Opera practices what might be described in the current age as reverse radicalism. When every other engine of 21st century life is telling us to embrace change or die, opera advocates for tradition — preserving the primacy of a certain kind of voice and instrument, of a way of recording notes on a page. The code it writes in was developed centuries ago.
Still, it wants to exist with the times, to be relevant and draw young listeners to replace the old ones who will inevitably depart. That means finding ways to position its music in the living, breathing culture of now.
The field has tried a lot of things to stay fresh, and many have been successful. There are terrific new works being written to complement the ones everyone has heard a hundred times. Companies broadcast their fare across the world. Sets and lights have gone high-tech; there is an artful boom in the use of projected scenery over the past decade that’s been exciting to watch.
Still, the most notable advances, at least with audiences, have been its dips into pop culture. If you want to sell out the theater, to get kids in the door and the mainstream media to even care, you’ve got do what the Minnesota Opera did by translating a grisly Stephen King novel into the language of baritones and sopranos. Or what the Santa Fe Opera did, setting the life of the Apple founder and millennial hero Steve Jobs to music.
This month, Opera Philadelphia did its own steal, mimicking the biggest thing going in the contemporary concert scene today — the music festival. Pop is all about its Coachella and Bonnaroo and Firefly and scores of other multi-day fests where the entertainment goes on nonstop, day and night. The lineups are stacked so high, fans convene from all over the world to hear them. More than that: to experience it all together, to be thrilled and filled to the…