Sara Duchovnay, soprano

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An open letter to KQED pop re: "Breaking News: Going to the Opera is Cool Again".

Dear KQED Pop:

As you know, it’s been a difficult week in the news.  Between the government shutdown and the demise of New York City Opera, my outlook on the future has been bleak. Imagine my delight then, when I saw the headline “Breaking News: Going to the Opera is Cool Again!” I experienced what can only be described as emotional whiplash as a self-described "hipster" who had just been to his first opera enlightened me as to why my profession was “cool again”. (Apparently the last time this was the case was “upon its inception in Italy at the end of the 16th century when there weren’t indie pop shows or endless art openings or new bars with the best mixologists”. )

Now KQED pop, I really do appreciate the gesture. As an opera singer in my mid 20’s, I am always interested to hear how my art form is perceived and how it can evolve to attract a wider audience of my peers. I think that any buzz surrounding opera is positive. It reminds the public that there are many incredibly talented artists performing right in their community, keeping opera alive and thriving. As a regular listener and subscriber to KQED public radio, I have learned to expect educated, well researched, and open minded discourse about topics that matter to me. Apparently your blog posts are not held to the same standards. As a member of the “millennial" generation, I know too well that we as an entire generation are written off as foolish, narcissistic, disrespectful, and dismissive of the accomplishments of previous generations.  This KQED pop blog post exemplifies of all of these negative stereotypes. “Breaking news: I went to the opera for the first time, and even though I wasn’t that into it, because I was there, it can now be considered cool. You're welcome, opera!”

Here are the author’s reasons why opera is cool again, despite the fact that he “found the whole style of singing to be rather grating”.

“Dressing over the top is a must.” Photos of his numerous outfit choices are available for the reader’s viewing pleasure within the post. I honestly do not care what you wear to the opera as long as you go to the opera. I love the fact that people choose to express themselves through fashion and I cannot argue with the fact that part of the fun of going to the opera is seeing and being seen!

“Tickets are not as expensive as you may think.” This is a fantastic point, and one I really appreciated! He suggests that it’s a positive thing to “support local arts” and reminds the reader that “getting a drink and seeing a movie isn’t much cheaper”.  Absolutely true! He even suggests that if you really enjoy the opera you could become a patron and buy a half season subscription! So far so good! At this point, I was even starting to forget the previous “grating” comment.

“The War Memorial Opera House is Crazy.” He means crazy in a good way…like architecturally certifiable. It is absolutely beautiful, and like he points out, it does have many bars serving alcohol.

“Opera is super weird and kind of annoying, but SF Opera is stepping it up.” Wait, what? I thought we were getting along so well! No, as much as the author is “trying to be a proponent of opera, [he] is not even really that sure [he] like[s] it that much”.  And while this is one of his first times going to the opera, he feels comfortable not only making gross generalities about an entire genre, but condescendingly giving kudos to one of the finest opera companies in the world for “stepping it up” while simultaneously insulting it.

 

Here are some of his complaints about opera:

-“There’s not a lot of dancing, which you would get out of a ballet...” Well no, there is not a lot of dancing in Dolores Claiborne, but there is a lot of dancing in other operas. Many operas have extensive ballet scenes and San Francisco Opera has ballet corps of world-class dancers. All of their names are listed in the program that the author no doubt received.

-“…or great acting like you would find in cinema or musicals.” First of all, anyone who saw Dolores Claiborne at SFO will know that the acting was simply incredible, and second of all, “cinema”? This kid is not sure he even likes opera, but he’s too culturally high brow to just call it a movie like a normal person?

-“…a lot of old people… old ladies in musty furs dragging their tottering, hairless and toothless gents behind them.” Have a little respect! Old is something that every single one of us will become (hopefully) and it shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing! Respect for older generations is an integral value within the opera community. We revere the artists of the past and know that we have a lot to learn from the life experiences of those who have been alive and in the business longer than we have. Yes, the opera community is always trying to attract a younger audience, but not because we don’t appreciate the patrons we already have. We just think we should be able to have it all!

-“It’s all about that intense, high-pitched singing.” Sigh.

 

 

So in response, here is my own list of reasons why opera is one of the coolest forms of entertainment and why everyone should give it a try:

Singing opera is an athletic feat.

During an opera, singers sing for hours at a time, projecting into large halls without the aid of microphones. We do this all while running, climbing, laying down, getting groped, groping others, hiding behind things, sword fighting, being pushed into and off of things, jumping off of tall buildings, and committing ritual self-disembowelment. It can be tiring, can involve a lot of sweating, and should sound effortless. While learning a role and rehearsing an opera, each singer has their own way of preparing physically, vocally, and mentally.

The skills needed to be a professional singer take a pretty long time to cultivate. Opera singers study opera in college, graduate school, and apprentice programs. They have studied multiple languages, music theory, and maybe an additional instrument. They have studied music history, acting, movement, and dance.  Opera singers continue to study, train, and refine their skills throughout their careers. Even the most famous and established singers have voice teachers, coaches, and mentors who offer them guidance and support.  When you go to the opera, you are watching people who have devoted their entire lives to have the opportunity to share their craft and their passion with you.  When you take into account all of the singers, the director, the conductor, the instrumentalists in the orchestra, the coaches, designers, stagehands, and back stage personnel, you are looking at the product of hundreds and hundreds of years of combined training.

Anything can happen.

An opera performance is completely live and completely acoustic. Most performers will tell you that in any given show something will go a little bit awry, though the audience would probably never know it.  A set piece could fall, a costume could malfunction, or a singer could forget everything they ever knew! Because you are watching professionals, they will no doubt carry it off with aplomb and continue singing beautifully, but it’s that constant risk of absolute disaster that I find so amazing and exhilarating about opera. It’s like a tightrope act with no safety net. There’s no back-up track to lip synch along to and you can’t do another take. It’s one of the last things that you can go to see today that is entirely human. There are all the people in the orchestra playing their instruments, lead by the conductor who acts as the liaison between the orchestra and the singers, keeping everyone together. From the stage, sometimes the singers can’t even hear the orchestra, so they rely entirely on this one person to show them where they are. The stage manager is on a headset in the wings with the score in front of them, telling everyone what to do- light cues, singer entrances, costume quick changes, special effects, set changes. There are so many opportunities for human error, and yet something beautiful always emerges. It’s raw, authentic, and exciting all of the time.

I think some of the most exciting performances are when one of the original singers is indisposed and his or her understudy (or cover, as it’s called in opera) goes on at the last minute. Often the original singer will give some notice if they have a feeling they won't be able to do the performance, but sometimes they will sing the first act or scene, before realizing that they aren’t well enough to make it through the opera. Imagine this: the cover is hanging out waiting to hear if they will go on and then they get the call! They rush to the dressing room. The stage director and conductor (or their assistants) go over last minute details or changes while the wig and make-up people quickly work away. And then they are on stage! As an audience member this is so exciting! You are witnessing what could be a life-changing moment for a singer. You could be watching history being made! The energy in the theater will be palpable and you will personally be a part of an incredibly special moment for everyone there.

Opera is passion magnified.

You know how in Musical Theater, they are talking and then all of a sudden their emotions get so strong that they just have to SING? Well in opera the emotional stakes are so high that they have to sing the whole thing. Don’t over think it. Just go to the opera and experience it. There’s a reason it’s been around this long and will remain relevant long after indie pop shows become outdated.

So KQED pop, if you want to publish posts about the best mixologists or the art of wearing red shorts and bow-ties, it seems you already have your man. However, if you are interested in showcasing a more thoughtful side of our generation, I can point you in the direction of many millenials who exemplify what I think KQED stands for. Next time you want to publish anything on the fine arts, you can contact me.

  

Sara Duchovnay is an emerging soprano living in Oakland, CA. She holds a Master of Music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and recently made her Opera San Jose debut as Nannatta in Verdi’s Falstaff.  A proponent of bringing opera to new and unlikely audiences, Sara is passionate about sharing her love and excitement for this art form with anyone who will listen.

 

© Sara Duchovnay 2014