The Met in Motion

Archive Fever: What is Opera Culture?

About a year or so ago, inspired by the account “Italians Mad at Food” a friend and I created the twitter account “People Mad at Opera,” aimed at showcasing the comedic highs and comportment lows of the comments sections of opera youtube videos. In the comments, opera fans argue about everything there is to argue about — the voices of singers from the 50’s and 60’s, the weight gains of currently active sopranos, the validity of expressing one’s attraction to the late Russian bari-hunk Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s good looks rather than his (equally dreamy) voice. But alongside the general cantankerousness, the ire Google-translated from French or Italian, and the genuinely off-putting toxic misogyny, what emerges when one uses the comments section to take the pulse of opera fandom at large, is an encounter with the fundamentally conservative, reactionary, and nostalgic core of opera culture.

The opera culture of the youtube comments section is an archive culture, in which all art currently being produced is up for constant comparison with the art of the past, usually to be found wanting. The pinnacle of this kind of reactionary grouchiness is an account called This Is Opera!, which purports to be “dedicated to the old school of great opera singing” and has posted hundreds of takedown videos comparing “Golden Age” singers to contemporary ones, with titles like “MOSQUITOS HAVE RUINED OPERA,” “when ladies could SING!,” and “FAKE vs. REAL singing (Kaufmann vs. LoManaco)."

That these fans think of opera fandom as an archival impulse is clear in their feelings of heartbreak and betrayal at older productions being retired and replaced by new ones. Because new opera productions are so enormously expensive, and the operatic canon so fixed, even high-budget houses like the Met create new productions rarely, and fill their seasons largely with established revivals. The upcoming 2019-2020 Met season, for example, will comprise five new productions and twenty revivals, of productions whose original debuts range from 2018 (Phelim McDermott’s Coney Island Così fan tutte) to 1981 (Franco Zefirelli’s warhorse La boheme). And, due to the same financial constraints (opera is very expensive), new productions replace old ones — the arrival of McDermott’s Così mean the departure of Lesley Koenig’s production, in repertory since 1996. To the fans represented by this youtube culture, the loss of a classic production is tantamount to the destruction of an archival record; the understanding of performance as ephemeral that, bootlegs and touring productions notwithstanding, is integral to the culture of theater and even musical theater fandom simply does not exist for these opera fans.

This relationship between opera culture as archive culture and the sort of economic logic that drives anxiety around scarcity and loss of classic productions is one described by David Evans, in his bizarre and expansive book Phantasmagoria: A Sociology of Opera; because of what he calls opera’s “museum” culture, “it has to be constantly recycled, repromoted, its discourses rewritten and restated.” (Evans, 70) This unavoidable commercial need for renewal, opera’s highly codified canon, and the increasing ease with which recorded video and sound is bought, sold, and streamed, leads to the constant comparisons one finds in the comments section, as, as Evans describes, “to witness one Ring cycle is to set this (expensive!) experience against existing ‘bought’ operatic knowledge and to seek out comparisons with Ring cycles elsewhere. To hear one Brunnhilde is to contrast her with other ‘live’ and recorded Brunnhilde’s past.” (Evans, 71) 

From betwixt the Scylla of opera as a pure museum culture and the Charybdis of opera as subject to market forces that demand renewed if not new products, sails forth the youtube commenter, his demand being that opera continue, but only exactly as it was — new Rodolfos should sound just like Di Stefano, new Turandot's should look just like Zefirelli’s, and so on. The dominant archive culture of opera fandom, the commenter reveals, is far less a discourse of pure and idealized art than he might like you to believe and is, in fact, at heart a discourse of commerce. The outrage directed at any production that strays from the most traditional mode of performance is basically the desire to keep his preferred product on the market, whether by seeing only productions that replicate it, or by ensuring the operatic discourse is dominated by comparisons to it. 

Nevertheless, it is still my belief that opera is inherently archival — and if opera culture’s archivist bent is suspect, then perhaps we must turn to the opera performance itself as an archive.

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