Cell phone usage and high art usually don’t mix — that is, unless you wish to be a patron of the “wanna-be-so-edgy-it-hurts” Opera Philadelphia. Last week, the company announced that select sections of the audience can live-tweet during the opening-night performance of its latest production, Ainadamar: Fountain of Tears. Its website literally bills the event as follows: “Ever wanted to break the ‘please turn off your cellphones’ rule at the Academy of Music? Here is your chance!”
Opera Philadelphia: What the hell is this?
Or, perhaps, I should rephrase that: @OperaPhila, what the #hell is this? #opera #amateurhour
There’s no doubt Opera Philadelphia has been trying to re-define itself as a relevant artistic company, not only in the city, but in the opera scene nationally and internationally. The company’s name change, from Opera Company of Philadelphia to its current title in 2013, was a clear enough indication of some sort of shift in artistic and public perception.
Look, I am all about breaking through perceived barriers when it comes down to bringing new people into the theater, especially if it brings young people to see opera, the last art form that does not use electronic amplification to project the precious human voice into a large auditorium. For those of us who care about opera, we do need to disprove perceptions that audiences are going to see a lady in a Viking helmet, à la Wagner’s Die Walkure, belting an aria in the middle of a stage. (Actually, there’s been plenty of debate sparked over this notion in recent weeks after American soprano Danielle de Niese made comments to The Telegraph about combating the “fat lady sings parody” after she appeared scantily clad in a production of La Calisto in Munich. Her interview has set opera fans’ social media ablaze).
Live-tweeting during a performance is not the answer to make opera more “relevant” or to break through some sort of ideological audience barrier. If anything, the gimmick is a cheap attempt to appear “pertinent” to possible “wanna-be” opera-goers who simply cannot back away from their iPhones. Philadelphia’s opera audiences deserve better. The opera artists on stage and in the pit orchestra, many of whom have trained for decades to perfect their craft, deserve significantly better.
What makes this promotion even worse, artistically speaking, is that the plot of Ainadamar, the opera for which the live-tweeting session is scheduled, is about the death of gay poet Frederica Garcia Lorca. If you’re going to pander to a young audience with tweeting during live performances, at least pick an opera that’s a little more uplifting — Verdi’s Falstaff, Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, or even Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, all comic classics, would have been better choices for such a ploy.
When it boils down to it, opera is emotion, or, as esteemed director Andrew Sinclair puts it, “catharsis, raw emotion, and tears.” It’s about the glory of the human voice and spirit, about the collective artistic vision of the director and the trained performers. What makes live theater unique, and quite unlike any other form of entertainment, is that we, as the audience, enter something of a sacred promise when we walk into the theater. It’s a deal that is unlike going to the movies or going to a sporting event. We suspend our disbelief for three hours while we engage in the live performance. It’s meant to be uninterrupted — if we break our suspended disbelief, all odds are off.
But then again, this is Opera Philadelphia. I guess all of that can be replaced by an emoticon and a few hashtags.