Having spent several years of my life in the education, performance, and production arenas of Classical Music and Opera, I saw some trends that may have resulted in the alienation of potential audience members and fans.

Why post a rant about Classical Music Production on a blog called "HackerSpace?" The reason is simple: music soothes the savage beast. I want to show you that the scary, dry, and intellectual world of classical music is just a front, built up to prevent people from liking it. The right music in the right situation can help you get through your day. It can reduce stress. It may help you concentrate and calculate.

Classical Music itself doesn’t suck. Most of it is beautiful and some exceptionally talented composers seem to be able to compose the breath of human life and even our bio-chemical processes into notes on a page. When rendered by a master, it can express the unfathomable and inexpressible feelings within our hearts. We may not always possess the lexicon and mastery of rhetoric necessary to vocalize our feelings in conversation, but there may be times when you can listen to a piece of music and say, “that’s how I feel.”

Unfortunately, the way Classical Music is produced, taught, and marketed leave many would-be listeners scrambling back to their own tastes in music. There’s nothing wrong with a person’s taste in music, but when you have the opportunity to gain a friend, you shouldn’t pass it up.

If you’ve taken any time to attend a classical music concert, ballet, or opera, or if you’ve paused along the radio dial to listen to classical music, you’ll find one thing in common about the way it’s presented. It’s dry. It seems as if you are not allowed to enjoy the music for what it is: music and entertainment. Instead, you are first presented with extravagant explanations as to why it is you are supposed to enjoy it. People who produce classical music are not content with you simply “liking” the music. No, you must be educated. You must appreciate the music. You must know what the composer was going through when he or she wrote it. You must know the relationships of the musical keys involved in its composition. You must know the reason behind the choice of instruments in an orchestra by their timbre and how they each play a role in the expression of the composer’s thought. Why must people be subjected to a college musicological lecture before being allowed to enjoy classical music?


Classical musicians and critics also love to tell you how difficult the music is to perform. They want to impress you with how long they have to practice and how many years they’ve had to do so, as if saying such things will make people think, “oh wow, since it took you so long to learn it, I guess I’m supposed to like it!” These statements simply take people out of the fantastic world created by the music and make them listen critically instead of simply enjoying the music. Great, now when I watch a concert, I have to watch their fingers and be impressed by how they move. I’m no longer swept away by beauty, but embroiled in technique.

I performed opera professionally for several years in the United States, and as audiences dwindled over the past few decades, I heard many reasons as to why this is happening. Several times I heard, “We’re competing against movies and television.” The problem with that assertion is that opera companies don’t act like they are in competition with those media. They act like they are in competition with ballet, orchestras and museums.

A theater owner once related to me, “The problem with Opera is that it doesn’t have to fill the seats. If Opera had to fill the seats, the first thing that would happen is a lot of people would get fired.” Opera and Classical Music don’t realize that they would be better serving the public if they accepted the fact that they are part of the Entertainment Industry rather than constraining themselves to the Arts world.


The Performer and the Music

Soprano, Lisette Oropesa

Opera Producers and marketers spend a great deal of effort trying to convince people to come. “It’s passionate! It’s sexy! The music is beautiful! We have amazing costume and set design! This story is 150 years old!” The problem with this type of marketing is that few come to the opera for those things. They come to hear and see the singers on the stage. Instead of “Come see Giuseppe Verdi’s tale of love, betrayal, and sorrow: Rigoletto” they might get a few more people interested with “International stars Lisette Oropesa, Vittorio Grigolo, and George Gagnidze star in Rigoletto at the Met!” Why would they do this when most laypeople don’t know the names Oropesa, Grigolo, and Gagnidze? To establish stardom. The Metropolitan Opera built its reputation as the premiere opera house in the US by bringing in celebrities. Then, as its notoriety grew, the Met was in a unique position to cultivate stardom. If you made your debut at the Met, it was a one-way ticket to international fame and even becoming a household name. Nothing brings people to a theater more than the idea that they will be in the same room as a star. People adore celebrity, and if celebrity could be built again in classical music, you’ll see more people listening to it and attending concerts.


How to Enjoy Classical Music.
There are college courses called “Music Appreciation” that are designed to teach you how to listen to and enjoy classical music. I believe that if the music is good, then it’s good. You don’t have to know how to pronounce “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” to be charmed by its passages. You don’t have to understand the Italian language to feel Cio-Cio San’s pain in Madama Butterfly. You don’t need to know that Butterfly was a failure at its premiere. You don’t need to have a degree in Music in order to love music.

Be daring! Mispronounce the names of the songs! Have no idea who the composer is! Have no idea what date it was written! Just love the music: even for the wrong reasons! And when an elitist Classical Music aficionado tries to correct you, don’t let them make you feel like an idiot, because you’re not. You just know what you like, and that’s all that needs to matter to you.

I'll leave you with this TED talk on Classical Music... because TED makes everything better!

Image Credits: benoit.martgat, Lisette Oropesa