The Evolution of Opera?

by cgallopo

As a class, we have explored the history and evolution of opera in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and we understand the social and artistic importance of the genre in that time period. Today, operatic culture appears to be on the decline as newer forms of entertainment take precedent in popular culture. Though opera is still enjoyed in the 21st century (as we know firsthand from our trip to see Nabucco!), it now operates as high culture; what was once the most popular form of entertainment is now regarded as high art and is seemingly reserved for the cultured elite.
It would seem as though opera is being phased out as an art form, but is it truly losing its foothold or is it simply changing shape? Consider R. Kelly’s ongoing magnum opus, Trapped in the Closet. Like Beyoncé’s 2001 interpretation of Bizet’s Carmen and Prince Paul’s 1999 concept album A Prince Among Thieves, Trapped in the Closet is part of the emerging genre of “hip-hopera”, which is an amalgam of hip-hop/R&B culture and operatic form. These examples may be regarded as either a bastardization of the operatic tradition or the evolution of opera in popular culture, but regardless of opinion it is hard to argue that there is little evidence in support of the latter.
In their work A History of Opera, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker define opera as “a type of theatre in which most or all of the characters sing most or all of the time”. Trapped in the Closet certainly fulfills this requirement, as R. Kelly himself narrates all of the dialogue in song. Furthermore, we also see clear recitative form in Trapped in the Closet through the interactions between characters. Although the manner in which the audience experiences this work is much different than the traditional opera form (33 episodes and counting streaming free online at any time versus one ticketed event at an opera house), this could simply be a sign of the times. Rather than label opera a dead or dying art form, consider a broader definition of opera and see that rather than decaying, opera is alive, well, and simply changing shape.