Photos and Story by Amber Cetinel / Contributing Writer
Stage director Will Perkins wants you to forget everything you think you know about opera.
“It’s not just people in powder wigs on stage making big sounds … There is beauty, politics, love, hate and things that really are going on in the world around us told through a different medium,” Perkins said.
On Friday, March 23 at the Hinton Music Hall, the cast of Iolanthe demonstrated these themes through a riveting 130-year-old story brought to life with refreshing modern spins. The MTSU Opera Theater invited audiences young and old to take a seat and, for a moment in time, forego the world of logic and reasoning for that of the whimsical realm of fairies, lords and jokes about Jay-Z and immigration.
“We changed some of the words within the script,” said senior Amelia Lufkin, who performed as the opera’s female protagonist, Phyllis. “Everyone reacts to the southern border wall (joke).”
The story, however, extended far beyond the showing.
First performed in London and New York City in 1882, the comedic operetta Iolanthe has outlived time as a charming, yet relevant story for the modern era. The story follows the challenges that the fairy Iolanthe faces after she commits a forbidden crime: marrying a mortal. Twenty-five years later, her half-fairy, half-mortal son Strephon confronts the same dilemma by wishing to marry his true love, Phyllis. The chaotic power struggle between mortals and fairies in an attempt to allow Strephon to find his happiness ultimately leads to a jubilant ending.
“It’s a really fun, lighthearted show with a couple of really tender moments in it that makes it really great for today’s audiences, just as much as it was in the 1800s,” said sophomore Spencer Germany, a member of the male ensemble in Iolanthe.
Originating in Italy during the later period of the Renaissance, opera has captivated audiences for generations through complex and vibrant storytelling.
“(Opera is) live theater that meets beautiful music to tell a human story … The era around the story might change, but the story doesn’t change. The story stays with human progression, which is why opera is still important to see, still important to support and still important to watch because it still reflects us today,” Germany said.
What is considered the “golden age” of opera – the early twentieth century to around 1930, according to a New York Times article – has since withered away over the decades, leaving younger, tech-savvy generations to ponder its relevance in the modern age.
“I think we live in an era where entertainment is so instant gratification and so in-your-face that we’ve allowed ourselves to become used to just having it thrown at us, and we’ve lost a critical skill of really listening and digging into what’s being presented to us,” Perkins said.
Attendance rates for opera have decreased over recent decades. Between 1992 and 2012, opera attendance experienced a moderate decline of 15 to 29 percent in attendance for 18 to 34-year-olds, according to the National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture. Among 35 to 49-year-olds, the decline was even greater, with a 45 percent or more decrease in attendance over a 20-year period.
“To be frank, the audience that has typically been opera-going is dying off … I think we need to find ways to keep opera relevant for younger audiences. Find ways to help them understand that they can connect with it,” Perkins said.
Lufkin believes that opera offers much more than meets the modern eye, such as Iolanthe’s social commentary on women in politics, as well as a variety of genres to capture different interests.
“Not all operas are the same … There are some operas like this that are more comedic and more fun. You’ve just got to find out what you like,” Lufkin said.
In 2017, over 1.3 million Americans attended an opera, according to the 2017 Opera America Annual Field report, which shows cumulative attendance across a total of 70 American opera companies. Perkins hopes that opera attendance will make a steady comeback over time.
“I’ve been in contact with some of the young artists and one of the coaches at Nashville Opera. It’s my hope that, as we continue to grow here, we can continue to form those bonds between those important centers,” he said.
Perhaps what was most apparent during the MTSU Opera Theater’s performance of Iolanthe wasn’t their costumes, their melodic voices, or the quirky Jay-Z jokes, but the intimate moments of conversation that developed between actor and audience. Audible laughter permeated the room throughout the performance, reminiscent of what opera halls in the “golden era” might have sounded like. Perhaps that sound is here to stay.
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