Teresa Sheffield: What American Opera Can Learn from the World

English National Opera invites its audiences to get UNdressed, put preconceptions aside and just enjoy opera. "Opera is for everyone. It's not posh or stuffy, and you don't need to dress-to-the-nines to enjoy this incredible artform," says their invites.

English National Opera invites its audiences to get UNdressed, put preconceptions aside and just enjoy opera. “Opera is for everyone. It’s not posh or stuffy, and you don’t need to dress-to-the-nines to enjoy this incredible artform,” says their invites.

Please welcome guest columnist Teresa Sheffield . When the subject of opera comes up, twenty-something writer, world traveler and journalist Teresa Sheffield opens the windows wide and lets some fresh air into the room. Are you listening Peter Gelb?

What American Opera Can Learn from the World
by Teresa Sheffield

Guest columnist Teresa Sheffield on opera.

Guest columnist Teresa Sheffield on opera.

People who thought Lord of the Rings was long must have never tried to sit through Wagner’s 16-HOUR Ring Cycle. Because before you know it, your ass is asleep and so are you.

Tolkien’s ring cycle is like wearing roller skates for a 5K compared to Wagner’s stiletto marathon in a vat of honey.

But as I get back into the swing of American opera, I can’t help but to approach it from the perspective of seeing what else the world of opera has to offer.

In my previous blog post I mentioned I was seeing La Boheme at the iconic Sydney Opera House. I enjoyed it immensely, but I found myself comparing Australian Opera to American Opera.

Just so I’m clear, I’d choose a Met production over a Sydney Opera production any day. Our casts are generally legions better, our orchestra is incomparable, the sets and costumes superlative, the notes in the program are more comprehensive and informative, the venue is better taken care of, and we generally just have better things and more of them at our disposal. But there a two main things that I LOVED about Sydney Opera that I think are missing in the US:

1. REGULAR PEOPLE REGULARLY GO TO THE OPERA

Walking into the Sydney Opera House doesn’t feel like walking into a hushed museum of overdone inhabitants from the Upper East Side. People were dressed like normal human beings and the atmosphere was comfortable and casual but appropriate. It didn’t feel like going to the opera was a rare grand occasion for the proletariat and a parade for the gilded class like it can at The Metropolitan Opera.

It was a lot of working and middle-class people who seemed to feel natural being there,  like opera was a normal part of their lives, like opera was a regular among the usual evening entertainment options of dinner and a movie.

joan sutherland   Australian Opera Diva, Joan Sutherland outside the theatre in the Sydney Opera House that bears her name. Joan Sutherland Theatre

  Interior of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

The opera house itself had a friendly, lived-in feeling instead of a pristine, sterile one.

I’m aware “friendly, lived-in feeling” sounds like a euphemism a real estate agent would use to describe a beat up old house, but the opera house honestly felt like an old friend one would visit instead of a place that was scrubbed down every night like a hospital.

And that feeling comes more from an attitude rather than architectural design.

I’m not a proponent of  letting the gorgeous Lincoln Center dilapidate into urban blight or putting shutters on the windows to make it more homey. 

I’m also not advocating the Lincoln Center be turned into a nightclub or giving it a makeover to make it the hottest place to hold your sweet sixteen.

The Lincoln Center is what it is, and that’s a beautiful, magnificent piece of architecture that should not be altered.

I just think the overall attitude of conscious exclusivity is unnecessarily off-putting and malignant to the general public opinion of opera, and is more prevalent in America than in Australia or Europe.

2. YOUNG PEOPLE

Holy sh*t, there were so many young people there!

I have a hypothetical drinking game that I play when I go to the opera at The Met where I mentally take a shot every time I see someone my age. It’s never been enough to get even hypothetically tipsy.

The Sydney Opera House was so different!

There were people at the Sydney Opera House who don’t have personal stories of where they were when Kennedy was shot; people who only know it was once cool to buy Pet Rocks because they watched I Love the 80′s on VH1;  people who have only used the word, “bodacious” ironically; and even people who have never lived in a world without the Internet.

And amazingly enough, they looked like they wanted to be there!

Opera Bar

Right outside the Sydney Opera House is the Opera Bar.

And the Opera Bar was HOPPING every night I was there! It was so nuts to come out of the opera and see hundreds and hundreds of young people drinking, dancing (not to opera music), and partying right outside the opera house and knowing this is how it is every single day!?!

I can’t imagine that EVER happening in New York City outside the Lincoln Center on a daily basis.

met chandeliers

Opera was made for everyone. Not just for those who can pay to patronize the decorative Swarovski Crystal.

And like it or not, opera needs “the rabble” to survive.

Opera is a dying art. Especially in America. There are so many people who don’t know anything about it, nor care to. But there’s really no reason it should be this way.

There are so may things that can get in the way of Americans understanding and loving opera: foreign language, foreign singing style, foreign instruments, and foreign story lines; why not make its home a friendly and welcoming atmosphere?

You can read more of Teresa Sheffield’s work at her own blog, handily titled “I Love F***ing Opera” (Click Me) here on WordPress. It’s clear that Sheffield has an obsession with opera, but Teresa is also a spiffy comedy writer, does stand-up and improv, and has a background in journalism. Who could ask for anything more!

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