Opera is Not the Norwegian Blue Parrot

by Jason Haaheim, principal timpanist

I know that opera is not the Norwegian Blue parrot because of my friend Kevin. I'd like to tell you about Kevin. But first, about that parrot…

Like Mark Twain and his greatly exaggerated death reports, there exists a baffling and centuries-long obsession with predicting the imminent demise of the arts, with particular emphasis on orchestral music and opera. It's been so consistent for so long that it has become a sort of trope - a refrain, a touchstone, the thing that is so very obvious that if you, dear reader, would just look around, clearly you would see that the sky is falling, too.

But like Millenialists who have been confidently predicting “The End is Nigh!” for nearly two thousand years, I would respectfully submit that they are wrong. Now, to be clear, they are not wrong because our arts education infrastructure is already completely adequate. (It's not.) They are not wrong because every single arts institution is perpetually and fundamentally sound. (They aren’t.) Nor do people spend more time soaking in opera than watching funny cat videos on YouTube. (They don't, nor should they be expected to. Maru is adorable and hilarious.)

They’re not even specifically wrong because the numbers consistently prove them wrong:

Norwegian Blue Infographic.png

No - they are all wrong because art is a human necessity. As Alex Beard, Chief at the Royal Opera, said, "I don't want to get into a slagging match with the Met, but [“Opera Is Dying”] is just so far from our experience. Opera is on a roll. As long as love, death, longing and despair are part of the life experience, and people want to hear great stories told through music, opera has a vibrant future."  

Art is born out of our collective desire to come to terms with our own humanity, and it is at least as resilient as we are. Great civilizations have risen, and then fallen, and time after time it’s their artistic contributions that we remember: Sophocles’ plays outlived Hellenic Greece, Virgil’s Aeneid outlived the Roman empire, Michelangelo’s David still inspires awe nearly three hundred years after the fall of the House of Medici, Mozart’s operas are still cultural mainstays two centuries after the height of the Habsburg monarchy, and, despite the fact that Great Britain’s reign as a major colonial power ended over 70 years ago, almost every person on the planet knows Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch.

So let’s make this plain: opera is NOT stone dead. It is not deceased. It is not demised.

Opera has NOT passed on. It has not ceased to be, nor has it expired and gone to meet its maker. It is neither stiff, nor bereft of life, nor resting in peace. It is not pushing up daisies, nor kicking buckets, nor shuffling off its mortal coil, nor running down the curtain and joining the choir invisible.

This is not the age of EX-Opera.

This resilience thankfully takes many forms. One is my friend Kevin, and the infectious enthusiasm he radiates as a music teacher. Kevin and I went to college together. In fact, Kevin, his lovely wife Emily, and I were all musicians at a small private liberal arts college in St. Peter, Minnesota. (Gustavus Adolphus College's Scandinavian heritage is not subtle, and it certainly has its share of students and faculty who are "Pinin' for the Fjords.”)

Kevin was in New York recently with a troupe of zealous seventh and eighth graders enjoying their spring break. But here’s the catch: these middle schoolers were on spring break...for opera. These delightful opera-lescents are Montana pioneers of the Met’s Live in Schools initiative, designed not only to reach a younger audience of potential opera lovers, but also to reach underserved areas of the country. (Kevin teaches in Helena, from which the nearest major opera house, in Seattle, is a 9-hour drive.) I believe that great art is an essential form of nourishment. But having lived in Chicago and now New York, it has been very easy to take that access for granted.

Kevin is going into his seventh year with “Live in the Schools,” and their program in Helena has seen significant growth in recent years. In the 2013-14 season, they used nearly all of their 325 tickets bringing students to see six different operas. Just at their middle school (which serves grades six through eight), they’ve had as many as 70 students at a single show, with a core group of about 15 who connect so strongly that they come to nearly every show of the season. “Live in the Schools” facilitated bringing this core group to New York. Moreover, “Live in the Schools” hosts a national conference every October. According to Kevin, “It is easily the best professional development experience I have ever attended, and each year gives me as many ideas for my general classroom as for opera related activities. The quality of presentations is unparalleled. It's also a great way to connect with people from across the whole country.”

Jason Haaheim (back, second from right) with students from Helena, Montana

Jason Haaheim (back, second from right) with students from Helena, Montana

I can personally attest that these kids were an absolute delight - to meet, talk to, spend time with, and respond to their sometimes breathless questions. But more than anything, it was inspiring to witness these young people awash in the wonder of opera. I’m one of the principal timpanists of the MET Orchestra, and I hadn’t a clue about opera when I was 13. It wasn’t until years later when I saw my first...but I felt like I could relive some of that joy through them. What a remarkable thing, to be able to experience this magnificent art form at that time of life - a time frequently riven by social anxiety and hormones and angst, straddling that awkward divide between childhood and adulthood. It’s operatic, really.

So more than the numbers, and the passionate conviction of my colleagues in the MET Orchestra, and the manifest absurdity of the sentiment that “Opera is Dying,” Kevin and his budding classes of young opera fans convince me that this is a vital, thriving, and important art form. It is a human necessity, and this great group of middle schoolers from Helena need it.

To repeat, NO: opera is not the dead Norwegian Blue Parrot.

But it IS a lovely bird, with REMARKABLE plumage.