I built my understanding of storytelling and character on the 19th-century novel, and in that medium, the novel creates an emotional bond with the reader by making its characters feel detailed and well-rounded and psychologically complex. The more specific a novel gets, the more universal its emotions feel.
Opera doesn’t work the way a novel works. Opera has no time for those kinds of character details. Instead, opera — and especially classical opera — is about aesthetics and pure, throbbing emotion. It creates a bond through its audience not through specificity, but through universality. The deeper the archetypes go in an opera, the more purely you can feel the emotion.
In theory, I understand that this dependency on archetypes is just the way that opera works, that it’s not intrinsically worse than the kind of novel-based storytelling that I’m used to, and that if I was more comfortable with the medium, I would be able to take pleasure in it. But in practice, anytime I sit down to see an opera, I tend to find myself frustrated.
In Dido and Aeneas, when Dido sings her suicide aria “When I Am Laid in Earth,” I understand that I should be thinking about the inevitability of death and how it will come for us all, and the tragedy of doomed love. But instead, I’m getting distracted by the way Dido sings again and again, “Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”
“How can I remember Dido and not her fate?” I always think with irritation. Dido’s fate is the only part of her that is in the opera! It has not given me anything else to remember her by!
But recently, I saw an opera staging that shocked me out of my usual state of confused frustration. New York-based classical music company Death of Classical staged Dido and Aeneas in a crypt this summer as part of its Angel’s Share series, and when I saw it, I finally realized exactly what opera is supposed to make me feel. And instead of thinking about it, I felt it.
Opera companies are increasingly starting to take their productions out of the opera house
Death of Classical is one of a number of music companies that have experimented with non-traditional opera stagings over the past 10 years. The most famous experiment was probably “Hopscotch,” a “mobile opera” staged by the Los Angeles experimental opera company Industry in 2015, which became the subject of a big New Yorker article. During “Hopscotch,” audience members rode across LA in a fleet of limousines while musicians rode along in the limo with them, playing their instruments, or the passengers were let off at an office building to climb up to the roof and see a scene. At one point, a motorcycle drove by the limo, and the driver sang a line that plays inside the limo through a speaker.
Today, non-traditional opera stagings have become a verifiable trend. “I think it started really 10 or so years ago, in the aftermath of the financial crisis,” says Eric Einhorn, the artistic director of New York’s On Site Opera, which specializes in site-specific opera stagings. “Regional opera companies were suffering, and they trying to figure out a way to engage a declining audience base in a way that didn’t break the bank.”
Taking opera out of the opera house became a way to bring in a young audience that might not know much about opera, Einhorn says. “You hear quite often the barriers to entry for an opera house are significant,” he says. “People feel they don’t belong there.”
“For older generations, it was enough to go to a big hall, order a crappy overpriced champagne, and then sit for three, three and a half hours and listen to core classical music from 6,000 feet back, and that was a good experience,” says Andrew Ousley, the creator and curator of Death of Classical’s Angel’s Share series. (Ousley also works for On Site Opera, but On Site was not involved in this year’s Dido staging.)
“I’m not knocking the opera house, because you’d hear these incredible artists,” Ousley continues, “but there’s not a sense of excitement to that, unless you are already converted. Site-specific opera is trying to create to a more accessible, exciting experience.”
Site-specific opera means staging an opera not just in a place that’s not an opera house, like a bar or a library, but in a place that holds some thematic connection to the show itself. On Site has staged Pygmalion — about a sculptor who falls in love with his sculpture — at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, and Mozart’s Secret Gardener in a community garden.
“There have been many pieces left on the cutting room floor when we couldn’t find the right space for a piece,” says Einhorn. “But the shows we have done have been carefully crafted so that the space we’re in allows for audience to truly be immersed in a true site-specific way.”
Putting Dido and Aeneas in a cemetery makes it impossible not to think about life and death
Death of Classical’s Dido and Aeneas was staged in the catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, and everything about the experience is designed to make you feel as though you are entering into a liminal space between life and death.
When I attended the show in June, we started the evening by walking through Green-Wood’s massive brownstone Gothic fantasia of a front gate, into the quiet of the cemetery, and while the producers waited for everyone to arrive, they plied the audience with samples of whiskey.
At last, as the sun set and the long summer twilight began, the producers lit torches and led the audience in a procession deeper and deeper into the cemetery, until the sounds of the traffic disappeared and we were completely surrounded by greenery and gravestones. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the long narrow structure of the catacombs, where the audience filed into four long columns of chairs as the singers waited in the shadows at the front of the house.
“There are a million and one logistical difficulties,” says Ousley of the staging. “You have to bring in generators, but they cause noise, so you have to put them far away and bring in extension cords. The catacombs are essentially a tunnel, so you don’t have proscenium staging. You have to figure out where the audience sits and how the movement happens. The singers don’t have the normal run of the stage. The temperature can be very different from day to day. It’ll be 15 to 20 degrees cooler. The walls will weep with moisture. There’s spiders everywhere, and the odd raccoon and stuff.”
But the acoustics, he added, are exquisite: “It’s a remarkably unique acoustic in that it’s incredibly resonant but it doesn’t get boomy like in a cathedral. It’s this very rich and vibrant sound but you don’t lose the details.”
In the quiet of the catacombs, surrounded by graves, Dido (Daniela Mack) took the stage and began to sing.
I am not a knowledgeable or regular viewer of opera. And watching this production, I continued to fall into the same traps I often do. My mind would repeatedly wander away from the beauty of the sounds the singers were making to think about how, really, no one forced Aeneas to promise Dido that he would stay with her forever, and how it was kind of a dick move on his part to do it when he knew he had a destiny elsewhere, and how I really wished we could spend some time looking at what made these two people so attractive to each other when we know so little about either of them.
But when the end of the opera came, and Dido started to sing “When I Am Laid in Earth,” for the first time, I didn’t just think, “Oh, now I’m supposed to think about death” and then instead get irritated at how I didn’t know anything about Dido except that she was dying.
Instead, I thought about the tombstones off to the side of the stage, and the graves outside and all around during that long twilight walk to the catacombs. I thought about how this was the earth, this was the place that Dido would be laid into. And then I stopped thinking for a while, and I just felt the song.
For the first time, I felt like I understood exactly what opera is supposed to do. I saw that the reason the emotional effect of opera doesn’t feel anything like the kind that the novel uses words to convey is that opera’s power cannot be conveyed in words at all. The feeling opera left me with was something that went deeper, that bypasses thought and goes straight to the heart, to the core of the self.