Calling Dr. Glowacki: Saving Opera from Itself

Composer Eugene Birman likes to say that opera was started by a bunch of elites trying to recreate Ancient Greek dramas in their living rooms. It may have been doomed from the very beginning.

But opera did have redeeming qualities. Before the 20th century it was actually fun. There was booing, hissing, exiting en masse, food throwing, and sometimes even rioting. In the opera house one encountered prostitutes, beer sellers, thieves, businessmen, as well as members of the proletariat. Opera of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was “live” in the best sense of the word, and it likely had more in common with a World Wrestling Federation triple cage match than with an operatic production of the 21st century.

Not only was opera fun, it did not fear politics. The operagoer got both drama and commentary. Take the works of Verdi. Although a true opera buff might offer better examples, I vespri siciliani depicted the French as evil oppressors, Attila addressed the Austrian occupation, and Un ballo in maschera dealt with regicide.

But something happened between then and now. Eugene likes to blame Germany. After all, it was Wagner who brought us a 16-hour story about a magic ring stolen from a dwarf. Parsifal (only five hours) has a two-hour first act where nothing happens. To attempt to make up for it, Wagner impresarios have had tenor Jonas Kaufmann appear shirtless, and magazine articles are published about why it’s okay to fall asleep during opera.

It seems opera in our day and age has become little more than an upper class ritual, where old white people applaud 200-year-old Greatest Hits by Verdi, Mozart, and Bizet. In “modern” works you get the operas Anna Nicole (as in Smith), Jerry Springer, or Two Boys (about online bullying). John Adams commemorates Nixon for going to China and Klinghoffer for being murdered in his wheelchair by the PLO, making opera more of a monument (something dead) than a vehicle to provoke thought and discussion.

In Florida (God’s Waiting Room) it’s not uncommon to see someone die in a restaurant, and it’s somewhat surprising this doesn’t happen more often at the opera. If young people are present, it’s likely because they’ve been given tickets by their company or have been forced to attend by a humorless teacher. Even in Europe, which has a more active opera scene than the US, the audience usually encountered is largely white-hairs. I once attended a performance of Rigoletto in Tartu, Estonia, with an audience populated mainly by people in their 30s. I thought perhaps the Estonians had figured out how to save opera, but upon further investigation the audience proved to be out-of-work Danes on a “training mission.” Sending them to the opera in Eastern Europe was cheaper for their government than feeding them in Scandinavia.

Opera continues to make itself more irrelevant. Despite efforts by the Met to stream it into theaters worldwide –and I fail to see how a broadcast of an opera can compete with a movie – it seems there is no worse idea than watching a movie of an opera, when the concert down the street offers a mosh pit.

In State of the Union, we’ve tried to remedy all this by writing an opera we ourselves would like to attend, about a topic we believe matters.

Early on we were asked what our elevator speech was for SOTU. I tried: “An opera about everything wrong with the planet…” But the problem here is that there’s actually nothing wrong with the planet. There’s something wrong with us.

SOTU is four characters – the environment, the rich, the middle class, and the poor – meeting and interacting over seven movements. It reflects my belief that many of our problems stem from how we view and treat one another. As a society, at least in the US, we equate wealth with wisdom, and poverty with personal shortcomings. SOTU attempts to offer the perspective of each character, without being so depressing that a concertgoer would go home and kill himself. It offers hope, in its own sobering way.

We also like the idea of this opera being performed somewhere unconventional, that it should not be so easy to access. In an era where music can be downloaded and shared essentially for free, what if some SOTU performances could say something about what it means to be a listener and how to appreciate music?

Eugene has suggested SOTU be premiered on a difficult-to-reach island, where you have to take a Boston Whaler, then a dinghy, and then scythe your way through a dense forest to reach the performance grounds. It would offer an unconventional experience and attract a rather special audience.

We’re not alone in this desire. There are writers, composers, artistic directors, as well as performers out there who also would like to give the audience a better experience. But their efforts are not always positively rewarded.

In 2014, the Bristol Old Vic theater’s artistic director invited the audience to “clap and whoop” during a performance of Handel’s Messiah. One audience member, the scientist David Glowacki, took the director at his word but was then dragged from the theater by audience members when he tried to crowd-surf during the Hallelujah Chorus.

If you’re out there Dr. Glowacki, and you happen to be reading this, you are exactly the audience we want. We hope we’ve created something worthy of your attendance.

Scott Diel

July 2015


Hi Scott,

Thanks for sending this through! Sounds like a great piece and right up my street, actually. I really like the idea and your email provided me a hilarious excuse to revisit the circumstances of the whole Hallelujah (praise the lord!) fiasco.

I have no plans to be in the US during the time you say. I did actually briefly consider arranging an excuse to make it across, but there’s simply too much going on at the moment for me to pop over to NYC.

Good luck with it though. We need artwork that directly addresses our potentially catastrophic cultural malaise. If art can’t awaken it, then ideologues like Donald Trump might do it…

You might commission a plant who can turn up at the show with a surfboard and sit in the front row for the duration of the performance; if anybody asks why he’s got a surfboard, he should tell people that his name is Prof. David Glowacki and that’s how he rolls when it comes to classical art forms. I’ve often fantasized that this would be a great follow-up to the whole affair, but I haven’t yet been organized enough to pull it off.

If you do decide to commission a plant please send me a photo of him sitting politely in the front row with his surfboard. Good luck!


David R. Glowacki
Royal Society Research Fellow