The Operatic Production Line
Updated: Aug 7
I am a twin.
A few days ago, the good twin (Mimi) posted this:
It’s a very sensible thread, and I’d encourage you to read it.
Unfortunately, I am ninety-percent likely to be the evil twin, and am going to instead hyper-focus on this Tweet:
Because I think Mimi has (probably unintentionally) proposed something really radical that I've been pondering for a while.
To understand why, I’m going to talk about shoes.
Shoes are a very complex piece of clothing. They require multiple materials, forms of attaching them together, and above all: people all have different-sized feet.
Until a few centuries ago, your shoes had to be hand-made by a specialised craftsperson and their workshop of apprentices and journeymen.
This is what we call an ‘artisan’ mode of production, tied to an aristocratic, pre-industrial society.
After industrialisation, however, shoes could be mass-produced. In the present day, we might look at almost any item of footwear and recognise the astonishing advance automation has made. All of us can have shoes for remarkably little cost, in an extraordinary variety of styles, and all it needs is an industrial production line staffed by vastly underpaid people in a country far, far away, and an enormously complex system of modern logistics.
This is an industrial mode of production, tied to our industrial society.
Or you can pay a small fortune for a custom pair of shoes, handmade by a skilled craftsperson.
(I know a person, they’re great, I can’t afford their work. Hit me up and I’ll pass on some information).
While this kind of Marxian analysis gets a bit fuzzy within modern systems (hence the various Frankfurt and other subsequent schools of materialist analysis to evolve Marx’s original ideas), the core point is this:
Under industrial systems, mass production techniques allow us to produce a large amount of stuff with comparatively little effort, and certainly far less requirement for skilled effort.
i.e. if someone leaves the production line, they can be replaced quite quickly.
Obviously, it’s actually really rather skilled to be able to stitch things with a machine very fast, which is why the workers withholding their labour through a strike is a very effective means of opposition to those who own the means of production, eventually leading (we might hope) to the workers controlling the means of production directly, but that’s another article entirely.
Because of the possibility of mass-production, fabric-type shoes like trainers can become available, and people can have a preference between Adidas, Nike, or whatever particular type, colour, and style of trainer they want.
The same logic can be applied usefully to salsa.
I suspect anyone who’s met me and spoken to me about the material analysis of opera knows where I’m going with this:
Why is opera using an artisan mode of production when it’s in an industrial world?
Obvious answer: it’s an artform! It’s great art! It’s so sublime!
And yes, sometimes it is.
But sometimes, you’re doing that production of La Boheme for the 400th time, and while it’d be nice to think you’re doing it for the art, all of your branding and marketing suggests that perhaps your real interest is in story, semi-luxury mass-market appeal, and all that broad appeal that implies.
Is it as good, artistically?
Ask yourself: are your trainers as good, from a craft perspective?
Of course not! But you sure as heck bought them.
I’d like you to ask yourself: what if we really knuckled down and started to talk about opera like an industrial process, right into the rehearsal room?
Get a director to write out their schematics for the blocking in advance; the conductor to write out a couple of tempi too.
Told people “this is what the blocking is for this show; learn it and turn up on the day. After all, you’re going to learn the score in advance, so let’s learn the blocking too.”
It’s kinda similar to how noh works, but it takes 30 years to master all the dances.
It’s more similar to how soap operas and massive, sprawling TV shows work, delivering big emotions by actors cranking out their ‘type’ of character while rapidly learning and churning lines.
It’s also something I’ve often wondered about as a means of making opera more accessible and cheaper to produce: send out a score, rough blocking, and toolkits for director- and conductor-facilitators. What’s useful for you to know, what’s useful for you to ask, and how can you help people get the product done?
Is it as good, artistically?
Who’s going to care? We’ve just freed singers for 4-6 weeks of other work, cut down a vast amount of labour cost, and suddenly, we’re in a position that we can recycle in covers, tour an equivalent production at multiple locations across the globe, and all that jazz… for nothing.
Except the art.
We lost the art along the way, with mass production.
But hey - we say we want opera to be speaking to the modern world. Maybe we need to do what Mimi didn’t say, and make everyone involved an insecure production-line worker.
Or we could fix the artisan way of things, if you’re feeling prissy about the art.