The night that Peter Ash’s opera The Golden Ticket premiered in St. Louis, there were more than a few young people in the audience. Some very young people in fact—many elementary school-aged, who likely were familiar with Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that Ash’s opera was based on. As the curtain closed and the audience began filing out, I was lucky enough to be privy to the reactions of these younger audience members.
One child in particular made an interesting comment to his mother after the performance: apparently, he was unimpressed by the special effects (or lack thereof), and mentioned that the movies (by which I assume he was referring to the two previous film versions of Dahl’s book) were “A LOT more exciting.” Specifically, the young critic would have preferred more “realistic” (by which he may have meant “computer-generated”) effects especially at moments such as Violet Beauregard’s transformation into a giant blueberry or Mike Teavee’s being shrunk by Wonkavision teleportation.
I’m writing about these comments because this young individual seemed to articulate something important and true about modern society and the theatergoer’s place within it. Mainly, that film, television, and video games have succeeded in upping the ante in terms of dazzling, jaw-dropping visual experiences that any individual approaching opera for the first time is likely to emerge underwhelmed.
Of course, it’s not true that a troupe of live singers accompanied by an orchestra, lighting, and moving sets is inherently boring, even compared to the kind of summer blockbuster type of over-stimulation we’ve become accustomed to. It’s just that what’s exciting about opera is exciting in a different way than a film is exciting, although there is much overlap between the two fields. To put it another way: seeing someone turn into a blueberry in a quasi-realistic way via movie special effects taps into different creative opportunities and challenges than doing so with live singers and orchestra. In one sense, the live production is doomed to be a pitiful failure compared to the possibilities of a fully-edited video sequence, but only if the goal is to achieve something approaching photorealism. But once we stop expecting the live stage to replicate the kinds of CGI antics that have taken over Hollywood, we’re able to appreciate the other kinds of expression that opera makes possible and appreciate the thrill of drama unfolding in front of us with live actors. How funny that opera used to be the rough equivalent of the blockbuster movie, considering how boring and unexciting it comes off to many people today!