Is opera a dying art form that needs to be protected and preserved for generations to come?
For a group of approximately 30,000 professionals and practitioners of Italian music, the answer was yes. Comprised of singers, musicians, academics, composers, conductors and directors, the group formed a committee supported by Italy’s leading opera houses and musical institutions, then persuaded UNESCO to add “the practice of opera singing in Italy” to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Registration was made official in December.
The list identifies what UNESCO, the United Nations cultural body, calls “fragile” non-physical elements that play a crucial role in “maintaining cultural diversity in the face of increasing globalization.”
Five months earlier, UNESCO celebrated the United States’ return to the organization by a ceremony in Paris in the presence of the first lady, Jill Biden. (The United States withdrew from UNESCO during the Trump administration.)
During the ceremony, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung by a great American soprano, Lisette Oropesa. In a recent telephone interview, Ms. Oropesa discussed the UNESCO listing (in which she played no role) and the opera’s uniqueness. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
What do you think of this UNESCO listing?
Delighted. Any opportunity to put opera and classical music in the spotlight is important.
What’s important about opera, and what I love, is that it’s the last truly human art form. It is sung by voices, unamplified and created by human beings who compose the music and play an instrument in an orchestra. Costumes are designed and made by people. Opera is led by people and is meant to resonate in an acoustic and natural space built by people. That’s what’s special.
Will this UNESCO distinction help protect it in the future?
I certainly hope so. Opera can often be stereotyped as an archaic museum piece. Today we consider it very elitist. But it was originally a popular art form. Only a few generations ago, it was in cartoons: the youngest of the young discovered characters like the Barber of Seville.
Nowadays, many young people, when they discover opera for the first time, say: “It’s so pompous and old-fashioned, and it doesn’t speak to me.” ” What is your answer ?
I think opera is not marketed properly. I don’t think there’s ever been a generation that wasn’t interested in history. If the story is well presented and interesting, everyone wants to know it. People watch “The Crown”, “Downton Abbey”. People want to be transported. What alienates young people is the way opera is often presented. If you just say, “Opera is about romance, beauty, passion and fabulous costumes,” you’re taking all the meat off the bone. Many extremely forward-looking articles have been written about women, the struggle for power, the class struggle, race.
The opera is entirely narrative. The stories are there: you read lines and you follow what happens. It’s like reading a book. And the sound of the voice is simply the sound of the trained voice.
Now, this is not to everyone’s taste. I understand that not everyone likes it. But not everyone likes the sound of rock singers or country singers. There is an ear for everything. In the end, nine times out of ten, music sells opera, because the music is simply divine.
Are you personally concerned about the future of opera?
During the pandemic, I was really worried. I thought that gatherings in theaters would be the last thing to come back – that people would say, “This is so unnecessary. Let’s give up. We’re going to put it all online and put it out there, and it’s going to be the same thing. We learned that it’s not the same thing, that we don’t have the same experience.
What concerns me today is that we have to compete for time.
The committee that requested UNESCO inscription deemed the opera to be in danger.
In Europe, opera and the arts are generally funded by the government. So there is a guarantee that this art form will continue, because there is funding for it. In the United States, the state funds very little great art. We have to ask people to donate money. And it often operates on a fragile budget. The economic model of opera in the United States is therefore very unsustainable.
When it comes to the arts in general, people feel like there are more important things to spend time and money on. They are not wrong. But I can also tell you that without a safe emotional outlet for pain, negativity, and suffering, all you will have is more pain, negativity, and suffering.
If you take away music from your ordinary person – going to work, coming home and taking care of your family – all you will be left with is politics, war, pain, suffering, illness and poverty. If you take away music, drama, drama, and movies, you rob people of their ability to process and deal with the most important things.