Opera for change

In a move to fight against AIDS, Mozart’s The Magic Flute will travel across Africa — from Nairobi to Cape Town.Charukesi Ramadurai

March 30, 2013 05:35 pm | Updated 05:35 pm IST

Let nobody tell you that opera is boring. Not if it is served in delectable, bite-sized pieces. Consider the worldwide success of Les Misérables , if you don’t believe me. Prior to the film adaptation, it has been the longest running musical in London’s West End. Perhaps, it is more fitting to call it an opera — or as some critics say, pop opera — since it contains little spoken dialogue. And I am all for the “pop-isation” of opera, if it means that it makes opera accessible and enjoyable to me.

At a night at the opera in Vienna a couple of years ago, I am pleasantly surprised by how different everything is from what I expect. Truth is, I have no idea what to expect, coming from a faraway culture called India. Planning my opera evening, I turn to the Internet for advice — and there is a lot of it out there; how to dress, how to behave and even how to enjoy opera. All of it is well intentioned and most of it is confusing and contradictory.

Tickets to Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House cost the moon, and even if I could afford them, they are sold out months in advance. And then I find out, entirely by chance, about the “standing tickets”. It works this way: you choose the performance you want to watch and queue up two hours in advance at the rear entrance to the hall. So I promptly find myself in the queue, surrounded by Europeans in formal suits, Japanese tourists in faded jeans, yellow anoraks and guidebooks and even Americans in shorts and T-shirts. So much for strict dress codes. The counter opens about half an hour before the show and I manage to snag a couple of tickets for 2 euros each.

Waiting at the main foyer for the doors to open, I covertly eye what people who have walked in through the main entrance are wearing. It is reassuring to know that Vienna still takes its opera seriously enough to dress up. It is a fashion show out there; these elegant black silks and smooth, gleaming pearls are more in line with what I had imagined.

Inside, the standing tickets are right at the back; just walk in and mark your place. It is a bit like watching Shakespeare at the Globe, just without being interactive. The performers and music dictate the tone of the evening — the audience applauds when expected and stays in respectful silence the rest of the time. There are nifty monitors in front of me with English sub-titles, so I actually get to follow what is happening out on stage with Madama Butterfly .

Opera has traditionally been considered a high art form since it first came into existence in the late 16 century in Venice. Meaning “work” in Italian, opera is a combination of poetry, music and drama. However, it was only in the mid-19 century that popular stories, a wide range from Greek mythology to Shakespeare, found their way into operatic compositions and opera came to be accessible to what was the rising middle class.

Opera truly became contemporary in the 20 century when it travelled out of Europe to countries as far as the US and China. The art form, once considered elitist and highbrow, was suddenly available to more people. There are two aspects to this — one is physical access itself; these small details like last-minute cheap tickets, weathered jeans as accepted dress code and subtitles for an uncomprehending audience. The other is opera emerging more and more from several countries (especially America), written by contemporary musicians for a contemporary audience.

For instance, New York’s Evil Diva Productions, which describes itself as a “small but ambitious opera company,” says on their website, “We believe that both modern and classical opera can be made accessible to a more diverse audience than it currently attracts — that opera can be freed from the deadly class baggage that keeps it from speaking to all.” And that seems more and more possible in a scene where the lines are blurring between musicals and opera (again, can CATS be called opera?), and the birth of new sub-genres like folk, jazz and even rock opera.

Similarly, the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York is focused on creating and supporting new opera works and reviving those lesser-known post World War creations. Amy Burton, soprano from the city, describes it this way, “My interest in modern opera as opposed to older, standard operatic repertoire is no different than picking up a newspaper to see what’s happening in the world as opposed to reading a history book.”

That’s also how Kiera Duffy, another soprano who works with both classical and contemporary forms of opera describes it. “I think the nature of art is that it is always living, breathing, evolving, so it would seem strange to me that opera would not be doing that as well. Great art often helps to contextualise what is happening in the world, in the human psyche, at whatever point it is written.”

In some way, the composers we now know as classical were doing the same; “Just as Mozart was poking fun at the European class system in opera like Nozze di Figaro , John Adams explores the current socio-political landscape with works like Death of Klinghoffer , Dr. Atomic and Nixon in China ,” says Duffy.

And as if to capture the opera zeitgeist, in late 2012, London based Andrew Staples, opera singer and owner of Vignette Productions, piloted a project in Africa. In this ambitious project, called “Opera for Change,” Staples and his troupe of performers will take Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) across the continent from Nairobi to Cape Town. The idea is to perform at various towns in collaboration with different partners — schools, musical organisations, local communities — along the way. Staples calls it a “travelling festival of stories and song” where the classical opera will meet indigenous narratives and music. Staples believes in the power of music as “a catalyst for communication” and hopes to use this festival as a means of creating and telling stories about Africa’s fight against AIDS. And if the pilot is any indication — inclusive, entertaining and engrossing — opera is sure to win over Africa.

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