Who is opera for, anyway?

When I generally think about classical music performances, I think about how often they’re used in film as the backdrop for a major plot point. These scenes are most often like the gleefully over-edited sequence in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, where James Bond outs members of the grand conspiracy mid-opera. Occasionally, though, they can prove to be poignant and even powerful — I still think a lot about the solitary evening at the orchestra that closes out the incredible 2019 French drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and how it brought me to genuine, heartwrenching tears in a crowded movie theatre.

As different as these scenes are, I bring them up because I think they both say something important about our culture’s relationship to what we’ve collected under the monolithic label of “classical music”. It’s rare that we encounter the genre in any form on its own merit — we might put on a concerto for background noise while writing or studying, or a symphony to set the mood for a fancy dinner or a scene in a movie, but rarely do we actively seek them out in day-to-day life. Classical music — especially as a live performance — seems most often meant for a particular people (old wealth) in particular places (symbolic of old wealth).

But for performers like this week’s guest Angela Yam, that mindset is long overdue for a change. As Angela sees it, contemporary opera is has grown well beyond popular understanding to become home to a dynamic and complex culture of young performers looking to fundamentally reconsider what their medium is capable of. Now, with COVID disrupting the genre at every level, Angela sees more opportunities than ever to redefine who opera is for and what forms it can take moving forward.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully escape associating opera and other classical music forms with cinematic tomfoolery, but I like to believe that — as in all mediums — the work my fellow Millennials are doing now could change those associations for those who follow. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Daniel Craig summersaulting through the bar of an Austrian theatre to Puccini’s Tosca, but I do wonder why the reverse seems so much more ridiculous?

Thanks for listening,
Mason Hershenow


From Sean’s Desk:

I think it’s important to note — as I do in the podcast — how truly special Angela’s talent is and development has been. Her remarkable sense of musicality and innate understanding of drama snap into focus when you see her perform pieces like this, which is mentioned in the episode. Her ingenuity and resilience are not limited to how she handles the way her identity intertwines with the classical music world — she is always searching for opportunities to learn and is fearless in approaching new challenges. Angela is a star in the making.

– Sean

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