On Being Not-Opera
Updated: Aug 7
I noticed something slightly strange in my responses to comment on Come Bargain With Uncanny Things: that I was rarely upset by comments and criticisms of the piece (which were often quite valid, or at least a sincerely held and understandable difference of opinion), but a part of me felt a childlike sting at its being described as not-opera.
Now, I am planning a piece discussing that, and potentially even providing a defence of it, yet I realised that the above-stated topic is a digression I’d like to keep in a separate place.
So I write this largely for selfish reasons, and partly because I suspect others might be interested in hearing voices either from another sector (if not in opera), or from within opera. It is most certainly not a criticism of those saying what I make is not opera, which is a legitimate argument.
I think the first reason for the stinging is that it is indeed a sincerely-held belief of mine (rightly or wrongly) that this is opera; a belief that I have been working under for four years. It is upsetting to have one’s beliefs challenged (even if maybe I’m wrong).
The second part is that I have, for some years now, considered myself an opera maker. A librettist, director, and translator, admittedly on the fringe for the most part, but something in opera before something else elsewhere. But I’m told quite confidently that I am not making opera. And thus I suddenly feel quite a shock to my system, like someone is denying me a faith or identity I consider myself to hold unquestioningly.
The final part is a sense that my position within the operatic community has been tenuous recently: I have not received great commissions, nor contracts, but I have been welcomed into interactive media communities. Being explicitly told “you are not really making opera” is somewhat upsetting too, because it reminds me of something I realised on Come Bargain With Uncanny Things:
Maybe I’m not.
Maybe I am going to move into a different sector - not cyber, at least for now, but that of immersive entertainment.
Personal pulls are that they have money, and growth, and an energy uncrushed by endless rounds of funding applications, auditions, and arguments for the right to exist. It’s also cheaper to make new work (amazingly, given how expensive immersive theatre is).
Personal pushes are that they don’t respect tradition in quite the same way. It’s far from a majority of the opera sector, but a vocal enough minority feel attempts to reform, reinvent, and revise are potentially dangerous signs of wanting to burn the entire house down that I sometimes feel quite unwelcome, or tired - and I’m far from being the most radical or vocal member of the community.
But it makes “that’s not opera” feel like a repetition of a sense I’ve had for a while. Come Bargain is great work, engaging audiences and using music in new ways. But maybe it’s not welcome. Nice thing, but it should be in a different shop.
Personal reasons to stay are that I love opera, and enjoy many of my colleagues. But I quite often find myself trying to imagine a path from where I am now to a liveable existence, and it seems that the only way to stable work is to make enough really exciting fringe work that eventually, I get asked to assist on a nice, mainstream, conservative show. Which would be nice. Yet also feels deeply weird.
Because my gripes with opera as an economic-cultural sector are well-rehearsed here, I’ll not repeat them. But if I’m not quite making opera any more, but another sector will welcome me with open arms, then I might have to leave.
And, for all my complaints, I do like it here.
I do still love opera. I love what it can be, and sometimes I love what it is.
And I don’t yet want to go.