Criticism on Fridays: Connecting the Opera Industry

To Evolve, We Have to See & Hear Each Other, & Then We Can Speak & Be Heard

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo: Kari Shea)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future. 

Almost five years ago, working on a social news media product concept, I wrote: “It starts with a whisper…” I remember, this single phrase won the whole team over and got us money from the investors. The whisper, assuring us that people will start talking about what’s important to them, that we’ll raise their voices, was the most powerful tool. And today, I believe I hear it too, this hopeful rustle…

When this article was only being shaped, it had a different narrative and even another idea. It was intended to force opera stars to keep speaking, and people to listen. But as always with these weekly essays, a single phrase could change the whole story.

Last week, Joyce DiDonato, Jonas Kaufmann, and Javier Camarena gave a heartbreaking speech about the problems of other musicians during what was supposed to be a celebratory press conference in Madrid. Actually, that was what pushed me to write the previous issue — Jonas Kaufmann, giving up his signature smile, to say the word “suicide” in public.

This week, Yannick Nézet-Séguin wrote his open letter to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris expressing his hopes and wishes for the Arts in the US. The urgent need for institutional rather than financial support for art was voiced at the state level. And I’ve seen this letter reposted maybe one thousand times in my feed before I finally reached the original post. A thousand times mean a thousand comments, perspectives, and voices. 

All those and many other public statements revealed that the situation probably became so desperate that even big stars are ready to speak out on very inconvenient topics. Such breakthroughs cause a great response at the moment they point out a problem, but then, they easily disappear under the layers of happy news. But if not this, then what could cause real changes?

Thinking about it, I recalled my recent talk with baritone Evan Dunn from “Take the Stage” podcast. Evan then noted that it’s important not just to see the problems but “to think of an issue in the opera world that might frustrate singers, but ultimately is something that singers can rise above.”

And here, I thought about dilemmas that emerged so clearly for everyone during the pandemic. I don’t believe, none of these can be solved by us, singers, managers, journalists. Moreover, I think most of them should be solved by us only. The past week’s issue of the Criticism on Fridays caused serious discussion in professional circles. And seeking resolutions, I read what my readers were thinking – could you hear this quiet whisper from their public Facebook pages?

“Have artists been ever ‘connected’ and confident to speak up?” Asks Natalie Burlutskaya, Co-founder and Artist Manager of Spotlight Artists Management.

And that’s an important question that gets deeper than the beautiful words of Joyce DiDonato, who inspires musicians to be a family. Are we a family, Natalie questions? I don’t see it right now.

But we definitely can become one.

If we only see those who lost their professional voices and therefore became totally unseen. If we admit their problems are our own. If we accept that stage competition does not cancel humanity. And then, how much easier will it be to talk among your own people. How many topics will be voiced without fear? 

We need to do better! We need to think what is our place in popular culture,” David Lomeli, Director of Artistic Administration at The Dallas Opera, commented on the essay.

Today, the industry can and should be rethought with a focus on people. If we want another industry structure and we want to improve the existing one, we have to see how it will work and how we can find a place for everyone. Transparency, worker’s rights, publicity, equality, and safety will not come of their own accord. They require important changes in the policies, education, and work of the theatres.

So, I’m asking, to whom all those changes should be applied? Who are these people who follow the existing harsh rules, using any chance to get hired, accepting that freelancers don’t get paid in Germany, or forcing the Met Opera orchestra forced to sign a questionable deal? They are us. But the funniest thing is that we don’t have to be these people. We need to do better, remember?

Can you hear this? This whisper… so quiet, yet on the personal pages (but isn’t it where we live now?), but it’s here. These questions, ideas, intentions come not from me, or Joyce DiDonato, or maestro Muti. They are yours, and they matter.

If today each and every one of us does nothing, we will return to the pre-existing state so fast we won’t even notice. But what we will notice for sure is the next crisis, which will leave thousands of artists without their art, thousands of people without a livelihood, and others without the strength and meaning to live. 

The next trial in the opera industry will have to be overcome using the experience of today.

A sad prospect, isn’t it? Well, stop thinking about a possible miserable future. Watch it now as it is happening. Watch the singers you manage, the orchestra whose recording you listened to this morning, or hundreds of students giving up their dreams right now. And thousands of those whom you will never meet.

They are just as valuable. Notice them.

Make your opinion public. Write a message of support or a message of protest. Start a conversation. 

Last week, I said #ArtIsPeople, amazing people betrayed by their industry. This week, I say #WeAreOperaIndustry

So, what will we do to evolve?