Reflection on my Master’s Thesis – in short, opera companies are still struggling to relate culturally

A year ago, I had only ever been an intern in opera. Now I am fully employed in opera, and even more terrifying, I’m partly responsible for my companies future.


It has been over a year since I first began writing my thesis, and about nine months since I completed it.  When I first began this daunting assignment, I made this post as a way to “kick-off” the whole process and mark an official start date.

As I delved into the research, I began to wonder how American cultural history affected the trajectory opera took in America and where it finds itself today.  The thought behind all of my research became, “How did this, or does this, affect how opera was/is experienced and/or perceived by the audiences?”  Exploring the issue from this perspective allowed me to go deeper into the various social factors surrounding the art form, and how they influenced what the art form was and what it became in America.

It is amazing how much has changed in my life since its completion.  I now work full time in artistic administration for an opera company, and get to see day to day the theories of my thesis in action – both for good and for bad.  What’s most interesting, is that my opinions about opera companies and opera in America have changed very little over the course of time that has elapsed.

A year ago, I had only ever been an intern in opera.  Now I am fully employed in opera, and even more terrifying, I’m partly responsible for my companies future. I did have some doubts throughout the course of my writing that, perhaps, I was being a bit too idealistic with my arguments, and even maybe a little naive.  However, when I read back through it today, and I think about the problems I face daily, much of what I wrote still rings true for me.

You can read the full thesis as a Google Doc.

Here is the unabridged conclusion to my research…


            “What you need to know about the past is that no matter what has happened, it has all worked together to bring you to this very moment.  And this is the moment you can choose to make everything new.  Right now.” – Author Unknown

 To be certain, opera’s relationship to the American audience has, over the course of history, proven as nuanced and varied as America’s cultural fabric.  The numerous angles and side-stories one could take on the subject of opera’s cultural history in America, and how they have contributed to opera’s current place in society, could easily fill volumes.  As such, it has been the attempt of this work to present this story as concisely as possible, while offering examples and addressing all the requisite areas.  The preceding body of work is by no means a comprehensive study of all the varying topics addressed herein, but rather is intended to paint a picture of the author’s interpretation of the literature, and how he relates these many unrelated areas into one cohesive theory.

Opera, both as an art form and institution, is at an interesting crossroads in its history.  The culmination of all the arguments herein were to show that opera has been a heavily centralized and controlled cultural form for at least the last 150 years in this country.  There have been elements and moments where it waxed and waned in and out of popular demand, but for the most part, it has remained a significantly segregated art form in terms of to whom it appeals.

Faced now with the inevitable realities of the current cultural changes, opera is trying to adopt a more de-centralized cultural mindset.  In a way, it is trying to revert to the creative spontaneity allowed many decades ago.  Now, however, it is being done in the context of a society that is, for the most part, hard to please, not very patient, and not nearly as musically understanding as it once was.  These are uncharted waters not only for opera, but all the classical arts.  The formulas used in the past to appeal to audiences no longer work as well, in part, because they were created for a culture that no longer exists; for a society that no longer views music and entertainment the same way.

As discussed herein, opera’s cultural history in America, along with the influences of shifting musical tastes, shifting attitudes about “who” and “what” determine culture and relationships with technology, have shaped the general American perception of the art form.  Additionally, and to a certain degree consequentially, there are multiple perceived threats to opera’s future in this country. Many of these perceived threats are a by-product of the American cultural relationship with art, as well as the previously described changes in society that have affected perceptions of the art form.

In the series of interviews conducted for this thesis, each interviewee was asked the same question at the end of the interview: “What is the biggest threat to opera’s survival as an art form in the United States?”  The answers were varied and included things like, “Ambivalence”, “Remaining relevant”, “Complacency”, “The Internet”, “Short Attention Spans”, “Money”, “over-corporatization of the art form”, “demise of arts education”, “trying to capture or affix what opera ‘is’ or ‘should be’”, and “poor business model”.  One person even insisted that the incessant negative focus by many on the idea that opera and classical music have an inherent problem culturally would in fact eventually lead to such a demise.  What is consistent is that everyone agrees opera in America faces many challenges now and in the coming years.

As dire as things may appear, however, there is reason to be hopeful.  Opera does not have to end as tragically as most of its stories do.  However, changing opera’s storyline from a negative one to a positive one will depend on opera companies digging down deep, and analyzing their missions, visions, communities, and programming.  For many this will mean drastic change.  For some companies this change, if followed through to complete fruition, would transform those companies into something unrecognizable in comparison to what they are now.  This fact alone is a primary reason why so many companies are holding onto tried and true programming choices.  Immediate survival is the primary concern.  While this is an understandable mindset, it is not sustainable.  Those companies that do not come to terms with the current cultural reality, and how it affects what they do or do not do, will before long cease to exist.

There are equally as many positions one could take on the condition of opera in America, as well as what the answers are to its continued survival.  For some, making the art form as accessible and easy as possible, to as many people as possible, is the answer to opera’s future survival.  For others, opera will never, nor should it try to pander to the masses.  For this latter group, it is opera’s ability to remain artistically true to itself, and allowing for the composer to create, free from influence over the concern for marketability of his or her work, that makes opera and to a larger extent art, special.

Regardless of where one comes down on the “opera for all” versus “opera as niche” argument, there are some hard realities about opera in this country that cannot be refuted.  First, producing opera is likely to only get more expensive, not less.  The rising cost of everything, not just labor, will inevitably affect artistic decisions.  Because of this, opera companies will have to rethink their strategies, not only in terms of how they can produce opera more efficiently, but also in terms of figuring out ways opera can be experienced and thus made a commodity through different communication mediums.

Second, while it has improved in recent decades, the lack of support by opera companies and the opera public for homegrown American opera, is a factor in understanding why opera continues to feel foreign for many Americans.  Organizations like American Opera Projects continue to work tirelessly towards reversing this course of history (American Opera Projects, 2011).  Third, the larger culture in which opera now finds itself is increasingly more and more resistant not only to things perceived as elitist and foreign, but is also averse to activities and forms of entertainment that are both overly complicated and not in alliance with the pervading culture of consumer-oriented marketing and programming.

It is the opinion of this author, supported by numerous leaders in the field, that until opera is valued not merely as a performance spectacle, but also as a respected and valued form of creative expression, it will continue to be viewed in America as nothing more than a social playground for the rich, a “special attraction” for tourists, and a genuine, yet generally misunderstood and disrespected interest of a minority population.

Interestingly, this scenario is acceptable for some people in opera, and actually preferable.  These are the people who say, “better niche than mass appeal” and “better purity than pandering.”  These people would likely accept the state motto of New Hampshire as the motto for opera – “Live free or die.”  They are perfectly content with keeping opera small in the sense of its appeal, and actually revel in the fact they can feel it is their own niche interest, generally unspoiled by the influences of hype, marketing, and popular culture.

How do opera companies reconcile the two schools of thought – to be niche or to be for all?  How does a place like The Metropolitan Opera simultaneously balance being innovative and risky with traditional and safe?  The answer is neither easy nor clear.  What is clear is that Peter Gelb is trying to do something different.  The Met: Live in HD series is not only innovative, but is also re-defining, intentionally or not, how opera is perceived, produced, and experienced.   It is understandable, however, given that the Met relies a considerable amount financially on the support of opera traditionalists, why many long time audience members at the Met do not approve of Gelb’s vision.  That being said, Gelb walks a fine line between boring the innovative mind and deterring the traditional one.  It is a constant balance between the two.  Perhaps, then, the answer is to choose between the two.

There is such a thing as trying to do too much, and spreading oneself too thin.  Opera companies should strategically evaluate what it is they are trying to accomplish artistically, and whether that vision aligns with the interests of their community.  They must figure out how they can offer something in their community that is not already offered, and think creatively about what niche they can fill and that will be compatible with their budgets.  Americans live in a culture of customized experiences and on-demand entertainment.  We more and more rarely experience randomness in our lives. Our lives and our choices increasingly shaped by algorithmic formulas and intelligent databases that gather and categorize our market-profile, in turn allowing companies to market to us with fine-point precision.  Opera companies should take a lesson from this.  Instead of everyone trying to live up to the Met’s standard of grand opera, companies should figure out what they can do best, within their means and with heightened attention paid to strategic audience engagement, and produce opera that uniquely represents them as a company.  The story of Urban Arias is a perfect example of this.

The “opera for all” boat has sailed, and all those it left behind do not seem to care.  As such, continuing to waste resources on generic “outreach programs” that “bring opera to the people,” will only further prove opera’s irrelevance to those the programs are trying to serve.  The more opera is seen by the layperson as something from the past, as an act of recreating art from the past, the more irrelevant it will seem to them.  Furthermore, even with new inventions like HD and the various other technological avenues one can choose to experience opera, opera must move beyond simply presenting the classics.  Even in these new mediums, opera cannot sustain itself as a presenter of relic performance art, even if it is in high-def or 3D.

Instead the keyword should be about creation and showing how opera is not old, but current, alive and new.  Opera must realign itself as a worthy creative endeavor for composers and musicians, while simultaneously present itself in the minds of a new generation as a relevant option for shared artistic experience.  Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco is one example of an opera company that understands the importance of this mindset.  They have realigned their mission so that it truly serves their community.  HGO’s approach to its community positions it not as an entity that exists in Houston and serves a particular group of wealthy people, but an entity that serves all of Houston both through performances in the opera house and creative projects within the greater community at large.

How will we know when these changes have begun to occur?  What will be the cultural signs that the image of opera has begun to change into something more current?  One place to look for these changes are in the images and cultural references generally used to refer to opera.  If one currently searches the word “opera” on Google, a cartoonish image of Brünhilde from Die Walküre is one of the first images to appear.  The fact that this image most highly represent’s the word “opera” on the internet, reflects the reality in modern American society that opera is from the past, foreign, and frankly, quite silly.  If, however, this same search reveals at a point in the future an image of American opera creation, then one can at least have the assurance that the signpost for opera has changed, and likely found a new connection within our complex and varied culture that is America.

Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

3 thoughts on “Reflection on my Master’s Thesis – in short, opera companies are still struggling to relate culturally”

  1. Zack, very interesting thoughts. I’m working on a positioning for a chamber opera company and yours is the most thoughtful approach yet. I’ll be reading the thesis and gathering the nuggets of wisdom I find there.


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