Opera for the 21st century

The assertion that opera in English-speaking countries is a musical event rather than a theatrical experience is clearly demonstrated by the convention of performing opera in a foreign language accompanied by a full symphony orchestra. The inevitable result is a complete loss of comprehension and clarity in the text and often the inability to hear the singers. This flies in the face of the composers’ intentions, as such icons of the medium as Mozart, Verdi and Puccini were renowned “men of the theatre” and not just “musicians.”

If opera is to be truly regarded as theatre and not just as an intellectual exercise, it is essential that the text be accessible to the spectator. In Puccini’s letters and indeed in contemporary reports, the Maestro constantly insisted on the importance of meaning and argued at length with his librettists for an appropriate word or turn of phrase. Italian opera audiences are extremely reluctant to hear opera in anything other than Italian and learn the more popular excerpts as part of their education. Their relationship to an opera libretto could perhaps be compared to that of an Englishman’s response to Shakespeare or a Gilbert and Sullivan text.

Why is it then acceptable to English-speaking audiences to sit through a performance of opera in an unfamiliar foreign language, sung by singers who generally fail to understand the nuances of what they are singing and directed by a director who probably has even less familiarity with the language? And when the overwhelming volume of a full orchestra is added as accompaniment, the possibility to appreciate the subtleties of mood and meaning is remote. A similar situation in a play or musical would be considered intolerable.

Many composers conceived their works as reflections of the society and moral values of the time. The treatment of the plot was frequently designed to provoke and shock and a traditional production of such an opera today seldom has the impact the composer intended.


A word to the wise