Earlier this year, the opera world had one of its few-and-far-between viral videos. It’s an episode of the Kids Meet series by YouTube’s HiHo Kids, titled Kids Meet an Opera Singer. American soprano Angel Blue – whom Toronto audiences can hear live as Mimi in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019 production of La bohème – sits for several interviews with kids, roughly seven to 12 years old, and she answers their questions about her very cool job. Does she always dress in princess gowns? What’s the highest she can sing? Can she break this wine glass with her voice?
“They dressed me up as the character Violetta [from La traviata],” says Blue of her laughter-filled day spent with HiHo Kids. Although it sounded nothing like her usual promotional work, she was immediately in. “I like kids. If there’s ever a chance to speak to kids, I’m always up for it.”
No matter what the topic, having kids involved is often a foolproof way for a video to earn some extra attention. Yet Blue’s interview, which now has more than 3.2 million views, stood out not because of gimmickry, but candour. She takes the kids seriously and answers every question; she sings with her full voice – after a fair warning that it might be loud – and doesn’t downplay her skill. She laughs at what the kids find funny about opera – that “boys do it, too” – and she assures her young interviewer that it’s a good thing to get nervous before singing onstage. “That means you care,” she says, “You want to do a good job, huh?”
“Yeah,” he agrees.
It’s rare, in the 21st century, that an opera singer gets the chance to introduce themselves in such a balanced way. And more importantly, to do so for a large audience that is not already full of opera fans. Those kinds of audiences are certainly desirable for opera singers, who hope not just to promote themselves, but also to scoop up some potential new opera-goers along the way.
Yet, for media bosses behind the big audiences – late-night television, or even major podcasts such as The Joe Rogan Experience – opera singers are an undesirable gamble for producers who aren’t willing to risk losing viewers over what is essentially an obscure art form. “There’s fear of the unknown,” says Elizabeth Bowman, a New York-based publicist who represents opera singers and classical musicians, “and unknowns are not in favour with anyone.”
And so, given their rare opportunities for a spot in the mainstream media, opera singers today have a patchy record for successful public appearances.
First, the good, such as when Renée Fleming went on Late Show with David Letterman in 2013 to sing “Top 10 Opera Lyrics.” (There’s nothing quite like hearing Renée holler to a tune from Pagliacci, “What is this berserk thing / Miley Cyrus calls twerking?”) Or, when Placido Domingo went on The Colbert Report in 2012; they debated the pros and cons of being a tenor, and then and Domingo and Stephen Colbert sang a duet version of “La donna è mobile.”
There’s some not-so-good, too. In 2008, Nathan Gunn was a guest on The Colbert Report as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s promotion of its then-new Live in HD broadcast series, and he didn’t do much to change opera’s reputation for being elitist and not funny. Gunn spent a lot of the interview assuming that Colbert didn’t know anything about opera (he does), and managed to sink nearly all of the softball jokes Colbert lobbed his way with that classic buzzkill, “Well, actually…”
There’s also the questionable practice of shoving an opera singer on to late-night television with almost zero context; it makes for a baffling, loud introduction to opera. It’s as though the producers are saying, “Here’s an Opera Singer, everybody! Can you believe they still make these?” At best, it’s a low-grade circus act and, at worst, as Blue describes it, “sometimes it’s a joke.”
It happened in 2016 when Ailyn Perez and Luca Pisaroni went on The Late Late Show with James Corden and sang a peppy duet from The Elixir of Love. The singing was great, as you’d expect from these two, but the set-up was lame: James had an inexplicable case of the blues that apparently only opera could cure.
And more recently, Pretty Yende sang Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville as the closer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, to help promote her latest album. There was more class to this appearance, but it still gave audiences no real idea who she was beyond a maker of beautiful sound.
What’s missing from these appearances is the balance that Blue was able to strike in her viral video. She was able to demonstrate her extraordinary skill, but also speak as herself. Yet singing an aria and giving an interview? That’s going to add up to at least a 10-minute slot, the kind of on-screen real estate that is no longer available to opera singers.
Certainly, it’s not like that golden age between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s. In those decades, opera singers were often on Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett and David Letterman. Johnny Carson had on his Tonight Show the likes of Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. There was Anna Moffo duetting with Jerry Lewis, Leontyne Price on What’s My Line? and Marilyn Horne singing C Is for Cookie on Sesame Street. And of course, there was Beverly Sills, who made history with her comedy sketches with Danny Kaye, and most famously, her time spent on The Muppet Show.
It’s easy to imagine an upsetting cycle at play: Opera is niche and therefore not in mainstream media, and opera is not in mainstream media and therefore niche. Yet, it’s not really a cycle, but a symptom of change. The unamplified voice has become less and less common, and it’s now the exception rather than the rule. There have been cuts to arts education, Netflix and its brethren now exist and, of course, there’s social media. With exposure down and alternatives plentiful, it’s no mystery that people just aren’t picking opera.
But when the medium evolves, the savvy opera singers adapt. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose recent work with star composer Philip Glass has launched him into a new level of operatic fame, is perfecting the art of creating what he calls “points of access.” The idea is that the more he collaborates with other artists and finds interesting introductions for himself that don’t depend on an audience understanding opera, the more ways in there are for potential fans.
Costanzo’s most obvious point of access is the inherent novelty in his male soprano voice, a potential source of comedy that would make a great ice-breaker. “If I were to go on James Corden or Jimmy Fallon, instead of just singing a Handel aria – which would be fun – I might also want to have a segment where I try to teach Jimmy or James how to sing like a girl.”
His “points of access” have worked brilliantly in the promotion of his acclaimed Glass Handel, the live production which places Costanzo at the centre of George Frederick Handel, Philip Glass, live artwork, original video (including one directed by actress Tilda Swinton) and couture fashion. Lovers of any of this long list of art forms may buy tickets to Glass Handel and eventually find their way to Costanzo singing opera. Similarly, Costanzo is now armed not just with his opera-singer identity to land him public appearances, but with his connection to art, fashion and those curious about Tilda Swinton.
Humanity works, too. “I think what would resonate with people is how I got into opera,” says Angel Blue, whose late father was also an opera singer. “My career basically started when my father passed away. That’s a bittersweet thing. I have this great career that’s happening around me, but I don’t have the man who introduced me to the art form here with me.”
Perhaps it seems a slightly backhanded way of getting people to pay attention to opera, to lure them in with comedy or touching stories of family life. It’s certainly not the unapologetic presentation of decades past, where The Ed Sullivan Show would cut directly to Maria Callas, no buffer needed, but maybe it’s the newest way that opera singers can raise the stakes amid their competitive industry.
That humanity factor – the one thing that does carry through from the 1950s to now – is what separates the good from the bad impressions that opera singers can leave on the uninitiated public. It’s what made Beverly Sills so lovable on The Muppet Show, and it’s what’s so fabulous about Angel Blue singing Ain’t No Mountain High Enough with her seven-year-old interviewer on Kids Meet an Opera Singer.
“Opera singers are very concerned with having our voices sound perfect,” Costanzo says, “but of course, what audiences want to see is not a perfect opera singer, but a human being.”