On Friday night, during the dress rehearsal for the San Francisco Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville
, sixteen preselected audience members broke every cardinal rule of operagoing by pulling out their phones, signing into Twitter, and tweeting non-stop for all three hours of the rehearsal. It was bizarre, it was irreverent, and it was so out of the ordinary that one of the regular audience members actually tweeted us from a few rows in front to let us know he disapproved.
And you know what? It was amazing.
Opera has been fighting a losing battle against its own declining popularity for the better part of a century. The Metropolitan Opera cites the average age of its audience as 60, and, while I know some very lively hexagenarians, collectively they aren’t exactly a hopping crowd. The San Francisco Opera has been making valiant efforts for years to bring in a younger audience, but despite it all, every time I go to the opera I still feel like I’m lowering the average age in the room by twenty years. Even at Bravo! Club events, ostensibly for young adult opera fans, the attendees cluster far closer to the upper age limit of forty years than to my own tender twenty-four. I can count the under-thirtys I’ve seen attending the opera just for fun on the fingers of one hand, and I know them all personally.
(Above: Javier Camarena as Almaviva and Alessandro Corbelli as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Cory Weaver.)
Opera hasn’t always been treated with this strange sense of maturity and reverence. Eighteenth-century opera houses were notorious for their catcalls and hecklers. Operagoers would talk, make jokes, and frequently throw things at the stage - and composers knew it. Mozart’s operas are full of in-jokes and winks to the audience. When Leporello grumbles, “Not that tune again!” in the final act of Don Giovanni, he’s not just pointing out that the music is lifted from La Nozze di Figaro: the singer who originated the role of Leporello was reminding the audience that he also played Figaro in the opera’s Prague debut. Once upon a time, before TV and ComicCon, the theatre was a place where young, hip men and women went to socialise, to see and be seen, and most importantly, to have fun.
It’s easy to see why opera struggles so to attract a younger audience. Opera isn’t current any more. It’s old, and stuffy, and frequently in a foreign language. You’re expected to dress up, shut up, and use the intermission to discuss whether the flute was perhaps a little sharp in the overture (but wasn’t the timbre divine). But if the livetweeting proved anything to me, it’s that what is keeping opera from a younger, more plugged-in audience is not opera itself. It’s the expectation of what opera should be. Given permission to break the rules of reverence in the opera house, the sixteen livetweeters proved unequivocally that opera can still be hip, current and fun. Pop culture jokes flew back and forth, connecting the hashtagged #WilyBarber to everything from How I Met Your Mother to Game of Thrones. Those less familiar with opera could tweet their confusions and get answers within seconds, while the veterans bounced between clever opera in-jokes and astute observations about the staging and musical choices.
Am I saying that it should become de rigeur to have your phone out and Twitter feed up during the opera? Absolutely not. For starters, it’s still rude and distracting to have a bright little screen out in a darkened room. In addition, what made livetweeting the dress rehearsal so much fun was the camaraderie between the tweeters in the audience, but normal Facebooking and tweeting would serve to isolate audience members from each other, not bring them together. So at the end of the day, I don’t think it was the presence of Twitter that made the opera suddenly so accessible. It was the tacit permission that being on Twitter gave us to have fun.
I’ve introduced laymen to opera before. Invariably, I can wax rhapsodic about how wonderful the music is or how poetic the libretto - but what really makes the lightbulb turn on is the ability to say: “You’ll love Don Giovanni: he’s an operatic Barney Stinson”, or to come up with a drinking game for a favourite production of Die Fledermaus (not recommended: taking a drink whenever an on-stage character does - unless you have a spare liver nearby).
The idea that opera can only be enjoyed academically is a huge barrier to overcome. But, just as you don’t need a degree in cinematography to appreciate how good-looking a film The Hobbit is, you shouldn’t need to be a musicologist to go home humming "Largo al Factotum." Sure, it’s a musically genius aria and a feat of technical bravura to sing, but at its heart it’s also a really catchy tune, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying it just for that.
The barrier between youth and opera is not unbreachable. For three hours, the #WilyBarber hashtag actually trended on Twitter, thanks entirely to the busy thumbs and quick minds of sixteen people. A friend of mine made new friends that evening by asking strangers at a bar if they liked opera, and showing them my Twitter feed regardless of the answer. This is the same friend whose first exposure to opera was with the ill-advised Die Fledermaus drinking game, by the way: since then he has become absolutely voracious, seeking out opera in a way that makes me wonder if I should stage an intervention. Unhampered by an expectation that he should hold opera as sacred, he is free to frame it in a way that allows him to enjoy it. What he enjoys, he seeks out and studies, taking advantage of the great freedom of the internet age.
I wish livetweeting The Barber of Seville had revealed some magic formula by which to bring youth and vogue back to the opera house, but it did not. What it did give me was a glimpse of an operagoing experience that was fun, and accessible to newcomers and veterans alike; that, in turn, gave me an idea of an audience in which operagoers cheer as loudly at Calaf’s proclamation of “Turandot!” as they do when the Hulk beats down Loki in The Avengers. Because the spectacle is more than there. This year’s Mephistopheles alone had pomp, pageantry, drama and more bare breasts than I’ve ever seen on Broadway. All the pieces are in place for a rollicking good time. The trick is to give our audiences permission to have it.