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Aired January 6, 2003 - 17:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, HOST: From tales of terrorism to Shakespearean lovers turned Latino -- opera is changing. Roll over Beethoven. The show must go on.
Hello and welcome. The German capital, Berlin, has three opera houses. How many are in your city? How many times have you ever been inside? For most of us, opera is remote maybe even irrelevant. A fancy night out for fancy people at fancy prices. A bore for everyone else.

Well, it may be fancy but these days it is hardly boring. Opera is embracing news, television, and scandal. And opera being what it is, it's embracing them with a passion. On our program today, a whole new night at the opera.


MANN: The problem for opera is pretty simple. Think of one opera right now. Chances are it was written by someone who's been dead for a long time. And at an age when movies, music and books are popular culture and big business, when we can see so many events live, how does opera avoid seeming dead? As Robyn Curnow reports, some opera companies and composers think they found a way.


ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Auditions for the Jerry Springer opera. That's right, the Jerry Springer opera based on the television talk show, which has explored topics such as I married a horse and I refuse to wear clothes.

The opera, when it debuts at London's prestigious Royal National Theatre this year, will feature swearing, laughs, a chorus line of dancing Ku Klux Klansmen and a man wearing a diaper.

JAMES IVERNE, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I really think that opera houses mostly -- first and foremost need to be proactive about going out and getting the audiences. "The Jerry Springer Show" has done that very well. So, maybe we'll see a whole line of imitators there -- Oprah Winfrey, Rikki Lake. Maybe Rikki Lake will sing her own part, who knows.

CURNOW: Who would have known August that there was an O.J. Simpson opera or a made for television opera on the days of Diana, Princess of Wales or even a Jackie Onasis opera? Art imitating life. Famous people with tragic lives. The perfect fodder for melodramatic operatic themes.

IVERNE: There's so many events going on now, which would be perfect for opera, you know, real stuff of melodrama. The Clinton Zipogate Affair, I think, you know, would be fantastic. You know Monica Lewinsky played by a raging soprano and Bill Clinton -- I don't know maybe Placido Domingo has a passing resemblance to him. Something like that would be terrific. Why not? You know, we should -- we should see more of that.

CURNOW: Classical opera has even been challenged by a genre called CNN Opera. That's delighted forward thinkers, but unsettled opera purists.

IVERNE: There is a group called CNN Opera. That's a phrase, which is going by an American critic in reference to an opera called "Harvey Milk," about the first openly gay, American senator who was assassinated.

CURNOW: Other successful operas based on events in living memory, "Nixon in China" by John Adams, based on the disgraced American president's trip there, also, by the same composer, "The Death of Klinghoffer" about the hijacking of a cruise ship, a terrorism related theme that is a shocking reality for many these days not just modern operatic subject matter.

(on camera): Operas have always dealt with society's largest themes - - love, death, power, corruption and scandal. Updating opera can seem shocking to some, but if it stands well, it can make opera more relevant for today's audiences.

(voice-over): But some are critical of producers who are accused of shocking just for the sake of it. Recent operas, "Don Giovanni" and "The Monster Ball" here at The English National Opera included a character snorting cocaine, homosexual rape and nudity.

ASH KHANDEKAR: There was a situation at English National Opera where the curtain went up and there were 14 people sitting on a -- on toilets across the stage. And now, that in it itself was a shocking image. But whether it really made sense in the context of the opera, which was a 19th century opera by Verdi really remains to be seen.

CURNOW: But some ask just how shocking is an opera based on Shakespeare's "Roman and Juliet" even if it has it has a steamy Latin twist combining jazz, tango, slapstick comedy and satire. Do modern productions and new operas really push the boundaries?

IVERNE: They're only what we see and listen. Whether they shock and act as a matter for debate, I don't think they very often do. And I think that's a shame not even that they have to shock, but they have to be spoken about. And that doesn't seem to happen very much.

CURNOW: Shocking tactics or outrage as themes do get press attention and people talking, which can mean more tickets are sold.

KHANDEKAR: In the states, opera really is the fastest growing art form of all, I mean, from quite a small base. Over the last 20 years, year and on year, audiences for opera have been growing.

CURNOW: Here on Broadway, the latest version of the 19th century opera, "La Boheme" by the movie director, Baz Luhrmann. It's playing to packed New York audiences proving that the formula has not really changed over the centuries.

BAZ LUHRMANN, DIRECTOR: The radical idea that we've had is simply to reveal Puccini's "La Boheme" in its original language, in the Italian, but to make it as much like the experience that the audience would have had in 1990 when they originally saw it, which is it would have been deeply founded. That was deeply relevant.

CURNOW: Shocking or not, slick productions, talented singers and orchestra and sublime music still make for memorable opera.

HUGH GRANT, ACTOR: I think it's what they call a crossover, when you bring all kinds of non-opera goers in and -- it's amazing.

LUHRMANN: They're incredible singers. And a lot of young people who have never been to the opera before are going like I can't believe that sound is coming out of that body.

CURNOW: Robyn Curnow, CNN, London.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, the death of a princess on television. Stay with us for that.


MANN: The operatic repertoire is full of royalty and tragedy, sadness and scandal. For one composer, the public reaction to Princess Diana's death had all the elements a good opera needs.

Welcome back. "When She Died, Death of A Princess" is an opera about the aftermath of the car crash that killed Princess Diana. It focuses on some ordinary people and some odd ones as they react to the news. The opera was written and recorded for television rather than the opera house and TV footage actually plays a big part in how "When She Died" unfolds. It was a serious piece of work and it attracted serious comment, but some people called it shock opera profiting from the death of a beloved public figure. Its composer, Jonathan Dove, told us that wasn't the plan.


JONATHAN DOVE, COMPOSER: No, I did hope to hit on a subject, which would be interesting for a lot of people. And I'm glad to say that when the opera was showing on television in England, nearly a million people watched it, which for opera, is something of a record here. I think that just shows that if an opera is about something that people want to know about, they'll turn on.

MANN (on camera): OK, well, there's the subject matter. I'd like to talk to you about that in a moment, but let me ask you first of all about the content of the opera itself because there is the one scene that everyone talks about, which is the scene where a fanatic of Diana's hires a prostitute and then has her undress and lie down between candles. Everyone said that that seemed calculated to shock, was it?

DOVE: No, it was -- we tried to get inside the head really of a quite disturbed person. And I suppose the characters in our television opera were kind of highly dramatized versions of things that were perhaps going on in a milder way for ordinary people. So this person who believes that Diana is in love with him feels that he has to act a sin-eating ritual.

So it's a kind of a religious activity, but it is, obviously, a rather private one. It's hard to understand. And so I think it is -- it's a bit -- it does look a little startling. But I think what we were hoping to show was just -- those were very intense feelings that were going on. And in a way, why it would seem worth trying to capture these feelings in opera is that I think people were not always articulate why they felt so intensely when Diana died. It was just a lot of grieving going on of various kinds. And music and singing is a way of getting inside the heads of people when there's no other way of doing it.

MANN: Well, let me ask you about that, in fact, because the feelings were so intense. The wounds were -- they probably still are -- so deep and so painful for so many people who felt close to Diana, even people who were very remote from her. Did it seem appropriate to do it in that way, in a pop culture form of way? And did it seem appropriate for opera to really try to touch something that's really sort of (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

DOVE: Well, I think it's important to try and connect with intense things that are actually going on. And I thought it was -- it was having taken a chance as a composer. It seemed to me the real challenge was that -- to try and find music that expressed a kind of great outpouring of grief, to find music that could speak for a large number of people. It's the kind of the thing that you can imagine Verdi seemed to do so naturally. But I think it's much harder for composers now to do that.

So I think that was the -- that was the tough thing, was to try and find the music, which people who watch television could relate to and which in some way would enable them to recognize something of what they experienced at that time.

MANN: And in fact, most of the people who watch television don't go to opera houses. And so, writing an opera for the television audience seems to have a lot of different implications. And one of them being that most of the people who are going to see it have probably never seen an opera or certainly aren't accustomed to it. Did that make the reception easier, do you think? Or was that part of the intent, was to bypass the world of opera and go more directly to people to the people?

DOVE: Yes, I wanted to reach an audience of ordinary people. I think a lot of people don't go to opera because of all the paraphernalia around opera houses, the cost of tickets and the sort of mystique of opera house opera. And I think the operatic experience is too important to restrict it to people who have access to the big houses and are not frightened to go into them.

MANN: So many people responded? Have you heard from many people who actually saw the opera?

DOVE: Yes, it was a very range of response. But I think that the fact that so many people watched it at all is already -- that's quite an interesting response. And I -- it's very hard to make a generalization. It seemed to really work for some people. It didn't work so well for other people. And some of the scenes, which some people said, "Oh, like, this was the one thing I didn't like," would be the one scene that someone else did like. So I think it had certainly a very diverse kind of response.

But I think also people watched it just as television. They watched it as a really interesting television program and weren't worried about the fact that as it happens, it was an opera and that people were singing the entire story. But they watched it as television and of course, because we have a story that made it possible to use quite a lot of archive footage -- of actual, live footage from television coverage of events after Diana's death. I think we were able to create something that in a way -- it looked like you remembered it looking except that it was opera.

MANN: Is that the future of opera? I ask you that because in the past, opera -- so many great operas have been drawn from history and they have been drawn from myth, the powerful, cultural stories of other cultures. The most important stories in our culture are told on television. Is that the way opera has to go, both for its material and for its audience, do you think?

DOVE: Well, for me, some of the most exciting times of opera are either long ago and far away or right now. And I prefer right now. I think it's just the most exciting thing to write about and you feel that musically anything is possible. The moment you start thinking about historical subjects, you're aware of the pull of previous music, of older music whereas if you're writing about something right now, then the only limits are the limits of your own imagination.

MANN: Well, let me ask you one last question and that would be drawn from your imagination, when you think about Princess Diana as an opera, at first it seems odd and then it seems obvious. She was so much larger than life. Are there other figures that come to mind that strike you as the appropriate people for your next opera or just as people you'd be interested in seeing operas about?

DOVE: Gosh, that's a hard one. I think -- let me see if I can answer that properly.

MANN: I mean is Jerry Springer the appropriate figure? Are we going to be looking to people like that?

DOVE: Well, you may. And over in England, there is a...

MANN: And that's why I'm asking in fact.

DOVE: ... opera...

MANN: Exactly.

DOVE: ... which I haven't seen yet. I'm really looking forward to seeing it. But I think that's so -- again, it's a very good example. You have characters whose lives are very dramatic. And in a way, the extent to which people on "The Jerry Springer Show" don't seem entirely in control of their lives, the kind of a mess of them is very visible. It's very tangible. There's a lot of upset. It is quite operatic behavior.


MANN: Composer, Jonathan Dove, who wrote "When She Died."

We have to take a break now. When we come back, opera's efforts to stay relevant, more on the CNN opera. Stay with us.



MANN (voice-over): The composer who brought us "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer," he's working on a new piece for the San Francisco Opera. It's called Dr. Atomic. It's based on the life of the creator of the atom bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer.


MANN: Welcome back. To some of the industries we've heard they're known as CNN Operas because they're based on current events, operas that venture into politics or pop culture. Is it an effort to keep the gender relevant to a culture reared on television or has opera always reflected the times? We talked to F. Paul Driscoll, editor of "Opera News."


F. PAUL DRISCOLL, EDITOR, "OPERA NEWS": I don't think it's any more true of opera than it is of any other art form. I think all art has got a Darwinian principle of survival involved. If audiences don't like it, whether it's television or opera or theater or film, they won't come.

So I think that you have contemporary opera companies, contemporary stage directors, contemporary composers who are speaking to issues of their own time. And they are not only creating new works that are taken from today's headlines, but they're also looking at doing more edgy productions of older work because that's the time that we live in. I don't think it's a conscious effort to make it more relevant. If you try to make it more relevant that way, the audience is not fooled and they stay away.

MANN (on camera): Well, since you put it in Darwinian terms, let me pursue the metaphor. Is this in fact a once vibrant organism that's evolving because it is facing extinction, that opera is less and less relevant to people's lives, that they don't go as much and it survives really because of benefactors from the state of from the wealthy class?

DRISCOLL: Oh, I think you're wrong. According to "Opera America," the fastest growing art form in the United States nationally is opera. There's been a tremendous growth in regional opera companies. I think if you're focusing on wealthy patrons, it is true of opera companies on the East Coast and the West Coast that there's a disproportionate amount of funding coming from individual donors who have very deep pockets. But across the country, I think it's something that appeals to a very broad spectrum of opera lovers.

I think that it's not necessarily dying. It's changing. And I think if it's facing increasingly stiff competition from other art forms. But if opera were dying, for example, I don't think we'd see the biggest hit on Broadway being an opera, which is over 100 years old.

MANN: You're talking about?

DRISCOLL: "La Boheme" directed by Baz Luhrmann.

MANN: Let me ask you about that because that's another phenomenon that we're seeing unfold, which is not just a different kind of opera with different subject matter, but old, much loved operas being done in new ways. "La Boheme" comes to mind.

There was also a production, I'm sure you know about, of "Don Giovanni" in London where he was presented snorting cocaine. How do people who like opera the old way feel about opera, as they're familiar with when they see them in a very unfamiliar setting or with very unfamiliar stagings?

DRISCOLL: They know that if they wait long enough, it'll come back in a better staging. I think that something like "Don Giovanni," which has been around since the 18th century, has had many bad productions. I didn't see the one to which you're referring with the cocaine, but certainly, there are edgy productions and there are productions, which are done very, very traditionally, which are very, very bad and quite dull. There are productions, which are very edgy and contemporary in feel, which are wonderful. I think it depends on the individual production. I don't know that I am comfortable with or any other serious opera lover is comfortable saying that one type is automatically good and the other type is automatically bad.

The interesting thing about Baz Luhrmann's production is even though he sets "La Boheme" in 1957 in Paris, if you look at it closely, in terms of his take on the characters and the take on the actual action, it's very traditional. He is very, very cognizant of what made the opera work and why people have loved it. He doesn't fool around with what works in the piece.

MANN: Are audiences changing as operas change? Are the people who got acquainted with older works happy to go see "Nixon in China" or "Dead Man Walking?"

DRISCOLL: Oh, I think so, very much so. "Dead Man Walking" is -- was a huge hit for San Francisco opera. So much so that they scheduled an extra performance when the opera was first done. And I'm sure you're aware that a second touring -- not necessarily touring production but a second production directed by Leonard Folya (ph) was mounted and shared by a number of different opera companies. It's been done in New York City, here at New York City Opera. And there are plans for several other opera companies to take it up and people are hungry to see that.

MANN: One last question for you and that is whether people like me, who put these questions to people like you, are forgetting something about the history of opera, which is that really it did shock a lot of people when "Carmen" came out with it's very overt sexuality of "The Marriage of Figaro." It talked about the conflict between the lower classes and the nobility. Are we forgetting the contemporary impact of operas that we've all now just simply grown so accustomed to and who's history we forget?

DRISCOLL: Sure and I think that the cheerful thing -- of the cheering thing, I should say for contemporary opera composers is that "La Boheme" and "Traviot" (ph) and "Carmen" were all big flops, so was Barbara Seville. So time will tell. It depends on what audiences 50 years from now think of works that are being produced today. It depends on whether or not they'll last in the repertoire.

MANN: OK. So is Jerry Springer going to last?

DRISCOLL: Do you mean Jerry as an individual or Jerry Springer the opera?

MANN: Jerry Springer the opera.

DRISCOLL: I think it's probably something that people will be curious to see, especially after all the press coverage that we've had. But I don't know that that's something that is going to last much longer than Jerry Springer does. I don't know. It'll be interesting to see. Why don't you ask me the question again in 50 years?

MANN: Or in a century. F. Paul Driscoll of "Opera News," thanks so much for talking with us.

DRISCOLL: Thank you.


MANN: And that's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.




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