Can opera change anything?

Can opera change anything?


norman lebrecht

November 30, 2014

In the course of discussing the Death of Klinghoffer controversy in this month’s Standpoint magazine, I found myself drawn to a fundamental question on the function and purpose of opera:




Not since Auber’s La Muette de Portici fomented Belgian revolution in 1830 and Verdi’s Nabucco defined Italian nationalism in 1842 has an opera provoked political violence. Opera is not that kind of art. If its impact was exhortative, our ancestors would have rushed out and raped their sisters after seeing Wagner’s Ring.

What, then, is the purpose of opera in 2014? To make us think, to make us feel (not necessarily in that order). Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Met hoo-hah was its want of new thinking or true feeling.

Your thoughts?



photo (c) Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera Chicago


  • Fred Obelisk says:

    Hello Norman.
    A cunningly worded question.
    Opera.. 2014.. ‘us’.

    I must believe that Opera, and the other music genres, and the other arts, will continue to change our world, else humanity ceases to be human.

    Or do you really want to limit the question so, in which case it is really a statement, and perhaps a hint of the underlying problem.

  • Michael says:

    I’ve seen only 30+ Ring productions and read dozens of books and hundreds of articles about it: it seems that through all this I missed the bit where one of the characters rapes his sister! Or is NL suggesting that Sieglinde’s apparent failure to produce prior written informed consent means that Siegfried was the product of not just incest but rape? Or has this unusual interpretation been demonstrated in a production I must have missed?

  • Karen says:

    What is opera for? What is classical music for?

    Ultimately I think it’s about self- idealization, the release of emotions, entertainment, etc…. And nothing more.

    This romantic notion of sacralizing art means artists and musicians cannot accept the plain truth that they are entertainers and nothing more. It is also precious, arrogant and absurd.

    To seek opera and classical music as other than mere diversion is to put too much expectation on it.

    • Michael Endres says:

      ”Artists and musicians cannot accept the plain truth that they are entertainers and nothing more.”
      Old Ludwig would have disagreed, but what did he know ….
      ”Musik ist hoehere Offenbarung als alle Weisheit und Philosophie ” ( Beethoven )

      Disneyworld on the other hand has a different concept , that of absolute entertainment .
      Unfortunately not everybody subscribes to Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto & Goofy.

      So let’s call it a draw then, shall we ?.

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Dare I suggest that because Beethoven said it or thought it does not mean that it is true. Music may have a greater effect than any other art form on individuals’ emotions, but how much has it affected behaviours, policies etc? Many leading Nazis apparently liked sublime music, how did this make them better people?

        • Michael Endres says:

          Beethoven didn’t ‘t claim music betters people or makes good policies , he merely stated that music can reveal more than ”all wisdom and philosophy”.

          ‘Wisdom and philosophy’ have had a significant influence on politics and our daily lives. It seems though that many of these concepts have been failures. Political and religious ideas have cost many people’s lives and still do.

          Classical music has –opposed to that and according to old Ludwig– a higher wisdom
          as it touches emotions that even words cannot describe. It has mostly no directly tangible message which would call for action .
          But ‘entertainment’ doesn’t describe it either , as many major works ( like Schubert’s Winterreise,Mahler 9 , Beethoven’s late Quartets or Shostakovich’s symphonies to name a few ) deal with some fundamental questions about human life.
          Deliberations of that kind are of course not a hard currency and as humanity is marching more and more away from a homo sapiens towards a homo faber it is of no surprise that classical music is losing ground in many places these days.

          • John Borstlap says:

            The best of the classical music repertoire reflects the human condition, in a general way, but which can be referred to on a very individual level.

            It deconceptializes life experience (unwrapping it), offering the experience without the concrete reality which has produced it. In the same time, through aestheticising, experience is stylized, ennobled and given meaning, even if the experience as such is not positive at all (Mahler IX, Mozart str quintet in g, Sacre). In this way, classical music helps us to accept and to deal with life’s sometime gruesome realities.

            What more could we ask? At least, to make more money available for the genre.

    • James Odom says:

      “To seek opera and classical music and other than mere diversion is to put too much expectation on it”

      It is precisely that sort of thinking that has led to the steady erosion of arts education in our schools and the general “dumbing down” of society in general. Although I must confess that I find myself in something of a chicken and egg conundrum right now. The performing arts are, at the least, a reflection of our society. A thing which causes me despair when I see so much of what we consider to surfeit of reality programming on television these days. At their best, that reflection causes us to think, to evaluate, to perhaps understand better those around us and our common humanity. Even the Kardashians serve to show us how shallow we have become as people.

      I pity you if you have never experienced opera or classic music as anything other than diversion. Perhaps this is a case of only getting out of it what you put into it.

      Because Norman has a strict policy regarding content in the comments, I will not explore further the reasons why you seek to trivialize the people who work it is to present the “entertainment” that it would appear you do not value.

      • Karen says:


        “I pity you if you have never experienced opera or classic music as anything other than diversion. Perhaps this is a case of only getting out of it what you put into it”


        Oh, for crying out loud.

        YES, OF COURSE most works require some kind of effort to truly appreciate at a deep level, but has art ever been anything but, fundamentally, entertainment? Yes, it can have a grander, more uplifting vision but in the end its purpose is to be paid attention to. It doesn’t serve any purpose outside of eliciting an emotional response, or in some cases, exorcising emotions from the creator.

        My dictionary defines entertainment as…. “that which engages the
        attention agreeably, amuses, diverts or pleases”

        It’s fairly simple definition, and I don’t see how art, of any kind, does not fit under its’ umbrella. It may not be the PRIMARY function of a work, but it doesn’t have to be. Certainly certain kinds of entertainment — sports events, monster truck rallies, TV reality shows etc. — are not ‘art’. But I’m not saying that the terms are interchangeable — not all entertainment is art.

        The dictionary also defines Art as…. “the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty”

        If anyone knows of any works of art that do not fall into the definition of “entertainment” above, feel free to prove me wrong that the reverse is not true.

        The great masterpieces of Western music (including ALL operas) are more than entertainment, yes, but they are an entertainment nonetheless.

        • John Borstlap says:

          This mentality reflects the usual populist intention to shoot down achievements which are too difficult to understand by the masses. Entertainment is part of ‘the marketplace’, art is not. There are things in life which have to be protected from being turned into a commodity.

  • Milka says:

    Opera is an entertainment, the political
    influence of Nabucco has been vastly overrated.Opera as an entertainment changes nothing never has,though the
    fans like to think so . There are countless millions who never heard
    or saw an opera and live quite fulfilled
    lives.Klinghoffer has yet to be reviewed as an honest entertainment
    as an opera, without turning it into
    case study of anti semitism .

    • John Borstlap says:

      A comment reflecting a philistine attitude.

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Not at all, just reflecting the world where most fellow human beings live, as opposed to the tiny minority like us who read classical music blogs. Dr Johnson’s definition of opera as an exotic and irrational entertainment is surely accurate, and most of us particularly enjoy the irrational elements without the pseudophilosophy.

    • Simon S. says:

      Milka has a point regarding the overestimated political influence of Nabucco. In fact, Verdi didn’t become an Italian nationlist until much later than 1842. And there is no evidence whatsoever that “Va, pensiero” has been regarded an anthem of Risorgimento before the 1860s. (The same applies for the supposed use of Verdi’s surname as an acronym for the claim of Italian unification.)

      Verdi and Nabucco as pacemakers of Italian unification – this is nothing but a pious legend, I’m afraid.

  • Karen says:

    Milka and Mike are right.

    Look, I absolutely adore opera, it provides me with really deep aesthetic nourishment….. BUT I also recognize that opera is trivial in the general scheme of things.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The value of opera as a genre cannot be measured with ‘function’ or ‘meaning’ in the wider context of the world. Art is meaningless in that sense and that is its force: art wants to create a space where the human condition can be reflected upon but withdrawn from worldly concerns, or / and ‘the market’. Wherever worldly interests intervenes in the artistic sphere, things go wrong, because artistic meaning only exposes itself when free from non-artistic function. Because it can only be produced on the basis of concrete worldly possibilities, there will always be friction between the meaning of art and its place in the world.

      To degrade opera to mere entertainment is missing the point entirely. It shows the mentality that wants to objectify every artistic endeavor into a commodity within a market place, which is one of the great, tragic evils of our time. It is not only art that suffers from this primitive thinking, also other human things that should never be subjected to market forces like education, health care, and relationships, which all have a value on their own.

      Opera is one of the islands of humanity within an increaingly materialistic and nihilistic civilization, and should be cultivated for that reason. The Klinghofer thing is, in relation to what opera should be, embarrassing for cluttering a work of art with the debris of deplorable politics without a stage of stylization in between.

  • Brian says:

    If you want to send a message, try Western Union. Ars gratia artis. Art needs no justification other than itself. Beauty, power, drama, form go far deeper than puerile headlines and “relevance” (God, I hate that word) but speaks to and taps the deepest wells of what it means to be human. Traviata, Boheme, Meistersinger or Nozze. The superficial topography of any of those works is not where the core “meaning” lies anymore than a Bach fugue is “about” something other than itself.

  • Gabby Cadaver says:

    I’ll put my cards on the table right up front: In my opinion this crop of American minimalist composers are opportunists without any deep understanding or commitment to anything, ready to exploit whatever issue or subject matter that crosses their field of vision for their own self-aggrandizement. I put “Einstein on the Beach,” “Doctor Atomic” and Klinghoffer on the same level as examples of this phenomenon. What makes Klinghoffer particularly egregious is that Adams wrote his piece over the objections of Klinghoffer’s family, who in my opinion had the right to insist that Klinghoffer’s memory be respected and that he be allowed (as they’d say) to rest in peace.
    Now that I have offended many people, I must go on to address Norman’s larger point. Many operas which I admire to greater or lesser degrees are implicitly or explicitly political, from Rzewski’s “The Triumph of Death” (an interesting comparison with Klinghoffer, and probably a more important work) to Paul Dessau’s “Einstein” (an interesting comparison with Glass’ opera because Dessau had something to say) to Rudolf Wagner-Régeny’s “Prometheus.” When Britten attempted to be explicitly politically or socially conscious he did not always succeed, but look at “The Rape of Lucretia,” which to my mind has a lot to say about power within the context of gender relations. This social/political thread is woven seamlessly into the musical presentation. A parallel example in a totally different style is Schoenberg’s “Von Heute auf Morgen.” (Or there is Elliott’s Carter’s unjustly maligned “What’s Next?”) And, of course, these are also “Wozeck” and “Moses und Aron,” two of the greatest opera masterpieces ever written.
    So I am all for feeling, all for thinking, all for raising people’s consciousness and awareness both artistically and politically, all for the aesthetic appreciation of musical and literary form and structure — and all for music. But I am not for commercial exploitation of personal tragedy.

  • Frank says:

    I have a good friend who was beaten and jailed by Polish police as part of the Solidarity movement. He and his friends were so passionate about truth and justice that they were willing to die for it. They passed around illegal journals and books smuggled from the “West” anyone of which would get them 10 years in Jail. What bravery to seek the truth! Beethoven’s Fidelio is a clear statement about arbitrary injustice. The riots in Ferguson are a clear statement about arbitrary injustice. The flaccid, trivial minds who write here, are the perfect symbol of a “West” who has lost its way. Opera was once a vital truth-seeking art and was often censored by authorities. Everyone here should know that. Now it is simply banal entertainment?

    • Karen says:


      “Opera was once a vital truth-seeking art”


      I disagree. I think opera is PREDOMINANTLY a musical art form. As Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker wrote in “A History of Opera”:

      “Acoustic sensuality is opera’s fundamental note”

      • John Borstlap says:

        “Acoustic sensuality is opera’s fundamental note”

        If that is true, most 20C opera can be dumped into the dustbin of history.

        Actually, it is probably true.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      It was generally censored because it showed behaviour that was regarded as dangerous and deplorable, like the assassination of kings (Ballo in maschera). No one has seriously contended that Verdi was making serious points about power, society that opera-though he probably was in Don Carlos.

  • Brian says:

    Agreed. I think far and away the best post-Britten opera is Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre.”

  • Milka says:

    To equate Fidelio with Ferguson is a stretch and seems a warped personal reading. Opera was not into the truth seeking
    business it was always an entertainment , it was censored only
    when the entertainment crossed an imaginary political- moral line and offended whoever was in power.Verdi ran into that trouble as well as Handel and many others .
    Frank would do well to study the history of Un ballo in maschera.
    Handel had a more clever way to get around censors for whatever “truths ” he had in mind .The trivial minds that Frank refers to here may just understand the world a little better then he .
    a little

  • Sixtus says:

    Buchner’s play Woyczek, it should be pointed out, is apparently based on a true incident. And Oliver Stone has made a career via “commercial exploitation of personal tragedy.” Likewise the very recent, critically acclaimed films about Turing, Hawking and John Dupont. Artists should be free to tackle anything.

    • John Borstlap says:

      No, artists should stylize their subject matter in such way that it is lifted out of the temporality of its origins, so that it can be made timeless, i.e. be understood by people in other times, other places, other cultures. A good fiction author does so automatically…. he / she does not want his / her work to get outdated as soon as the subject matter outdates.

      • Sixtus says:

        At the rate things are going in the Middle East, I fear that we’ll have to wait a LONG time for the subject matter(s) of Klinghoffer to become outdated. Besides, in the far distant future some eurotrash director (assuming there is still a euro) is going to change the “outdated” references to something supposedly more relevant to his/her/its time.

  • Nick says:

    I doubt if opera can change anything other than an individual’s appreciation of it as an art form and means of enjoyment. Socially and historically it frequently comments, but it does not change attitudes. Theatre and literature have surely been far more effective in sowing seeds for social and even political changes.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Attending a production of Lohengrin gave Theodor Herzl the idea of zionism and Hitler the idea of hitlerism.

      • Nick says:

        Assuming these are not tongue-in-cheek suggestions, both assertions are more than entirely questionable. From an article in The New Yorker by Alex Ross of September 25 2012 relating to Wagner being performed in Israel –

        “As for Wagner’s influence on Hitler, there is an odd haziness in the historical record. Hitler loved Wagner from an early age, and the composer’s youthful grand opera “Rienzi” inspired him to dream of a political future . . . Yet, as the scholar Hans Rudolf Vaget recently pointed out (citing work by Saul Friedländer and Dina Porat), nowhere in the entire corpus of Hitler’s utterances—writings, speeches, letters, transcripts of conversations, and so on—is there any reference to Wagner’s writings about the Jews. If Wagner were integral to the formation of Hitler’s anti-Semitism (a core belief of what was to become hitlerism), one would expect more evidence of the fact.

        “One possible explanation for this omission is that Hitler’s love of Wagner predated his hatred of the Jews, and the two tendencies never fully intersected in his mind. Moreover, Wagner’s politics diverged from Hitler’s more often than they coincided . . . to hold Wagner in some way responsible for Hitler trivializes a hugely complicated historical situation . . .”

        In his earlier 2007 book “The Rest is Noise”, Ross makes the briefest of references to a production of Tannhauser having inspired Herzl to formulate a vision of a Jewish state. Certainly the overture was played at the 2nd Zionist Congress in 1898. Yet in the New Yorker article he expands on this by making it clear that like a million other German youths of many political and other persuasions, both Hitler and Herzl were infatuated with Wagner. But to suggest that one performance of one opera was the inspiration behind Zionism is hugely simplistic, if not in fact untrue.

  • Milka says:

    Don’t dare entertain the thought of what
    evolve after an evening of Borstlap .

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, it’s quite dangerous… Fortunately, this overwhelming influence on events remains carefully in the background as to be not noticed at all. (Don’t spill the beans.)

  • william osborne says:

    “Life imitates art far more the art imitates life.” – Oscar Wilde

    It is seldom that a single artwork creates a revolution, but taken as a whole, art creates the metaphors we live by. In its slow and gentle way, art is thus profoundly influential.