The Return of Opera as Spectacle

On Saturday, April 28th, the Dallas Opera did something truly historic, and not just from an academic or technical perspective. The opera’s production of Die Zauberflöte was simulcast for free in Cowboys Stadium (the local sports stadium). Originally the Dallas Opera reserved 7,500 seats in the stadium; by mid-April, the organization had received 33,000 requests and of those requests, about 20,000 people showed up. I did a count of two separate sections, chosen at random: of the adults there, about a third were under thirty. In addition, there were numerous children there, ranging from toddlers to adolescents. When I looked around, the children were on the edge of their seats during most of the performance.

A scene from the opera Aida

The Spectacle Aida Theatrical Poster

I won’t dwell on the things that went wrong, although there were some technical glitches. Nor will I dwell on the numerous things that were right with the Dallas Opera’s production. What I want to emphasize is that this was extraordinarily successful not just in the turnout, but in addition, with the audience engagement. People were booing the villains, cheering the heroes and heroine, laughing and nudging each other. Back when opera was invented, in the early seventeenth century, opera was one of the largest forms of entertainment available to the public, with pyrotechnics, exotic animals, and large crowds with access to food and drink. Most people who don’t like opera perceive opera as stuffy and boring, yet this production was anything but stuffy and boring. Instead, the opera-goers fed on each other’s excitement, just as fans do at a football game. In addition, the tailgating started hours earlier; had the parking lots been open earlier, I am sure that the tailgating would have gone on all day. There were plenty of elderly people with wine and cheese, and there were also a lot of younger people with sandwiches, chips and dips, and beer (I didn’t, unfortunately, encounter anyone grilling, although next time I’ll be sure to bring my canopy and lawn chairs!). Because of the tailgating, the opera goers were relaxed and in a party mood.

And this is what opera needs—a return to spectacle. Since audiences today are more accustomed to big, we need opera to go big, too. If the Dallas Opera can do a creditable job with more productions like this, we will see new generations of opera aficionados. Judging from the activity in the parking lot afterwards, where I encountered dozens of preteen girls attempting to sing “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,” it is clear that opera is far from dead. But perhaps we need to pry it from its self-imposed coffin and bring it out into the large public venues. After all, in the seventeenth century, the local opera house was probably as big a venue as the public had available. Today’s audiences could be much larger, if we had more events like this one.

Sure, the Metropolitan Opera has had ten million HD viewers, but it’s the shared experience of watching opera in a place where you can eat, drink, make noise, and get involved where opera companies will win millions of new fans. Opera was never intended to be a solo activity; the Dallas Opera has now taken the lead in showing the way for the future in audience development. And opera companies can put on their normal productions, without laser shows, without distracting videos running in the background, and still attract audiences with spectacle, because the operas in themselves are spectacle enough. All we need is a setting that says “spectacle” to modern audiences.

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