Opera was my initial introduction to Italy. I vividly remember as a wide-eyed child in the 1980s’ China, worlds apart from Italy, on Sunday mornings, I woke up in birds chirping, gentle sunlight, and, opera songs, played by my parents from our cassette boombox. Fascinated and enchanted, I would close my eyes and imagine: the great concert halls, and the stories, lives, and cultures inside operas, week after week, month after month. Then I blinked, time flew, loved ones aged, world changed beyond recognition.
Years later I traveled to New York to study, where I visited Lincoln Center for the first time, home of the legendary Metropolitan Opera. Standing in the golden grand hall of Lincoln Center, the imagined stages in my childhood dream came alive in front of my eyes. Lincoln Center’s stage was as magnificent as the magic realm in my dream. I became a regular patron, and watched some of the greatest opera singers perform at the end of their careers.
Finally, one year, I visited La Scala in Milan, the cradle of many operas. Sitting in a box in Scala, the greatest operas I had listened to, together with my memory of different times, different people, and different continents, partly dream and partly reality, flashed back in front my eyes. Closing my eyes, I returned to those sweet, by-gone Sunday mornings in my childhood.
Challenges that operas face
I hope these great operas never end. That is why I was saddened to discover the existential challenges that operas face today. The difficulties are multifaceted, complex, and ubiquitous. First, opera’s viewer base has been decreasing and aging. Younger audiences, except small groups of opera fans, generally lack interest. Among the general public, there is an increasing lack of awareness of operas and increasing competition from other forms of content, especially from online media.
Second, the content of classical opera is traditional, and often resonates less with a modern audience. Some traditional content, originally developed a century ago in its own historical and cultural context, can even be considered sexist, racist, or deeply biased, according to modern standards.
Third, from an operational perspective, operas are costly to stage and perform. The capacity of opera theaters is large but limited. So is the frequency of performance. World-renowned star performers who can draw a large number of global followers are increasingly rare.
Finally, all the above challenges translate into limited funding. For some of the world’s leading opera companies, ticket sales cover only a fraction of the costs; most funding comes from donors and sponsors. Over time, as opera becomes a small niche in the market, the value propositions for donors and sponsors also decline. Funding raising becomes increasingly challenging.
As a result, grand operas are fading from the collective consciousness of societies.
Opera becoming obsolete would be a nightmarish finale for my childhood dream. I hope it never happens. The question is: how to save opera? In fact, how to save opera is a case study I always teach my students, from undergraduates to MBAs and C-level executives in different industries and countries. Does opera have a future? If there is, how to secure that future? What would be your solution?
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