Earth Day, Opera, and Classical Music
Updated: Apr 26
From Operavore, the WQXR Blog
Apr 22, 2020 · by Fred Plotkin
I began drafting this article of ideas about musical connections to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day months before the coronavirus turned the world upside down. I will mention, just in passing, that while the pandemic is cataclysmic in human and economic terms, one silver lining is that, with most of humanity sheltering in place, the natural world is getting a break from our ruthless depredations. Much of the world’s air is cleaner because plane travel is down 90%. Historically polluted waterways seem cleaner and fish are returning, including the canals of Venice (where the sediment is settling due to minimal boat traffic, making the water look cleaner). Deserted beaches from Costa Rica to Thailand are seeing record high levels of egg-laying by leatherback sea turtles, which have been endangered for at least two decades. It is not all positive though: a disturbing number of discarded face masks and gloves are ending up in some oceans, and we must deal with that immediately.
How we see the world informs our values about how we treat it. I have been “green” since I was a small child, influenced by the Native American folk tales that impressed upon me the idea that Earth is our mother and we are her custodians. This made more sense to me than the Bible’s command in Genesis 1:28, “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” I have always seen myself as one of the many creatures that share the planet, rather than one who would want to fill it with humans and dominate other species and exploit natural resources.
Over the course of my lifetime, the warning term of choice, and its inherent implications, has changed — ecology, environmentalism, greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change. A new one will surely follow. We are talking about the survival of our planet, as well as all of the species that inhabit it and share it. There is no more important cause.
The person I most admired as a child (and still revere) was Rachel Carson(1907–64) whose book The Silent Spring should be required reading for everyone as the guide for developing a sensibility about our world and keeping it safe. Her earliest writing was about oceans and, even though she did not see or smell an ocean until she was a young woman, her work on this topic is equal in quality to the greatest literature.
Almost all of my life choices and behaviors (apart from a regrettable carbon footprint due to too much air travel) have been determined by my desire to tread lightly and leave the planet better than I found it. As someone who has had opera in his life since I was in a playpen, I have had its music in my imagination and it became a soundtrack to envision imagery and action in its stories. To understand what I mean, listen to the Forest Murmurs from Wagner’s Siegfried. Close your eyes as you listen and see what imagery floods into your mind’s eye.
In fact, no work in all of music is so rich in references to the Earth in all of its beauty, fascination, and raw power as Der Ring des Nibelungen. I wrote about this last year. My concept of a “green” Ring is hardly new. On April 10, 1993, just before the Metropolitan Opera embarked on a presentation of the four-opera cycle, I wrote an op-ed article in The New York Timespositing that the environmentally-minded Al Gore would be my Siegfried. I was an adviser to Arizona Opera in 1995–96 when that company did a Native American–influenced Ring in gorgeous outdoor settings in the northern part of the state.
The Ring as a cautionary parable about protecting the environment speaks to audiences today as well. The current Frank Castorf production at Bayreuth is perhaps too literal in its depiction of gasoline (petrol) as the gold that is so coveted, but whose theft from the Rhine river creates chaos in the world. Much more subtle and effective is Francesca Zambello’s vision that sees greed and disrespect for our planet as the inevitable path to our destruction and, perhaps, renewal led by wise and courageous women. In it I am reminded of Carson’s words: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Zambello’s production is shared by the Washington National Opera and the San Francisco Opera, and I would gladly see it again.
The biggest caution about what happens when the gold is stolen from the Rhine and laws of nature and society are not followed comes from Erda, the Goddess and Protector of the Earth, who rises from the ground to admonish chief god Wotan: “Weiche, Wotan, Weiche!” (Be very careful, Wotan!)
I think of 17-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate crisis activist, as the Erda for our times as she sounds the alarm on the disaster we face if all nations (but especially the industrial powers) do not act immediately and courageously. In 2019 she was named Time magazine’s person of the year.
A piece of wisdom I have always adhered to came from pioneering naturalist John Muir (1838–1914): “When you tug on a single thing in the Universe, you find that it is attached to everything else.” It’s an elegant way of saying what we know but do not always acknowledge — we are all connected in palpable ways as well as unexpected ones. Which brings me to the superb Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman. I have adored her artistry since I first heard her in 2008 in Paris in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Here you can watch the whole opera but, for now, look at her perform “When I am Laid in Earth,” popularly known as “Dido’s Lament.”
You might not know that Ernman’s daughter is none other than Greta Thunberg. When your child has that level of fame and scrutiny (which includes being dissed by the President of the United States), even accomplished parents must adjust. Thunberg has asked her mother not to fly anymore. The consequence of this means that Ernman must seek work closer to home.
Well before COVID-19, I was reflecting on how opera companies can reduce their environmental impact and, especially, the carbon footprint that comes with people who fly many thousands of miles per year. Materials used to make scenery and costumes have been made cleaner and healthier than the past. Different kinds of lighting now reduce energy consumption. But the most important component of an opera company, of course, are the people who make the music. The orchestra and chorus typically live locally.
The big question, and Malena Ernman is the most conspicuous example, is whether we want to think seriously about using mostly singers who are locally sourced or live within a manageable range. The New York area and the northeastern United States is a good place to start. We have so many fabulous singers nearby who could appear at the Met, other New York companies, and at those in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and New England. There are excellent conductors, coaches and conservatories as well.
Other nuclei can form elsewhere. Atlanta, for example, has become the home for many fine singers in recent years. They can work in much of the South. Texas has the resources to do this as well, as do a collection of Midwestern cities including Minneapolis, Des Moines, St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. Most of the Midwestern states have outstanding music schools, especially at the universities of Indiana and Michigan, as well as the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
Europe, with its excellent rail service, can have a similar arrangement. An artist can live in Paris, Geneva, Verona, Munich, Prague, Vienna, Amsterdam, or Copenhagen and get to most theaters on the continent in a day. The United Kingdom and Ireland can do this as well, with the benefit of having superb trains to bring artists to and from Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam.
I recognize that there are questions, adjustments, and compromises that need to be made. The first is that we Americans must finally step up and fulfill the promises long made by politicians of both parties to improve our infrastructure, starting with high-speed railways. This could be part of a 21st Century New Deal to stimulate economic rebirth from the ashes of our pandemic. These trains could zoom up the Pacific Coast, all over Texas to Oklahoma and New Orleans, and link the Midwestern cities I named above. This will benefit all Americans, not just music lovers.
Then there is the obvious fact that audiences want to hear the finest artists from everywhere. The Met and other top American companies regularly feature wonderful singers from Europe, and our great singers are much in demand in Europe. My answer is that we can adapt by learning from the past. A century ago, Mahler, Toscanini, Caruso, and many others would arrive in North America by ship for a season (not necessarily a whole opera season, but what the musician would call his own season). A more recent example was Renata Tebaldi, who would sail from Europe for her American season, complete with clothes and other things she wanted. Tebaldi would do several roles in her Met season rather than just coming to sing Tosca or Aïda.
I know that Cecilia Bartoli does not like flying, and I think it is time for her to come by ship for a North American season. This might mean adjusting when companies perform. Singers with children want to stay close to home during the school year, but a European artist can come to the States with their families in early summer when the children are on vacation. Yes, I know, ship travel is not always kind to the environment (though some cruise lines are responsible world citizens). This needs to be completely revisited, as does hygiene post-COVID, but I assure you that will happen if that industry is to survive.
What I am suggesting about opera can also be applied to orchestras, chamber music, dance, theater, and all forms of live performing arts. Form local and regional consortia of companies, productions, and performers, and also encourage artists who live far away to consider creating “seasons” every year or so on another continent. This cannot all happen right away, but I am thinking about the long-term health of the industry. We can and must be nimble and flexible, and that goes for audiences too. Stay home for part of each summer and patronize local and nearby festivals.
I invite you to make suggestions about how to better protect our planet while also filling it with all forms of inspiring, soul-gratifying beauty. As Rachel Carson said, “those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile inThe New York Timeson August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."