Opera-ting outside the lines

Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” in performance in Johannesburg


The way Edward Arian tells it in his book Bach, Beethoven and Bureaucracy, the first time the Philadelphia Orchestra played an education concert the symphony musicians nearly filed a grievance. It wasn’t the job of artists to entertain children or enrich their lives: music was a serious aesthetic experience reserved only for adults. Preferably wealthy Caucasian adults, I would assume, although that was never made explicit.

Times haven’t changed much. Many orchestras still import busloads of children once a year for shows explaining the profound and poignant difference between “high” and “low”, or for those of more advanced age and intellect, “soft” and “loud”, and then consider their civil obligations duly discharged and return confidently to their funders proudly boasting of the their commitment to outreach.”Playing for poor kids”, or in more fashionable parlance, “access to excellence” is cheap and easy, requiring relatively little money and even less thought.

CityMusic’s production of Brundibar

That’s an extreme, hyperbolic assessment, obviously, representative of a slim majority at best. Many organizations have recognized the superficial, self-serving nature of this kind of outreach and have responded by investing significant time and thought into their performances to give them multiple layers of social relevance. Two beautiful recent examples come to mind, both from the world of opera. Just last week in Ohio, the professional chamber orchestra (and first el Sistema program founder in the area) CityMusic Cleveland presented eight performances of Hans Krása’s Brundibár. The work isn’t well known, but is of enormous significance for its historic context. Written immediately before the outbreak of World War II, Brundibár was given its first performance in 1944 by the children of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. Although the subject matter, relating the struggle and ultimate triumph of two children over a malicious street performer, is unexceptional, CityMusic turned the performances into a platform from which they launched a comprehensive strategy of social engagement through music. In partnership with a major Jewish museum, anti-bullying organizations, and a number of other significant cultural institutions in Ohio, CityMusic used the performances to focus attention on the consequences of all forms of religious or racial hatred and intolerance, with an emphasis on relevant contemporary issues such as genocide. For a chamber orchestra, this production was a bold, visionary venture, but one that will have lasting social and artistic impact. Accordingly, the production integrated el Sistema-like principals with the involvement of a large number of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Cape Festival’s production of “The Fairy Queen”

On the other side of the world – quite literally – South Africa’s Cape Festival presented Henry Purcell’s baroque “semi-opera” the Fairy Queen in both Cape Town and Johannesburg in late March. Cape Festival chose the very risky course of using this production to tackle difficult issues of sexuality, primarily the hate crime of corrective rape which in recent years has emerged as a serious national issue. The combination of youth and sexuality as topics is invariable controversial if not explosive, but Cape Festival deftly navigated these artistic and social waters with great care and aplomb. Like CityMusic, Cape Festival brought many young singers and instrumentalists into the experience of a professional opera production while communicating a poignant social message.

I wish I could have attended both of these. The manner in which we engage with art often divorces it entirely from its social origins: orchestra and opera companies deliver performances in great temples before catatonic worshipers, popular music concerts are presented at exorbitant – nay, elitist ticket prices in massive stadia that reinforce social isolation, rather than reducing it. CityMusic and Cape Festival offered both artists and audiences a rare opportunity to reclaim long-forgotten roots, if but for an evening.








2 thoughts on “Opera-ting outside the lines

  1. Many thanks for sharing your wonderful social thoughts about arts with special reference to Music and Social inclusion.
    As you probably know, El Sistema in Venezuela is a tool of social inclusion, and a very powerful one. Today we do not exclude any type of music, from hi hoop or folk up to opera, symphonic, jazz or chamber music, in order to fill the feelings and local musical cultures. Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu says “The music is just one”, including any type of musical expressions. The result is outstanding, this weekend more than 30 concerts were perform only in Caracas with the chairs filed up, not only in theaters but in open spaces The majority of those concerts were free of charge and the social class attendance, middle and poor families. Years passing more than 2 million persons have attended El Sistema, and today a bust is been given to Venezuelan folk chorus and orchestras, where infants, children of any kind, specially in remote areas of the country with strong local cultures, are included adapting the teaching methods to their special conditions, but not forgetting the academic one which is at the base of any teaching.

    The other activity of El Sistema to include persons is related to impaired children, deaf, autism,conduct or down syndrome. The results are incredible, been able to insert must of children in the society. Finally, the Jail orchestras, where persons in detention centers form orchestras. I have attended a concert recently with Shostakovich, Beethoven and Aldemaro Romero in the encores, and above all, the reaction of the performers seen their families applauding, clapping is something moving. Art and Specially music is becoming a new powerful tool of inclusion and The Art is returning to its social origin.

    From Valencia, Venezuela, again, many thanks for your thoughts an remarks

    1. Carlos, many thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts – you are the first Venezuelan to comment and I’m glad you’ve joined the conversation. Sistema isn’t just a wonderful idea, it’s an inspiration for many other people around the world too, and we give full credit to Maestro Abreu for refocusing our attention on the power of music.

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