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Future Perfect

What will opera look like in ten years? Isn't it obvious? Or should we be expecting something completely different? PHILIP KENNICOTT offers his thoughts.

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© Tetra Images/Alamy 2012

It's not hard to divine the future of opera in the seeds of the present: in ten years, there will be fewer small and regional opera companies. Organizations will close, as did Baltimore Opera in 2010, or merge and consolidate, as did two companies in North Carolina the same year. Tickets will be harder to come by at major opera houses, where what is offered will deviate less often from the warhorse repertory that sells out the house. Evenings at the opera will feel more like corporate perks, with noisy and bored audiences enjoying the glamour more than the music.

Increasingly, opera-lovers outside of New York and a handful of other cities will rely on high-definition broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and companies around the world. A new generation of opera-lovers will rise with very definite expectations that live opera should sound and look almost flawless, amplified, lit and stitched together by the camera to perfection. Meanwhile, opera as we once knew it will thrive in places like Russia, where Valery Gergiev is building an enormous new addition to the Mariinsky Theater, and China, where cities such as Guangzhou are building space-age, thrilling new architectural icons devoted to the art form. Americans will wonder, sadly, what might have been, if only the decades-old argument about art and public funding had gone in a different direction.

But all of that is to extrapolate from what we already know. What if something changes? What if the future is entirely different?

In 1887, when Edward Bellamy wrote his utopian novel Looking Backward, ready access to music played a major role in the author's vision of an ideal future. In the year 2000, Bellamy argued, music would be piped into the house from central concert halls, where a small army of musicians would assure that a steady stream of live performance would be available to everyone for a "small fee." The novel's protagonist, born in the benighted nineteenth century but privy to Bellamy's fantastic future, describes the musical "telephone" this way: "If we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements."

Bellamy was low-balling the future. The basic science for radio was already in progress when he published his novel. In 1897, the invention of an enormous primitive synthesizer, known as the teleharmonium, seemed to presage a future of music sent over wires, just as Bellamy imagined. By 1906, when radio pioneer and inventor Reginald Fessenden played the violin over the airwaves in what may have been the first musical "broadcast," it was clear that even wires might someday be obsolete. 

Today we live in a world in which the vast majority of Americans have music "in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood." And yet there is by no means consensus that we have reached an age of perfect "human felicity," even or especially among opera-lovers. There is probably no tension greater, more volatile and more likely to have an impact on the future of opera than that between what technology will bring and what must be conserved in the opera house, lest the form be warped into something unrecognizable. Which is to say that the future likely holds a sharp conflict between the ubiquity of opera in some electronic or digital form and the atavistic craving to hear it live, sung without amplification, by singers trained in the art, and directed in such a way as to underscore rather than deflate its latent emotional content.

If one judges an art form's success purely quantitatively, the arc of opera history has been a resounding triumph. With a few small hiccoughs along the way, the story of opera has been one of persistent democratization, widening its audience from court elites in the Renaissance to the vibrant public opera houses of seventeenth-century Venice to the grand bourgeois palaces of culture built in the nineteenth century. Bellamy's musical fantasy was merely a continuation of a social trend through technological means. After radio and recording widened the audience in the twentieth century, DVDs and the Internet have exploded the possibilities for transmission in the twenty-first, putting an unprecedented historical archive of performance at the disposal of anyone who knows what to look for and where to find it. Opera in some form now reaches a greater audience than at any time in its history.

Blu-ray is better than DVD. High-Def is better than what passed for standard resolution a decade ago. But are there even greater leaps of technology before us? Despite enormous improvements in sound and video quality, the experience of opera on DVD and the web is still dictated by the director's use of the camera and the limitations of stereo sound. One can't watch opera on a two-dimensional screen with a roving eye; one must follow the action as dictated by what the camera is showing. Opera is rigidly interpreted for us by the lens, limiting peripheral perception and the multiplicity of musical and dramatic events happening simultaneously. 

Not so long after Bellamy imagined musical telephones, Jules Verne imagined the possibility of genuine, fully-dimensional illusionism in his 1893 novel The Carpathian Castle, in which a long-dead diva, La Stilla, sings through holographic projection. In April, a virtual Tupac Shakur — a rapper — "performed" onstage in California, despite having died some fifteen years ago. 

Imagine, then, a fully convincing 3D opera, with holographic singers seemingly present in the round. A whole new future opens up for the art form. Not only does it offer an experience closer to the roaming eye and itinerant attention of live performance, it creates the possibility of performances that are manufactured virtually. Why does Anna Netrebko need to spend a month in New York singing only at the Met, when she could be simultaneously present in London, Milan and St. Petersburg? If doctors can perform complicated surgery remotely, through imaging and robotics, why does a conductor actually need to be physically present in the orchestra pit to lead a performance? 

From a practical point of view, the advantages of an ever-greater fusion between live performance and virtual reality are obvious. It diminishes travel time and expense, minimizes scheduling challenges and allows for ideal "super" casts to be assembled from anywhere in the world. As for the obvious challenge — how could such a performance ever equal the interaction of live people together on the same stage? — one can only say, put yourself in the position of Bellamy's nineteenth-century reader. They would no doubt have found our technological reality as inconceivable as we must feel about a world in which technology erases the distinction between live and virtual. 

Let's imagine that this brave new world is a reality — that the "opera house" is now simply a space, anywhere in the world, equipped with the technology to project a fully embodied three-dimensional facsimile of live opera. It could be a warehouse in Topeka, or an empty stage in an old movie house that has fallen into disuse. What does it mean for what we used to call opera — live performance in an opera house, with a real orchestra and an audience of living, breathing souls?

One wonders if the low grumbling already heard in some quarters about the effect of high-definition broadcasts on live performance is a precursor of things to come. It's a staple of complaint that the HD simulcast of a live performance often has a powerful effect on what live audiences hear and see in the opera house. Will future audiences detect the artifice of a real Siegmund singing to a holographic Sieglinde, while projected sets that were manufactured in a computer in Singapore seem to move about noiselessly onstage in New York? Or, as technology has done in the past, will a new generation of technology only underscore the ineffable things about live performance that can never be duplicated or transmitted remotely? In that warehouse in Kansas, everything may look good enough, and audiences there will be thrilled to hear the best singers of the day sing something familiar and comforting. But in the real opera house the audience may be in revolt, tired of listening to exquisitely beautiful young women sing "Mi chiamano Mimì" in slight, sweet, unsupported tones to slightly spectral male models impersonating Rodolfo in a green-screen room in Los Angeles.

Three years after Bellamy published his vision of man and industry working seamlessly together toward greater happiness, William Morris published his News from Nowhere, another utopian novel, but this one subtitled "An Epoch of Rest." It imagined a social paradise not of machines and production and technological novelties like musical telephones but of leisure, learning, love and a closer connection to the land. When the citizens of Morris's ideal world need relaxation, they don't pipe in music, they head out for an evening of Welsh folk song.

Elements of Morris's fantasy are as much with us today as are the technological innovations of Bellamy's industrialized world. People who source their food locally, who prefer vinyl to digital, disconnect from the Internet and indulge the do-it-yourself impulse, are living out Morris's ideal as much as the iPod and Spotify generation are living out Bellamy's. They should be factored into the multiplicity of operatic futures as well, a countercultural audience insistent on "hand crafted" opera and the real touch of the live voice. One can imagine them, like the real toads in Marianne Moore's imaginary gardens, flocking to a rare, sold-out performance announced on the large cast posters on the plaza of Lincoln Center — Verdi's Ernani with an Entirely Real Cast. 

Indeed, one can imagine both futures simultaneously, a two-tiered opera world in which the vast majority of the population knows the form only in its digital simulacrum, while an eccentric elite of antiquarians persists in the old ways. 

And perhaps none of this will come to pass in ten years' time, or in a century. But the seeds are there for a philosophical conversation about what opera is and what it should be. With no easy way to be made more efficient, to be done more cheaply with fewer musicians, and with audiences in many places shrinking or less willing to pay what it takes to support opera, opera will be under ever more stress over the next decade. The latest round of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which eliminated funding for Live from Lincoln Center and made drastic cuts to other PBS programs, suggests a sharp turn away from funding traditional distribution methods of classical music. 

If ventures such as the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series offer a way forward, financially or in terms of building cultural support for the art form, that will be the future. Very likely, it will be a best-of-times and worst-of-times future, with opera advancing yet further on its historical trajectory toward greater and wider audiences yet moving ever further away from its roots in live theater, with all its mayhem, mishap and magic. Past arguments about the art form, about such things as the role of the diva and the relation between music and drama, have always tended to be self-balancing, trending one way for a while until reformers incite a correction.

But technology doesn't work that way. Technology transforms permanently and absolutely. Which is why the art form stands at a crossroads, even if we can't quite see it yet. spacer

PHILIP KENNICOTT is chief art critic of The Washington Post

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