Stasis in the big-box opera world is not inevitable. In 2011, Opera North UK decided to adopt a single price admission policy for its new venue, the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds (a renovated space that once saw life as a porn cinema). They hope that this equitable policy, alongside a general mix of folk groups, chamber music, and other fare will encourage everyone to attend. Perhaps there is change afoot in the old guard too.