Why opera is worth fighting for | Lotte de Beer | TEDxAUCollege

By Brian Lemay 6 comments

Translator: Robert Tucker
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Opera … entertainment for the elderly, a leftover from the 19th century, boring, expensive, elitist, perhaps the most elitist
art form of all time. I am Lotte de Beer,
and I’m an opera director. And my slides have
very little to do with my story. They’re just pictures of productions, so don’t let them disturb you too much. I am 34 years old, and if I were, let’s say a soccer player,
a ballerina or a model, I would slowly be thinking about retiring. However, I work in the opera business, so I am considered very, very young,
practically a baby. And that is why I’ve turned
into this sort of ambassador for the rejuvenation of opera. I often get asked to talk
in front of audiences of people, usually opera lovers. I tell them about
the importance of opera houses to find a younger audience, a more diverse audience,
a broader audience. I tell them how opera needs the people. Today, it is a bit different, I think, because I think it’s safe to assume that most of you, and most of the people
who are going to watch this online, have probably never ever
been to an opera. Am I right? Lady in audience: No. Lotte de Beer: No? Oh? Oh God. Okay. Well, I’ll change my entire speech – No I won’t. (Laughter) I thought, today,
since there’s a lot of young people, I shouldn’t be talking about
why the opera needs the people, but about why people actually need opera. Because, even though
there are so many opera lovers here, around the world,
opera houses are doing everything. They’re bending backwards to try to find you guys
to buy opera tickets. They are printing glossy magazines, and they are getting
sexy-looking singers on stage, and they’re hosting red carpet events
with VIPs and soap stars, and it’s not really working. If you see around the world
who’s actually attending, it’s pretty depressing. And then I heard another
really depressing fact, that all the money
that gets spent in advertising, so that people will actually
go to the opera, can never be made back in ticket sales. So it seems like a really rotten
business model, sort of, this opera. So, I was actually, you know,
going in a downwards spiral and thinking should I do this talk. I was sitting at the dinner table with my boyfriend’s children,
Maya and Jonathan, 12 and 14 years old, and they were suddenly
getting really passionate. And they were passionate, not so much because they love opera, but they absolutely
wanted me to do this talk because they love TED talks. Ah, yeah! They said, “Our entire school
watches these talks constantly.” You know, they sit
with their laptops in their rooms, and apparently they watch TED talks. And that to me was very striking. Because I think, wow,
you have these teenagers, and they have the World Wide Web,
they could see everything, and they choose, you know, this, just a person standing
on a stage telling a story, sharing a story with a community. Apparently, they don’t
go for the red carpet, sexy, multifaceted events. And I thought, “Well, that might
have something to do with our time. It might be that we live
in a 21st century where there’s not a lot of time
for sharing stories.” You know, I don’t go to church on Sunday
to get inspired with a sermon. We don’t listen to big idealists to tell us how the world
can be turned into a utopia, because it seems like
generations before us have tried out those utopian [ideas], and they they didn’t really
succeed in that. And we respect each other so much that we, you know, we’ve agreed
that there’s not one truth, but there’s only
several different opinions. I think there’s probably a big longing for people to hear those great stories
told as if they are the truth, and to share experiences. And I think there’s people also
profiting from that, you know, populists, they’re using those those grand
almost operatic truths. It’s very dangerous, and I think
the opera could do a lot better, and give it a positive swing. I think opera is a fantastic
discipline, it has it all. It is a discipline that tells
stories that are centuries old. These stories, you know, they were written
sometimes in the Renaissance, and we’re still telling them, because apparently
there’s something universal in them that still touches us. And then opera is music theatre,
music and theatre, and it reaches us on different levels. It uses text and it uses images – of course, it uses music,
which is most important – and texts go directly to our brain. They help us think, they pose questions, they maybe challenge our ideals. Images are very contemporary. If I want to put up an opera, I build a set on the day
that I actually play the show, and afterwards we break it down again. So, through image we can get
the associations of the audience of now and connect them to those
universal truth in those stories. And then we have music. Music communicates in a most unique way: it reaches your soul directly, no detours. We don’t know why that is, but when we hear a tune composed in 1850, I think, biologically,
we have the same reaction as a person listening to that
when the ink was still wet. Why is that? We don’t know. Why can music make us
feel sad or excited, or make us want to
dance or shout or be scared. It’s something that we can
never really explain, it’s abstract but very accessible. And it needs no translation, needs no explanation,
it needs no updating, and if, and I say “if”, because I don’t think
we always succeeded at it in the opera, but if we can take
the strength of the music, and we combine that
with those great universal stories, and we use images
to reach a contemporary audience, then opera is the best
art discipline that I know. I’ll give you another random picture. Yeah, it worked! Exactly … there’s discussions
in the opera world of how to treat these great stories. There are purists who say something written in the 19th century
should look like the 19th century, you should do what
the composer intended to do. Then there’s other people who say, “Why do we need to tell
those boring old stories again and again? Let us focus on writing something new.” For me, actually, the challenge of taking those sometimes really outdated stories and bringing them to today is invaluable. I think by looking at the past
with the information that we have today, showing it and commenting on it, might tell us something about our future. I’ll give you an example. There is this fantastic opera by Mozart called “Die Zauberflöte”,
“The Magic Flute”, and I will stage that
in Vienna in a few years. It’s a bizarre story. It’s, like, a fairy tale with a gazillion
characters and storylines, and nobody really knows what it’s about; although people generally seem to think that it’s about our Western civilization, about the enlightened
Western civilization, about intellectual ideas and and humanism. I was reading through the uncut
version of the texts, and usually you don’t hear
the uncut version, because it’s way too long, the music is divine,
but the texts are slightly flawed, and I was shocked. It is so sexist and it is so racist. It has this character,
a Queen of the Night, who is considered this evil bitch just because she’s standing up
for her most basic rights of raising her own daughter
and being in charge of her own estate. Then there’s this black slave
called Monostatos who gets slapped around a lot. They tell him he’s evil, and his soul is just as black as his skin, and he gets tortured. The order for the torture gets given by this wonderful,
enlightened white protagonist. If you get a story like that, as a stage director,
you have to make a choice: Do I cut those sections out? It can be done. I can make a version that hurts no one
and still portray the piece. But I think it’s maybe more interesting to actually thematize
this racism and this sexism that is part of our society, that we can’t look away from. So what I will do is I will make this Queen of the Night
and this black slave Monostatos the protagonist of my piece, and everything that gets done
gets looked at by these two people. In that way, I think I can show that our wonderful, civilized
Western society is actually drenched in sexism
and racism and colonialism and whatnot. And by doing so, by sometimes sitting
in an audience all together and having this intellectual work out, we might be able to speak
in a more eloquent manner when we discuss current matters,
such as “Zwarte Piet” or “Black Peter”, which is going on in Holland right now. So, by looking at our past in a way that we know things
from the current situation, we might be able to change our future. Ah, yeah, I think that’s the last picture. There’s also a wonderful other thing
in opera that is casting. Since singing and the voice is actually the first and the last thing
that you think about when putting someone in a role, we get to see
very different people on stage. There’s a reason that we have
this image of a really fat opera singer: it doesn’t matter how she looks;
it matters how she sounds. That’s why, if someone can sing the part, it doesn’t matter what the
colour of their skin is, if they’re tall or if they’re short, or if they’re the standard beauty image
that we have right now. And even though, unfortunately,
opera houses think that in order to reach a younger audience
they have to look more like Hollywood, I think they’re never
actually going to get there, and I think that’s a great thing, because I think we need,
we deserve, a place in society where falling in love, being a hero,
living life, dealing with death, doesn’t have anything
to do with how we look. And that brings us to the last,
very important topic of opera, and that’s the voice, the unamplified human voice which communicates so much more
than just words, text. I think singing is what comes after speaking is no longer sufficient
to make a statement. And if you’ve never been, please go, because it’s the most awesome experience
that you can have. Somebody is tearing their soul out,
and reaching you with the sound, just natural, just live. And that is why, even though people
might not come anymore, even though opera might be based
on the worst business model ever, even though if we go on like this, the regular audiences
in 15 years will be dead, I am going to keep
making the plea to the world that in this very scary 21st century in which the person
who screams the loudest seems to be getting the power, we might need just that: the human voice, live, unamplified, that moves us, and that connects us, and that brings us into connection
with our deepest fears, that makes us think and makes us cry
and makes us hope. I think that is what opera can do, and that is why the world needs opera. Thank you very much. (Applause)



Sep 9, 2017, 4:01 am Reply

I have never thought of Opera as being Elitist, boring, or dusty. In the 18th century It was a show for everyone.

Galene Descoteaux

Oct 10, 2017, 9:32 pm Reply

Very well said.

Rien Spies

Dec 12, 2017, 7:31 pm Reply


Liliana Rovegno

Jul 7, 2018, 3:43 am Reply

great speech about what actually is an opera. Its importance as a complete and unique art which deserves respect expansion and youth, like this young scene productor who loves opera and understands its real place in our world . I am an opera singer and she left me without breath!!!!!

J.R. Vasquez

Nov 11, 2018, 12:12 am Reply

Hear hear Lotte de Beer! I'm an old Mexican face from East Los Angeles and I LOVE Opera. Los Angeles is so fortunate to have a world class Opera company as well as a world class symphony. Don't give up de Beer!

yushan zhang

Mar 3, 2019, 7:23 pm Reply

I have been to MetOpera, and a quite number of audiences were young (20-30). I am also in this age range and love Opera. Really hope it is getting more and more popular.

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