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Making Them Sing Again: Opera's Second Act

was specifically designed to keep the wood blocks from deteriorating, with a higher altitude with ample ventilation. 

In 1995, the temple has become a UNESCO Heritage Site. in 2000, after painstaking work, the Tripitaka went digital! And, the monks are making a copper version as back-up. Lesson learned from history!  We have heard of several cases where AI is used to help preserve and analyze ancient religious documents, which previously required monks an entire lifetime and could be lost if the specialists died.

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Perhaps you've been to the opera, but you probably haven't: a 1992 study found that only 3.3% of Americans had ever sat down in person to watch a robust person sing, and, while the data is thin, the percentages were probably lower in many other places—and even lower now, when attendance at all live events has struggled with Covid and the internet. Take a moment to explore the origins of opera, then discuss with your team: what makes it different than Broadway-style musical theater?

According to the San Francisco Opera - "Born in Italy more than 400 years ago during the Renaissance, opera—a combination of vocal and orchestral music, drama, visual arts and dance—has been inspiring people for ages." That's the short answer.

The Italian word "opera" means "work" and is the plural form of the word "opus".  It originated from the Renaissance, with a group of Florentine statesmen, artists and writers called the Florentine Camerata, who wanted to recreate the Greek dramas through music. The first opera was Dafne by Jacopo Peri in 1597. Opera split into two major types: opera seria, which were formal and sponsored by the upper class and opera buffa (comedies).

In the Baroque period (1600-1750), opera flourished and became grander. Famous composers included Handel and all the parts were sung by males, sometimes castrated males to preserve their soprano voice. Today, these parts are sung by women. 

 

In the Classical period (1750-1830), opera evolved with more realistic plots and less excessive vocal display. Mozart was the ultimate composer with his famous masterpiece "The Marriage of Figaro". 

As opera progressed in the Romantic period (1830-1900), opera became extremely popular.  Grand opera featured 'bel canto' meaning brilliant singing with simpler harmonic structures. Famous composers include Gioachino Rossini (The Barber of Seville), Gaetano Donizetti’s (Lucia di Lammermoor - about forced marriage and murder and madness), and Georges Bizet (Carmen). In that period opera split into two main styles: German and Italian. Italian notable works include Giuseppe Verdi (La Traviata, about Violetta, a beautiful courtesan who is fatally ill with tuberculosis.). The German style was dominated by Richard Wagner who wrote a 15 hour opera called Ring cycle: Das Rheingold.

In the early 1900s, Italian composer Giacomo Puccini gifted the world with works about realistic tragedy in the Grand Opera style:  La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot.

 

Throughout the 1900s, opera continues to be an influential artistic force with new meanings and themes: Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (politically-fueled) among others.  

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Is "Phantom of the Opera" an opera? If you said 'yes', then you are mistaken. Opera and musicals are actually dramatically and musically different!

Vocally, opera is more strong, elegant and emotive, while in Broadway musicals, vocals feature more belting and rarely vibrato - emotion is expressed through movement. Opera singers with solid training tend to have longer careers. Opera vocal terminology include: aria, recitatives and larger chorus. Arias are undoubtedly the opera's most famous and memorable parts because they are solos and full of emotions. 

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In terms of theater, all the lines are sung in an opera, while in musicals the spoken lines are important to unfolding the plot. That's why many people feel you must know a foreign language to appreciate opera. In Broadway, the dialogue is crucial and singing numbers are musical expression part of the show. Opera fans expect brilliant singing and have less expectation on acting, but acting and singing are both critical for Broadway. 

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Milan's iconic opera house La Scala is providing tickets at Euro 2 for people between 18-25 in the hopes of fostering a new generation of opera lovers.  The cultural minister of Milan stated that some young people experience malaise (uneasiness) with culture and this is a way to introduce culture to people who might have been scared to take the first step into a sophisticated and artistic world.

 

Personally, I think it is a great initiative as opera is considered a high-class art, yet very few people understand and appreciate its heritage, technique and artistic expression. Many blame it on the high price of tickets, but now this is an affordable way to tickle your ears. 

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Opera is changing with the help of technology. For the world premiere of "Somnium" in Hong Kong, this new opera feature multimedia and robot rovers. The effect was "part-installation, part-opera and part-trance". The story is very nontraditional and is based on a book by German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1608) across two time dimensions Iceland and Hong Kong. The main character is a single mother from Iceland who finds her son and calls forth a demon to take them on a journey to the moon and they meet a father and daughter from Hong Kong.

The audience can roam through the multimedia space for 3 hours. In one room, the actors are present through screens on robot rovers and the audience walks around to experience their different stories. The other room has a big giant moon and beanbags for people to dream and immerse themselves in the music. Can't judge this but this is definitely nothing like traditional opera.

Opera takes a new form in the performance of 'Rigoletto' during the Pandemic in the Kaleidoscope of Culture festival in Novi Sad, Serbia. Instead of being in a grand opera house, the show was done outdoors and for audiences around the world through live streaming.  This is just one of the ways that opera is adapting and reaching new audiences, and we think it is a good development as it brings comfort and interest to people during the pandemic. Opera shouldn't only be a form of culture for the high-class, but something that inspires the public, especially through the use of technology.   

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Yuval Sharon is the guy that is revamping opera and giving it a freshness that speaks to a younger generation. He is founder and co-Artistic Director of The Industry in Los Angeles and the Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director of Detroit Opera.  He founded The Industry, "a company devoted to new and experimental opera that has brought opera into moving vehicles, operating train stations, Hollywood sound stages, and various “non-spaces” such as warehouses, parking lots, and escalator corridors. Sharon conceived, directed, and produced the company’s acclaimed world premieres of Sweet Land, Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City. "

 

Definitely, click on the link above and take a look at his website, and the photos will amaze you, making you think again about opera's future. 

"Like most pandemic art, the landscape of “Twilight: Gods” was born of regulation and necessity. As conceived by Sharon, a 2017 MacArthur “genius,” and you can see why right here, the work is consumed from inside a car." Sharon is the genius behind this innovative opera that lets the audience experience the show at 3 miles per hour over 70 minutes while driving through the various levels of a giant parking garage. The show's vocals are heard through a pre-set FM station with actors and musicians at 5 designated spots. Unlike traditional opera, this new method offers a sense of intimacy and less grandeur - but who is to say it is not more creative? We like it and can't wait to see what Sharon pull off next. 

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Opera has evolved dramatically in the past 400 or so years, taking many different stages, techniques, styles and formats. All the new ways are innovative interpretations of the past and give viewers a more connected experience that they can relate to.  However, the essence of storytelling through virtuosity of music remains unchanged. Bravo! Hope this section has inspires you to attend an operatic performance!

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Is it important what a musicians wears? Or should we just judge what we hear? Apparently, clothing is a big debate in the world of classical music steep in heritage and social expectations. 

This interesting article describes the various opinions and feedback that female classical musicians have received for their clothing and how they use their wardrobe as a way of self-expression and connection, not public approval. 

Dr Samantha Ege wore a beautiful long red dress with West African

designs. For her, the outfit was a personal expression she was proud of. Another musician was saxophonist Jess Gillam who enjoys wearing bold metallic prints that give a sense of joy. Yet, their choice in fashion is not celebrated and often criticized as traditionally, "classical music is suppose to be heard and not seen."  Women especially have even more risk as they are often sexualized for their appearance instead of being respected for their artistry. 

One of the most controversial of these artists is Yujia Wang who often performs with mini dresses. Also, according to the article, they are not commenting about her fashion statement, but more about her as sexualized figure. These comments ruin her reputation as one of the most important classical musicians today.  Sadly, she is not the first and won't be the last. In 1944, conductor Ruth Gipps was scorned for wearing a colorful dress. Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale (hint: The Greatest Showman) was often described as "childlike", needing a man's guidance. Classical music needs some modernization when it comes to criticism and perspectives about fashion choices which are sensitive and respectful. 

"Black suits, shirts, and long ties will replace the traditional white tie and tails, while full-length black dresses, skirts, or pants remain." Traditionally, orchestras always wore the same kind of clothing as their audience to bring together a closer bond. Since the mid-19th century, orchestras have been wearing white-tie and tails, which reflected the way that wealthy American audiences dressed. And, since then, that habit stuck, and most orchestras wear white tie and tails for performances. However, as the time are changing, so is the dress code. Most are changing to be slightly more casual and welcome the change. However, a few patrons believe, seeing the orchestra dressed in something we don't see every day is what makes it special. Most believe removing the dress code would make the musicians seem more approachable. 

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One of the most controversial musicians in terms of fashion is undoubtedly Lady Gaga.  While she has toned down her clothing in the last few years, she used to be really 'shocking' and often her clothing were more talked about than her music. She was famous for sky-high platform shoes, sexy and strange outfits, and crazy make-up. Some people say, people didn't really take her seriously until she changed her fashion style. Her most iconic look is probably the meat dress which she said was meant to protest but condemned by animal rights groups.

Do you think musicians have a right to wear whatever they want? I do. It is their free choice, but they can't expect everyone to like or respect what they wear. Clothing is a sign of respect a performer has for the show and the audience.  Do you think fashion distracts from the audience's experience? Of course. Fashion can add or distract and achieving the right balance is challenging. Being different definitely generates noise, but is is good noise? The wearer bears the consequences. Should musicians in a orchestra or band just wear monochrome clothing? It depends as some groups celebrate the individual more and other like having a uniformed look. But, I do believe the orchestra should wear something that makes them feel comfortable to perform their very best. 

Classic British radio station Classic FM has created short, animated versions of classic operas, such as this one of Bizet's Carmen. I think these short animations can only be a tiny introduction to the plot of the opera, and they miss the point about its musicality and the feel of live performance. It might make it easier for younger audiences to understand what they are seeing, but then again do children under 10 go to the opera? Like a BrainPop video, it is only a brief intro into a deeper topic. 

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Performances from the Met and Royal Opera House are now being streamed in cinemas worldwide. Is it populist or a sell-out? In 1910, the Metropolitan Opera of New York started providing clips of their performances for the radio and since then technology has been a way that many opera and traditional music forms use to gain a wider audience. From radio to video, to DVD, and now even streaming in national cinemas.  The article believes that it is a win-win for all. First, the cinemas improve their image and make more money from shows, which are charged at a higher price than a regular movie.  The viewers get super crisp, close ups, and superb audio that are cheaper, and they can go in their jeans - popcorn with Puccini. Luckily, the British audience seems to love it as opera in theater performs well at box-office against Hollywood hits. Some theaters are worried that this will diminish their brand as people and watch it online for free. One key benefit for cinemas is that not all cities have an opera house, so for cinema is one way for people in all cities and towns to get a taste of what opera has to offer.

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Monteverde's Orfeo gets a major cultural fusion. Leeds-based Opera North and South Asian Arts collaborated together to merge Indian mythology, Hindu songs into classic Italian opera. The producers completely fused the two singing styles together and rescored the music according to the singers. "We translated Monteverdi’s text into six different languages so that most of the singers are singing in their mother tongues. As well as Monteverdi’s Italian, you’ll hear Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali." The music incorporated some traditional Indian stringed instruments such as the esraj in original songs that bring out the uniqueness of all the music instruments.

 

The singers felt there was a wonderful way to learn about another culture and there was no pressure to homogenize. There was no fusion as both styles were able to shine.

Music is first and foremost an expression of emotions and ideas. As society changes, so does the cultural themes. It is wonderful that opera is seeing some changes to its traditional form. While not all change is of the same quality, changes and daring to embrace new challenges should be respected and encouraged. Afterall, music connects us all together

Since becoming the president of America back in 2016, Trump has been everywhere. Even in Cantonese opera! Cantonese opera, which originated from Northern China as early as the 13th century. 

Hong Kong celebrity feng-shui master Li Kui-ming put on a satirical show featuring Trump and a host of other controversial political characters, including Ivanka, Kim Jung-un and even Chinese leader Mao. Premiered in Hong Kong, the show was sold out to laugher and gasps for 4 days. The story in short is

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is about a young 26-year-old Trump, who crashes Nixon's Chinese diplomatic party and finds his Chinese twin brother. Later it jumps to Ivanka running the White House. Mixed with classic Trump phrases such as "You're fired!" and arias in Cantonese opera, the show is a strange and humorous display for art imitating life. Nevertheless, the show has gathered attention from many leading Western news media including CNN and Washington Post. Traditional Cantonese Opera has been hoping to find new ways to engage with the audience, but is this the right way? Or does 'Trump on Show' show a new side to opera's capabilities?

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Many of you might have heard of the name Malcolm X but might not know much about him. Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little and was a civil rights leader and Muslim minister during the Civil Rights Movement. He had a very tough childhood full of racism, violence and poverty and later crime and imprisonment.  He was a supporter for the Nation of Islam (an Islamic extremist group) in the early days, but later due to differences, he formed his own sect of Islam called National Mosque Inc. after going on a holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Unfortunately at the age of 39, he was assassinated by Nation of Islam members.

The Opera X take the audience through Malcolm's life and many of the racist acts he encountered. The audience members and critics called it "haunting and calming" just as it did in its first premier in 1986. Now 36 years later in a time of racial tension, it makes sense for the audience of that community, which Malcolm once belonged.  Listen to one of the songs "Jones is Not Your Name".

Opera like all music should reflect the issues and themes of the audience. If it only tells a certain genre of themes of the past, it can't stay relevant to the present and build a new following. Some controversial topics will always displease certain people, but nobody is forcing them to buy a ticket to the show. It is great that political topics are portrayed through opera. It adds a different type of artistic interpretation that is emotional and evocative.

"On January 15, 2021, the New York City band Founders released Songs for the End of Time Vol. 1—their newest and second album. Recorded over the span of three days in November 2019, it features an arrangement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, created by Founders’ members Ben Russell and Brandon Ridenour. The release of Songs for the End of Time Vol. 1 carries special meaning—not only as it honors Messiaen’s artistry and gripping story, but also because it coincided with the 80th anniversary of the original work’s premiere."

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Messiaen's work 'Quartet for the End of Time' is haunting and beautiful as it was born during the Second World War. French composer Olivier Messiaen was 31 when he entered the war and became a prisoner of war. During his captivity he wrote the music and performed its premiere in the prisoners' camp with other captured professional musicians. The piece is inspired by the Book of Revelations in the Bible.

 

Ridenour and Russell's new arrangement includes new musical styles of jazz, funk and rock. "“We are attempting to refashion great works of art and share them with a wider audience. Quartet for the End of Time is certainly a masterpiece in our classical music world, but extremely niche to the layman listener. By infusing it with other styles of music—and even bringing out the religious text component—we hope it perks the ears of people who are both unfamiliar and familiar with this profound work.” Check it out and see if you like the work. I think Messiaen would be glad that his work gets a new audience and remains fresh on people minds through this new interpretation. Only through the rework of others and the genuine interest and connection with the audience do great works live on!

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