Opera News covers throughout the ages

Mastering the Publishing Cadenza: An Interview with Opera News’ F. Paul Driscoll

Opera News celebrates 80 years of publication this year -- so how do they stay relevant in this day and age? Let Editor-in-Chief F. Paul Driscoll tell you what he's discovered.

Only a few weeks ago, PopMatters published a feature concerned with the negative stigma around opera in our times. Writer Andrew Grossman noted that “the very existence of opera in 21st century America seems a defiant anachronism, a magnificence corpse that, inexplicably, still breathes.”

It was with interest that I considered Grossman’s writings in preparing to talk to F. Paul Driscoll. While he is hardly a household name, the publication of which F. Paul Driscoll is the editor is one of the most prominent classical music publications in the US. Opera News provides an outlet for fans of the apparently “anachronistic” art form, by way of a digital and print magazine. The ability of this print magazine to exist, despite the multitude of contemporary publications which have been exiled to solely online formats, is perhaps as admirable as the continued popularity, at least in some circles, of the art form which the magazine focuses on.

But while one may assume that his is targeted entirely at an older demographic, Driscoll insists that the industry is making concerted efforts to attract a younger audience. PopMatters sat down with him to discuss the strategies opera companies use to entice the youth, the print music magazine and the state of opera in the modern day.

* * *

In the digital age, what sets the print music magazine apart from the webzine? Why do we still need the print music magazine?

You’re talking about different ways of consuming the same information. I think that when you’re dealing with a publication that connects with people at a passion point like opera, there are an overwhelming number of readers who like to use the magazine as a reference point, to keep copies of it and collect it, to appreciate that it is something that comes into their home, that it brings the world of opera to them at a very specific time of month and so on and so forth. That’s the way the print magazine has been set up.

The digital edition and the website clearly give us a wider reach than the print edition. It has been very successful in reaching an international audience as the cost of paper, the cost of postage, and everything else goes up. The website is a way to get out news faster, and be part of a conversation faster. People consume information about all subjects very differently than they did even five years ago. I think [digital methods] connect not only with a younger audience, but in an industry which is not location sensitive, when it’s online, it helps to get news disseminated faster. And when news is Tweeted back and forth, for example, people can connect in a way which is very intimate and very powerful.

You mentioned younger audiences, do you think it’s a problem that opera is seen as being quite homogenous in terms of the age of its audience?

I’m not that familiar with subscription systems overseas, but the consumption of theatrical and musical events, not just opera performances … the subscription model which really drove growth at the audience base in the United States, especially in the late ’50s and onwards, does not work to the degree it once did. People are not looking to lock into having six performances set aside on the third Tuesday of the month, going down a period of seven or eight months. So the buying habits are different from generation to generation.

Younger people are less willing to commit their time in advance. I think that they’re much more event-oriented in terms of the way they’re reached by marketing, and in terms of the way they’re reached in news consumption. The fastest way anyone used to get news was the daily newspaper and now you can get updates every 15 minutes. Now, people are not looking to lock in their consumption of an art form long term. I think younger audiences are very plugged into opera when they can afford it, which is an extremely big conditional. Opera companies have to work very hard to make their product more affordable for people who can’t afford the most expensive tickets.

There are several ways around that. There are many companies which have imaginative solutions for reaching younger audiences — younger entrepreneurs for example are doing site-specific opera and opera that connects with industrial spaces. Some extend the experience beyond the actual performance to include a post-show party atmosphere with disco music and that sort of stuff. I think it’s something that’s very much connected to the culture of the consumer economy here in the United States.

Companies have to address the fact that people of a younger generation spend money differently, they have less disposable income and that there’s so much more competition for the entertainment dollar. It’s not just opera, it’s rock concerts, it’s the myriad possibilities available through digital television, broadcast television etc. I think that in terms of entertainment right now, we’re seeing a situation roughly analogous to the way television has changed. When I was growing up, there were I think five television channels in the city of New York. That has certainly gotten to the point where there are hundreds of channel options on your television set alone. I think that’s something that companies need to be more nimble about, in terms of how they reach those audiences.

What role do you think music publications have to play in that outreach?

I think it’s a question of guiding people towards what’s best, irrespective of their age. I think that for a younger consumer, they look to a publication that can be trusted to recommend what composers are of interest, what theatres are of interest, what singers are of interest, and make an educated and informed decision as to what their opera choice should be. There are so many barriers to entry in opera, to use marketing jargon; you’re talking about musical form, the length of the piece, language …

[The role of publications] is to cut through that and let everyone know that everyone is welcome. When you’re talking about opera, people have an opinion the way they have an opinion about frogs legs; they think they don’t like it whether or not they’ve tasted it.

But there are literally thousands of different types of compositional styles, operas of different lengths, operas of different subject matter, things that have dropped out of the repertory, things that are coming in to the repertory. There are new operas being composed literally every day, especially here in the United States, addressing contemporary issues. So I think that’s something we’re calling attention to and which will help more people feel welcome, and make them into habitual consumers of opera.

Do you ever worry though that, despite all that, young people just might not make the transition into liking opera due to the fact that it’s something, like you say, that there seems to be a lot of stigma around?

I think it’s like a disease. [laughs] I think if you’re born with an immunity to it, there’s no way I can get you to catch it. But I think that I am encouraged by the interest that younger people take in opera. I don’t know if they’re going to be coming with the degree of regularity that their parents or grandparents were. As I said, people consume things differently now. I think that when we talk about getting new audiences for opera, getting people who are totally new to it is a big challenge, but I think we have to accept the fact that the people who come in now are going to have different expectations to the audiences who came in 50 or 60 years ago.

How far is “too far” when you’re adapting an opera for a modern audience?

I don’t think there is such a thing as “too far” if the production style or the directorial approach is grounded in the music. I’ve been to productions that were very modern or very avant-garde, and was quite impressed with them because they had musical and dramatic validity. I’ve also been to very traditional productions which I found horrifying because they had absolutely no connection to the music.

What do you mean by “musical and dramatic validity”?

What happens in a great many productions now is that what is marketed and what is directed and what is designed is the libretto, which is the story. But, that libretto is the skeleton on which the music hangs. In an ideal combination, they sit together seamlessly. I think that if you decide you’re going to direct an opera performance and just alter the story, very often you’re left with little bits of music that are hanging out to dry that you haven’t really taken into account.

I saw a production of a Mozart opera where a female character was singing a very, very technically difficult aria, and the director chose to have her taking a bath. Now, I thought that was a poor decision. Nothing was timed to the music and she looked distinctly uncomfortable. A couple of years later, I saw a production at the Chicago Opera Theatre, and it was The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi, which had a character taking a bath and I thought it was absolutely breathtaking. It said something about the character which was completely supported by the music and completely supported by her position in the drama as an object of desire for the male characters.

Do you think it’s acceptable to cut parts of an opera like a dramaturge would for regular theatre?

Sure. Opera’s been doing it for ages. The Met produced Wagner operas towards the very beginning of the house’s life in 1883, and they were done with cuts until maybe the second or third iteration. Some of the Wagner Ring Cycle things are done with or without cuts depending on the season and the conductor. The fashion of cutting, if I can use that term loosely, is relatively recent. In the mid-20th century, you would never have heard an uncut performance of some operas. You would still have to go very far to hear an uncut performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo.

So it depends on the situation, but I think if the cuts are done with intelligence and taste and if they observe the music and the dramatic support that the cuts need … and also I think looking at the endurance of the audience is important. Because something that was put on in the mid-19th century at the Paris Opera was put on for the benefit of ladies and gentlemen who did not have to get up to go to work in the morning. There’s a limited amount of scope for people to sit through six and seven hour operas. If it’s something where the length is part of the appeal such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle, then people know how to prepare for it. But for a lot of other things, it becomes more difficult.

Obviously, there are so many more extra-musical features behind an opera than other forms of classical music, so what do you think an opera can teach us about the creative processes and character of its composer and participants?

I think it combines everything. If it’s well done, it gives you drama, it gives you music, it gives you design … it gives you the relationship between the singer and the text and the music, it gives you the relationship between the singer and the stage director, it gives you the relationship between the singer and the orchestra and the conductor, and how all that fits together. You get a truly impressive, active collaboration in a successful opera performance.

You also have the issue of language. One of the things that has always appealed to me is the fact that music is a universal language. It speaks beyond words, but opera, even if it is done in the original language, is something that can connect text to the listener in a way that underpins the emotion, and gives you a universal understanding of what a character is meant to be thinking and feeling. My favourite example is in Nozze di Figaro by Mozart. Mozart wrote Nozze di Figaro, and most of his other operas actually, for a very small group of singers. His operas were done in his lifetime obviously, principally in the German speaking world.

When he did Nozze di Figaro, he wrote a very intimate moment for The Count and Countess. The Count had behaved very badly in the previous act, and he says to The Countess, “please forgive me,” and she answers with a pause. Mozart had no way of knowing, when he wrote it, that that pause would still be engaging people’s interest hundreds of years later. But it has reached so many people on a visceral level, that you hear this, and realize that in the hands of a master like Mozart, he can write a relationship musically between a man and a woman that allows you to accept the fact that there are no endings, happy or unhappy — that a relationship is something which continues to evolve and grow. I think that’s part of the genius of that work and the genius of that composer, and links to the way we relate to him.