Does anybody else under the age of sixty like opera besides me?
I’m not talking about musicals like Cats or Starlight Express or even light opera or operetta like Die Fledermaus or The Merry Widow. I’m talking about hardcore, five hours long, it-ain’t-over-till-the-fat-lady-sings grand opera.
This weekend, at our art house movie theater in downtown Staunton, Virginia — yes, our town of 24,000 souls is lucky enough to have a movie theater that shows foreign films and documentaries — I went to see a performance of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, broadcast live in high definition video from the Metropolitan Opera.
And I was uncomfortable. It’s not because I was bored with the opera. I was uncomfortable because of peak oil.
But first, let’s talk opera.
From the Met via high tech
La clemenza di Tito is not as popular as Mozart’s blockbusters, Figaro and Don Giovanni, but I love this stylized opera seria, with its elevated music on elevated subjects drawn from classical antiquity, a style that was old fashioned even when Mozart used it for his last opera in 1791.
The story, loosely based on events from the life of the Emperor Titus, is formalized but not pretentious. I find it an inspiring exploration of how good government demands rulers who put the public interest before their own private interest and who aren’t afraid to exercise mercy and compassion even when the people call for blood.
If only today’s compromised leaders would apply to their own countries the example of Emperor Titus in the vow that closes the opera:
Cut short my days,
eternal gods, that day
when the good of Rome
is no longer my concern.
Wrapped up in some of Mozart’s most elegant music and staged in an appealing Age of Enlightenment period production by the titanic Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the singing, acting, costumes and sets were everything I could’ve asked for.
This magical experience was a pleasure brought to me only through the magic of the Met’s Live in HD series, which simulcasts live performances to movie theaters around the world, including screens in towns like mine far from a city big enough to host an opera company. And all while offering a live, if remote, opera experience in the company of other opera lovers for about a fraction of the price of an in-person seat at the Met.
Here’s where the discomfort comes in.
Living as I do with a constant awareness of peak energy and peak everything else and the resulting economic collapse that’s sure to come sooner or later — as reliable a source of anxiety for me as it is a source of boredom for my family and friends — my opera experience also made me think about the future of opera and indeed, all live performance art in a future without cheap fossil fuels.
Once the cheap oil runs out, there may not be any more broadcasts from the Met. If things get crazy enough, there may not even be any more Metropolitan Opera Company at all.
Running any kind of opera company has never been cheap, and running the world’s top company is very expensive, as the Met Live in HD host reminds the audience. An economy starved for capital after peak oil may have difficulty supporting such a lavish venture, even one so favored by the rich. And beaming performances around the world requires a high level of technology only possible in a world of cheap energy.
To have any kind of civilization after peak oil, we’ll need culture. And it will certainly be much more local, as it was in the past. The question is: just how local?
A little bit global and a lot local
Culture is perhaps the world’s oldest globalized product.
Even before the industrial revolution imported linen from Mumbai to weave into shirts in Manchester for sale in Massachusetts, stories, songs and ideas spread first on trade routes across Eurasia and then by sail across the seas to the Americas, Africa and Australia. Sometimes culture went the other way too.
Unless they were totally repressed backwaters, most places never had a completely local culture. And that was just fine, since communities were able to integrate stories, myths and ideas from the outside into their own existing culture, producing in the process some of the world’s most enduring works of art.
But something went wrong in the industrial era. And for the last century in America at least, most places haven’t had much local culture at all outside of garage bands and galleries for local artists and crafters.
Take my town as an example.
In the nineteenth century, our local theatrical troupes put on Shakespeare. Or one of our numerous local theaters hosted traveling performers along the lines of Mark Twain’s the King and the Duke, riverboat hustlers who adapted Hamlet to Arkansas argot for an audience of farmers and Main Street merchants who didn’t know any better.
But so what if they didn’t know any better?
Their culture was synchretic and they took the freedom to adapt works from the outside to fit their own tastes. Our women’s college thespians may have put on The Pirates of Penzance but they didn’t slavishly follow the style of the D’Oyly Carte. Inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan’s text and score, they made the performance their own.
Placed at a railroad junction, Staunton had a fair number of theaters in town. One of them was even called an opera house. I’m not sure if they put on grand opera, or if they just chose a grand name to put on popular music hall and vaudeville numbers.
All I do know is that today, our old opera house is now the city courts building. It’s a nice historic re-use for a necessary government service, but it’s no longer a place for local culture.
Like many towns, Staunton started losing our local live entertainment in the 1920s, with the simultaneous advent of both movie theaters and radio broadcasts. Once local audiences could see Rudolph Valentino on screen or hear Mozart from the Met on the wireless, these local audiences were spoiled for local actors and singers with their lesser talents.
Depose the professionals
And so it went everywhere with culture in the age of mechanical reproduction. It became all about seeing the world’s best beamed in from the world’s cultural capitals rather than watching your neighbors perform or even getting on stage yourself.
This completed the professionalization of culture that took performance out of the hands of local people in hundreds of towns across America and the rest of the industrial world and put it into the hands of impresarios and elite performers in a handful of big cities.
Audiences gained the chance to hear the most beautiful voices and see the most powerful acting.
But much was lost too, particularly the ability to enjoy art not just as a spectator or passive consumer, but as an active co-creator.
And where does that leave us? Alienated from high culture.
Today, millions of smart people find opera boring and irrelevant even when it’s performed by the top talent in the best cities (and with English supertitles too). But in Mozart’s day, everybody went to the opera — just as everybody went to the theater in Shakespeare’s day.
So I can’t blame the Shakespeare or the Mozart. I have to blame the context.
Elite high culture run by professionals in the world’s capitals and fed to passive audiences out in the hinterland by ever more technology is a model that has run its course.
Everybody knows the audience for opera is dying off. Pretty soon, there won’t be many of us left. And the same is happening for classical music, ballet and serious theater, despite regular protestations from boosters who claim that a “younger generation of audience” is getting on board.
One visit to any high art performing arts event will show that, except for school groups, the hair of the performing arts audience is getting grayer every year.
To save culture, those of us who love culture need to take it back from the professionals.
Peak oil seems like as good an excuse as any to take back the arts. Just as people who want to make their communities more resilient in the face of peak oil seek to re-localize food production and manufactures, they should also seek to re-amatueurize culture.
Today, if the choice is between Met opera and no opera, I’ll choose the Met via HD broadcast, and I’ll be grateful that it’s available in my town.
But in a lower tech, more localized future I won’t pine much for world’s top tenors and sopranos from the Met or La Scala Milan. Instead, I’ll be more than happy to see an opera house open up in town again and to help my neighbors start putting on our own live shows of Mozart or Monteverdi, even if they’re a bit amateurish at first. I’m sure with practice they’ll improve. And more importantly, the arts experience will improve. People will have a stake in their local culture again.
Staunton, home to the American Shakespeare Center, which puts on more than a dozen Shakespeare plays every year at the world’s only re-creation of William Shakespeare’s indoor theater, the Blackfriars Playhouse, has already started bringing high culture back home. The theater is professional and many actors are veterans of the New York or London stages. But since it’s located right here, the Blackfriars provides our city with powerful cultural resilience and inspires all sorts of other local theater efforts.
It’s a strong start, but we could do so much more. I’m sure your town could too.
And, as with anything prepper-ish intended to build resilience for an uncertain future, maybe it would be a good idea to start rehearsing local arts and culture now before they become the only arts and culture available.
After all, the show must go on.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice