As much as one can say so in the state of Indiana, I grew up in the Opera.
After the injustice of high school, I enrolled as an eager young freshman at Indiana University, one of the largest colleges in the United States, with three friends to my name and nothing substantive to strive for academically beyond a vague interest in Sociology.
Like many misfits before and since, I found the theatre in high school, working on sets and then lights over my last couple of years, in a community at last. And so aimless at a gigantic university, I applied for a $4.25/hour job in the Electrics department of the glorious Musical Arts Center, the grandest of all collegiate operas. A home for four years, and exposure to most of the operatic repertoire, though heard as only stagehands can hear things, in small snippets between changes set and friendly conversation Backstage.
I graduated some years later, having had the honor to be only the second (at the time) undergraduate to light a main stage opera at the MAC – one of the beautiful old sets at the school, Hansel and Gretel. On the first day of cueing the Director was so vicious to me that he made me cry (later that day, to my girlfriend at the time). No other man in my 40 years has done so.
I returned to IU two years later, tempted by a graduate supervisor’s position, paying $7.50 an hour as I recall. At the time I saw this as a small hourly fortune and could not imagine a higher salary. And so three more years, ten or so operas where I was lighting designer, and a graduate degree in Arts Administration.
A stagehand made good.
Many of my work habits and style were formed in my seven years working in the opera: Start things on time. Work until the job is done and go home. Bring ample, even liberal staff resources to any task. Function as a team. Get along with other departments. Support and train your people. Find the elegant solution. There is only “we” in stage production, fundraising and much of life. Anyone who says otherwise should be distrusted.
In those grad school years I worked with some wonderfully creative friends to produce small independent operas – including a fully realized and cast Western Barber of Seville at least as entertaining as any production I’ve seen of that show. We didn’t have any money, just creative ideas and youthful energy.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about opera of late – big and small, professional and otherwise. These are dark days for the art form, with companies closing up shop in communities like New York and San Diego, and many more in dire financial shape. I’ve been working with a couple of them the last few years, and am a fan of others, smaller companies like Intimate Opera of Indianapolis. These youngsters are producing amazing work, spooky and artful, with the smallest of budgets and ample creativity.
I also see professional opera thriving in communities with dynamic leadership – places like Omaha, Nebraska where Roger Weitz’s company is doing beautiful and innovative work at sustainable scale.
The mean spirited and callous dismissal of grand opera troubles me greatly, and I am very sick of hearing small-minded haters spew venom. Do you want to really talk wasteful spending? Chat up the US military, Chase bank and NFL free agency.
The human need to tell our stories and to sing will always be with us, just as Shakespeare’s words will be read aloud for as long as mankind holds on.
Am I a fan of opera? Not especially. Growing up backstage, I always heard lit bits and pieces, taking pause for the good stuff – the Mozart overtures, some of the great Puccini songs, the thunderous finales, and ignored the slow passages.
Even as a lighting designer I found this to be true, the practical challenges of making a vast stage set and performers visually consistent and beautiful being difficult enough that it was usually after the opening night performance when I would sit back and actually watch the story unfold.
Without question, opera is the most expensive art form to produce. A grand opera can sell every ticket and cost hundreds of thousands more than the earned income.
And so, shall it continue? Can it continue?
I hope so. A city is diminished in ways we cannot always describe easily when the arts are lacking.
The most magical thing about the arts is this – in our small-minded and ROI seeking society at the moment, we cannot possibly know or anticipate the impact it will have on a life. I thought I’d be a social scientist. Opera turned that 18 year old into an artful fundraiser, and my story is one of millions.
I want to live in a city where art and sport are celebrated not only for the vitality of city life but for the artists who strive and for the ambition to pursue something so grand and beautiful (on those occasional moments) that it cannot be expressed into words. Its beauty must be sung.
Long Live Opera.