On February 22, the National Post carried an article under the title of La Demenza Dell Opera by the conservative business writer Terence Corcoran pronouncing opera moribund as an art form. Specifically, in two separate productions that closed last weekend – Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – he wrote, the Canadian Opera Company seemed determined to demonstrate that these operas were indeed moribund, and “that the only way to keep them alive was to inject them with absurd theatrics, full-frontal nudity, gender-bending scenes, imputed homosexuality and the usual post-modern reworkings that often mock the originals.”
Terence Corcoran admitted that he knew, of course, he was taking a risk when he made these charges. It may be assumed that there will be many angry replies suggesting, among other things, that a reactionary in business was likely to be a reactionary in every field.
This reply, however, will refrain from any ad hominem arguments. Nor will it say that there is no disputing about tastes – this sounds better in Latin – since what is better to argue about than tastes? No doubt many old-fashioned people thought it was in bad taste to stage Julius Caesar in modern dress, as it was done very effectively in London in 1939, at a time when everybody was waiting for two modern dictators to be stabbed. And one can easily imagine purists frowning heavily at the transposition of Rigoletto from 16th century Mantua to 20th century Las Vegas, as the Met is doing this season to create a Mafia-induced sleazy atmosphere in which it is entirely plausible that the hit-man Sparafucile throws Gilda in the trunk of a car instead of a sack in the last act.
Opera companies go to great lengths to invent imaginative new interpretations of old works to make them meaningful to contemporary, especially to young, audiences, and should be given credit for it. Every generation deserves its own Hamlet. It is only natural that young people are more drawn to opera’s younger brother – musicals – than to the classical repertoire. This is true not only in North America. The enormous commercial success of musicals everywhere is irrefutable evidence that musical theatre as an art form remains universally viable.
Actually, at least one popular musical has graduated to the opera house. Fiddler on the Roof did so in Germany. It is called Anevka, the name of the shtetl where the action takes place.
It is performed next door to Tristan und Isolde and La Clemenza di Tito.