Interview: Why ‘Opera As Opera’ Author Conrad L. Osborne Asserts That Artform Is In Creative Decline

By David Salazar

“They just don’t sing as well as they used to.”

You’ve heard it at some point during your opera-going. Some might dismiss such a statement as Golden Age Fallacy, nostalgic thinking that only emphasizes the positive aspects of the past and holding them up as better than the positives of the modern era.

But Conrad L. Osborne thinks that is very true, not only with singing, but the performance of opera as a whole.

Osborne has known opera his whole life. Growing up in Denver in the 1940s, his father, a bass, used to perform at the Denver Civic Operas and would take the five-year-old Osborne to dress rehearsals. But his big fascination with opera often came from the record collection his father kept.

“You would fantasize through these records and you imagine what the world must be when you listen to it,” he told OperaWire in a recent interview.

He then moved to New York at age nine and took in his first opera experiences at the New York City Opera and Met Opera in 1947; his first City Opera performance was “Carmen,” while at the Met he saw “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.”

He started his career as an actor, then performed a bit as a singer, and started writing criticism in 1959 for Opera News and later for High Fidelity. He would remain a critic for a lengthy period of time, going back and performing intermittently. He also took up teaching, which remains his “day job.”

Throughout his life as an opera lover he has felt that the trend toward the artform’s decline is truly real and he believes it so strongly that he spent the better part of the last 18 years writing an 800-plus page book explaining that not only was opera presented in a far superior manner in the past, but that the current trajectory will not lead to the long-term sustainability of the artform.

“Opera as Opera” is an encyclopedic look at every single aspect of the artform and how it has devolved over the last century. He breaks down trends in directing, singing, acting, and even the creation of operas in the 20th century, all of which he feels have contributed to the artform’s decline.

He does establish that opera’s challenges in the 21st century are also demographic and economical, but for him the central issue that is causing the increasing marginalization is an artistic one.

Repertory Stagnation

It all starts with the repertoire. Osborne posits that the main staples of the operatic canon start with the major works of Mozart and stretch through until the operas of Richard Strauss; he calls this the Extended 19th Century or “E-19 for short.” Osborne does note that many operas from before and after this period have become part of the repertoire, but in his view, these works are the ones that are part of the “renewable re-affirmability that sustain our operatic institutions.” Moreover, he notes that operas of this period showcase similarity of content in terms of the music, plot and themes they tell, even if there are marked differences of style throughout the period.

In his view, there is a general “flight from E-19” with new operatic creators placing more emphasis on theory and philosophy with regard to how the artform is created, de-emphasizing the narrative roots that were at the core of major staples.

In musical terms, he points to the “atonalists and serialists, creating a whole new language that forbid diatonic melody and sought to express things in different way.”

The idea was taken up by the musical intellectuals, pedagogues, and institutions, leading to the idea that “simple, expressive melodies” were outdated for expressive purposes.

“And if you did [use melodies], then it had to be so harmonically disguised that the listener couldn’t pick up on it anyway,” he added.

“That’s a central problem as far as opera is concerned,” Osborne further opined. “The singing-actor is the center of the operatic experience and characters are expressed through their individual vocal achievements. If you don’t have melody to sing or take advantage of how the voice has been developed over 400 years or so of operatic history, you don’t have much of anything at the center of the form’s expressive possibilities.”

He noted that the result is opera getting built up of other things.

“Modernism is built up of materials and structure. The content is not the subject. The subject is the materials.”

He referenced the idea that in modern art, the subject of the painting is not what is being depicted, but the paint and canvas itself. In music, the harmonic structures, rhythm, and instrumental timbre are given preponderance over melody in modernism.

“That isn’t to say that it isn’t interesting. Some modernist music is very compelling. But it’s not an individual, subjective, emotional expression based on the vocal line, which is, by definition, melodic.”

On a narrative level, Osborne believes “another issue is that everyone is floundering about trying to figure out what there is to sing about. What kind of story makes an opera and how can we tell the story in operatic terms? It isn’t that people aren’t intelligent, or skilled, or creative. But how do you apply them and find solutions to those problems and tell stories in operatic manner.”

He devotes an entire chapter to exploring the stories and themes explored continuously throughout E-19 operas and why they were so potent for operatic expression; he feels that these principles have been largely abandoned by modern-day librettists.

The result is a proliferation of many new works, but few (or none in his estimation) that actually get repeatedly produced and retain strong places in the repertoire.

“For a little over 100 years now, we haven’t been adding to the canonical repertory with any degree of success at all,” Osborne noted, emphasizing an overall quality gap that has made these works lack the transcendence of something like the operas of Wagner, Verdi, or Mozart, among others.

That isn’t to say that Osborne hasn’t found anything of quality. He referenced that some composers, such as Thomas Adès, have occasionally excited him.

“[Sometimes you run into] compelling passages and scenes, but in terms of adding up to a whole piece that I want to see or hear again or get the score, I don’t ever come away feeling that. Occasionally, I wonder if a different cast or different conductor and director, I wouldn’t mind seeing what might be brought out of it. But that’s as far as I get.”

One particular opera that did pique his interest and makes a prominent appearance in the book is George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin.” Osborne noted that one of the work’s finest features is its narrative, which returns to the medieval roots that most E-19 operas were so successfully based on.

“I found the piece quite fascinating and I think it is very compelling and very well-produced and performed,” he noted though he did warn that it is a “a connoisseur’s piece” and worried about whether it would ever hold a place alongside “La Traviata” or “Turandot” in the standard repertory with audiences clamoring at which great opera singer would step up to interpret it at a major theater.

“It’s a piece to be appreciated on a more specialized and somewhat more intellectualized level. And that’s fine. It’s a good opera and I think it will have revivals and be done. But it isn’t the kind of opera that will be repeatable or renewable works that will be part of your core repertory.”

Directors As Authors

Because there is repertory stagnation, large opera companies must keep returning to the well of E-19 operas to keep the organizations alive and vital. But in his view, there has been a mistake in how these works have been presented, with the implementation of cultural revisionism and authorial production methods distorting not only the works, but the understanding of what an interpreter is.

The person at the center of this movement? The director.

Osborne notes that for him the director’s first and primary job “is to work with the performers to help them find their own creative ways through roles and to bring that out of them on the stage. To find what it is that they individually can bring to a role. And then to coordinate and stage that. And to conform it a very broad outline of the ‘aboutness’ of the work.

“Within those boundaries there is an infinite variety of things that you find. Any individual performer or good actor going about looking at these parts will find very different things from another good actor and still be true to the basics of what’s there in the text. And the same with the musical expression of it. Any good singer with a good stylistic feel for a Verdi aria, who looks carefully at what is there in the text and consults his own imagination about what’s going on inside the character, can come up with different interpretations and responses from another artist of that caliber. And any good director will accept that, as long as it doesn’t get out of line with the overall arc that is being done with how the story is being told.”

The “aboutness” is crucial for Osborne as in his estimation, it comes directly from the text and its intentions; not derived from the director’s own imagination of what he or she wishes was in the text. But that is precisely what the director is doing when he or she becomes another author, instead of interpreter, as is the case in the modern opera system.

“In my view, it is not the director’s prerogative to believe that he can tell a different story, rewrite the text to mean something that he or she prefers would have been said. If the director doesn’t like what is said or doesn’t think it is relevant, then he should direct something else,” Osborne pointed out. “[In many productions today], the director really is the co-author of the piece. And for me that is an enormous distortion of how interpretation should be done.”

This creates issues with how performers can develop and express their characters onstage. Osborne referenced an interview that famed tenor Jonas Kaufmann had with Marie d’Origny in to set the table.

“[Kaufmann] talks about going around from production to production trying to find how to express what it is that you believe about the character, but everything going on around you has nothing to do with that,” Osborne explained. “He evens says it would be amusing if it wasn’t sad. He just tries to remember what the last ‘traditional’ impression he had of the role was and tries to go ahead and do that, even though everything around him is something else. And when he tries to bring it up with the director and asks why they have to do something that isn’t indicated and that he as a performer doesn’t believe is going on with the character, he’ll be told not to be so literal about it.”

Lost Vocal Traditions

For many operagoers of Osborne’s generation, the voices of today simply can’t match the quality of those of the past. Osborne agrees.

“Keeping in mind that what I would mean by ‘truly great singing’ would be singing of the sort that fulfills the demands of the masterworks of opera’s maturity, I think of the early 1970’s as the fading of its last generation, with such singers as Sutherland, Nilsson, Tebaldi, Crespin, Rysanek, Gorr, Simionato; Corelli, Tucker, Vickers; Merrill, Taddei, MacNeil, Gobbi; Siepi, Christoff, Ghiaurov, and several others either reaching the end or passing their peaks, and no one, really, to replace them.”

For Osborne, this vocal decline is the result of the current “system” in place throughout the opera world. He noted that when he started out in his career, many of the great singers placed great emphasis on private study, with the institution sticking in the background in terms of vocal formation.

“Now we have this system which has become so set into our way of thinking how things are done,” he explained. “It’s a closed shop and only has itself to refer to in terms how they go about creating voices and how they go about getting performers to develop a role. All that is now systematized and routinized and people don’t seem to be able to get outside those boxes.”

He noted that culture and time are also major factors. With each passing generation, traditions of the past become but memories and new demands of the social milieu take on greater importance for those training singers and those hiring them. In his book, Osborne places great blame on the microphone, for example, as a proponent of allowing underdeveloped voices to come to the fore and even allowing for certain habits to creep into performance practice.

“People don’t really have a model for what was once assumed to be the healthy, outgoing vocal expression, even in just everyday speech,” he explained. “To say nothing of formal classical music.”

Still, he does believe there are strong voices and singers with “real acting talent,” though he is still waiting for “great voices and people that are in really technical command of them and doing bold, exciting things with them.”

There is Hope

And while the broad panorama is undeniably not a positive outlook as portrayed in the book, Osborne does think that there can be some progress made to shift opera back on track for future generations.

“There’s lot of activity going on and maybe some of that can turn into something to build on,” Osborne noted, referencing the growth of the sub-genre of Chamber Opera.

He noted that as a teacher, he has seen many of his own students appear in these smaller works and that in many cases he has seen operas with “effective writing for performers.”

“Chamber opera is its own wonderful field that has created some wonderful pieces,” he explained. “You could certainly build up a repertory and have chamber opera companies put these on. And there is enough written that you could put together a season’s worth of very worthwhile operas.”

But Chamber Opera, in his view, can’t fix what ails operas on a grander scale being performed at the major houses around the planet. For Osborne, there’s no quick cure-all and he doesn’t claim to have one, but he is a proponent for a need to re-examine and overhaul the way things are done.

“An effort has to be made from an interpretative point of view to restore the essential integrity of what interpretation is,” he stated. “Any of the canonical operas can still be a thrilling, exciting, transformative experience, if they are performed well enough.”

And he’s happy to see composers and librettists continue attempting to create that new repertory staple.

“I’m open to see them continue trying to see what they might come up with.”


Behind the ScenesInterviews