The summer of 2019 has been a fraught one for opera. In June, diva soprano Anna Netrebko came under scrutiny not only for her use of skin-darkening makeup to sing the role of Verdi’s Ethiopian princess Aida but also for her blunt defense of a practice that has been widely discredited. This month, the legal battle between the Metropolitan Opera and its former music director James Levine — which began when the former fired the latter last year after accusations of sexual misconduct — quietly ended with a settlement. And last week, nine women accused superstar singer and conductor Plácido Domingo of sexual harassment over the past 30 years. (I previously worked for a consulting firm that did work on behalf of both singers.)
It would be hard to come up with three artists more famous and beloved. Netrebko and Domingo have especially transcended the insular world of opera to make names for themselves in popular culture. Despite the headlines, fans and colleagues have defended all three musicians. All are regarded as assets in an art form that has been considered to be “dying” for decades due to declining ticket sales and an aging audience.
But to really save opera — and classical music in general — we have to let it die.
Imagine if Hollywood were to issue shot-for-shot remakes of D.W. Griffith’s gauzy history of the Ku Klux Klan, “The Birth of a Nation,” every few years. Imagine Tom Hanks re-creating Mickey Rooney’s infamously slant-eyed Mr. Yunioshi in a new “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” or Morgan Freeman cast in a live-action remake of Disney’s “Song of the South.”
This is the reality of opera-house programming year after year. It is an art form that, like Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” insists on wearing the same wedding dress every day for the rest of its life. Only one of the 25 operas scheduled for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-2020 season, Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” was written in the past 50 years. And if you ask certain administrators and artists, this is a genre we must save.
Opera grew out of a tradition of court entertainment in Renaissance Italy. As it became more widespread with the advent of public opera houses, the tastes of the 1 percent continued to govern which operas were performed. Many productions rely on designs and staging conventions from the time of their premieres, which date as far back as 1607, with Monteverdi’s “Orfeo.”
For many fans, this is the ideal. The Facebook group Against Modern Opera Productions has 60,000 members committed to seeing the works staged in accordance with the composers’ intents. A stark production of “Tosca” that opened to some boos at the Met in 2009 was replaced last year with a production that returned the work to its gilded 19th-century setting.
But selling opera to the next generation means selling opera to a more diverse and liberal demographic, which has more options than ever for entertainment.
And for singers, who go through years of elite training to land on stages such as the Met, championing the classic works they’ve studied for years doesn’t excuse them from examining these operas in the context of life offstage, either. In a statement given to The Associated Press, which broke last week’s news of the #MeToo allegations against him, Domingo said: “The rules and standards by which we are — and should be — measured against today are very different than they were in the past.” But if we continue to cleave to the rules and standards of the past, production after production, season after season, how can we possibly be expected to also meet the rules and standards of today?
Perhaps it’s time to decentralize the star system that currently fuels opera. There are plenty of composers, performers and directors who manage to reflect on the canon even as they create works that speak to audiences today.
Many work on the fringes, but some are coming to main stages. Next year, the Santa Fe Opera will give the premiere of Huang Ruo’s “M. Butterfly,” an adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s play of the same name, which rethinks Puccini’s opera via the lens of a real-life encounter between a French diplomat and a Chinese spy. The Tuscan-born Puccini’s themes of exoticism and orientalization will be repurposed by a composer born in the Chinese province of Hainan.
Calling for the death of opera doesn’t mean calling for the Met to close. Nor does it mean the wholesale abandonment of composers such as Mozart and Puccini. It does, however, mean we must no longer romanticize the bygone eras of opera’s so-called golden age so much that we fail to imagine the genre’s future.
Olivia Giovetti is a New York-based classical music writer. This column was originally published by The Washington Post.