A&E Abroad: Christopher Skinner on opera in Vienna

Skinner explores Viennese opera during his term abroad.  Photo courtesy of ChristopheSkinner explores Viennese opera during his term abroad.
Skinner explores Viennese opera during his term abroad.

By Christopher Skinner, for The Lawrentian

Before I studied abroad with IES Vienna Fall 2012, I was strongly interested in opera, studying it for my major at Lawrence, seeing live performances when I could and watching DVDs or listening to CDs. I had, however, only seen three productions live—two of which were relatively unimpressive—prior to my study abroad.

Living in Vienna for four months suddenly gave me the opportunity to increase the number of live operas I’d seen from three to 30. While many of the operas were less standard repertoire—there were some glaring holes like “Tosca” or “Le nozze di Figaro” in my experiences—there could have been no better true introduction to the art form. It was both an experience to enjoy and cherish and also a great primer on how to evaluate opera and understand what I felt made a show “work.”

The conclusion I drew about analyzing opera was that I particularly appreciated those ideas that were novel so long as they enhanced the work being performed. I definitely appreciate a well carried out period-accurate performance.

Despite this, certain pieces like “Eugene Onegin” or “Aus einem Totenhaus” truly impressed me with their unusual design and direction, carried out by the performers, that really enhanced the meaning of the story rather than simply shocking me with their non-original settings.

Others, like “La traviata,” “Káťa Kabanová” or “Daphne” seemed like they were designed around interesting ideas, but ones that were, at best, divorced from the value of the piece itself, and at worst, worked against it.

Though the “Wiener Staatsoper” is one of the best opera houses in the world, there were good singers and bad singers. Nonetheless, even good singing was insufficient to create the best performances. Whether in a period performance or an innovative one, those performers who truly owned the directorial idea were most effective.

Those involved in creating performances are constantly developing over the course of their careers. Similarly, those of us who appreciate opera as audience members are also constantly developing.

While there is possibly nowhere else in the world as good as Vienna to experience a large quantity of high-quality opera in a condensed time period, that does not debar us from still experiencing it as best we can. Every time we hear a recording, watch a video or see a live performance, we are enhancing our ability to form opinions about what makes a performance truly great.

This doesn’t lead to snobbery; it leads to informed reception of art. It is an understanding of what worked well in a performance and what didn’t that enriches us all, performers, reviewers and audience members alike.

That discourse helps us seek out the performances we will most enjoy, and shape an art form that is constantly evolving, perhaps not into something better than before, but something meaningful to us now, as well as perhaps, forever.


To read more about Skinner’s experiences, see his article in the Sept. 2012 issue of Classical Singer or his blog, http://passionofopera.blogspot.com.