Alexandra Sessler wheels her electric piano into the guarded room. Security personnel at Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall are skeptical. She notices one of the guards shooting a funny look at her and collaborator Carlos Aguirre. They’ve come to talk to nearly two dozen of the detention facility’s most serious offenders.
It’s far from the norm at the San Jose youth detention facility, where visitors usually deliver a scared-straight sermon about needing to shape up.
Aguirre and Sessler visit these young men with a different message. Their aim is to introduce new modes of expression—writing and operatic singing. They’ll do this using insights into rap, a musical form many of the youth are already familiar with.
The Rap Opera Project is part of an initiative launched by Opera Cultura, a Latino-oriented opera company. Aguirre, a hip-hop emcee and beatboxer, holds down the rap end of the project. Sessler, a professional opera singer, plays the piano and demonstrates how operatic vocal technique can fill a theater without the aid of artificial amplification.
After the teens take part in a creative writing exercise, Sessler sings their words while Aguirre drops a beat.The sheer volume of Sessler’s singing impresses the kids, and they’re delighted to hear their personal stories turned into a hip-hopera on the spot.
By the end of the session, this group of at-risk youth is interested in an art form many consider to be stuffy, antiquated and reserved for big city bluebloods in black ties and gowns.
It’s no surprise that boom-bap beats mix well with an aria, or that inner-city kids with records can relate to opera. It’s all musical expression. From Mozart to Tupac, musicians have made sense of the human condition through their work. And it turns out the world’s most acclaimed rap music shares plenty in common with opera.
Take La Boheme.
“It’s about poverty and death,” says Larry Hancock, general director of Opera San Jose. “It’s about the fact that having no financial resources ruins your life.”
The characters in Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera—one of the most popular in the world—live hand-to-mouth in a rundown tenement in 1830s Paris. At one point, the male lead, Rodolfo, a writer, burns one of his manuscripts just to stay warm. Later, his love interest, Mimi, will die of consumption, a disease she might have avoided had she been higher born.
Contrast this with the harrowing tales outlined in rap songs, such as Nas’ 1999 track “New York State of Mind Pt. 2.” He recounts a day in the life in Queensbridge, North America’s largest public housing project:
Broken glass in the hallway, bloodstained floors
Neighbors, look at every bag you bring through your doors
Lock the top lock, Momma shoulda cuffed me to the radiator.
Why not? It might’ve saved later from my block
There are other parallels to be drawn.
“A play is all text and it is acting,” says Héctor Armienta, artistic director and general director of Opera Cultura—an Oakland-based company, which does the bulk of its work in the South Bay, due to the large Latino population here. “Then there is musical theater, which gives you big musical numbers, but the songs don’t necessarily connect. With opera, there’s a fourth character. It’s the orchestra. The music adds another way of telling a story.”
Contrast this with the cinematic rap music video, which also features words, acting, beats and a director—who works like a conductor, pulling the strings out of view.
While these parallels exist, popular culture seems to be winning out over opera. Public attendance of “benchmark” arts activities—jazz concerts, opera and live theater—dropped by nearly 25 percent from 1982 to 2012, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). While other art forms are adapting to new trends in media consumption, opera has lagged. “Opera participation exclusively via media has the smallest audience of any performing art form studied,” according to the NEA. The 2015 report went on to find that opera “has the smallest participation rate for any performing art form attended live.”
It’d be easy to say opera is a relic that doesn’t interest younger generations as much as Netflix, video games or even live hip-hop shows. But Hancock believes it’s more complicated than that.
One theory is that it’s getting more expensive to go to the opera, as it takes more and more money to pay musicians and singers at a competitive rate.
“The average opera-goer’s salary hasn’t kept up with ticket prices,” Hancock says.
Joseph Frank, a San Jose State University music professor and professional opera singer with more than 40 years experience, suspects the industry’s financial woes can be traced to a lack of public music education. This, in turn, leads to a lack of understanding of the genre, impacting ticket sales, subscriptions and endowments.
“When push comes to shove, the first thing that goes out the door is arts,” Frank says of public education budget cuts.
Back in the ’70s, when he was finishing up his degree in opera at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Frank was part of an inner-city outreach program, which brought opera into underserved schools. Similar to The Rap Opera Project, Frank’s program was called “Who’s Afraid of Opera?”
Kids weren’t so much averse to the genre, he says, as they were unaware of it. Frank recalls observing the same thing Sessler saw in the teens at juvenile hall.
“I would start singing and their eyes would light up,” he says. “They don’t realize that all that sound can come from a single human voice.”
Aguirre agrees. He attributes any preconceived—and incorrect—notions about opera to ignorance.
“We don’t need to put it so far away—like opera is this thing that no one can really do,” he says. “It’s more accessible than people think.”
Still, the demise of opera is a concern for opera professionals—and not just because it’s their livelihood.
“If it were to die on my watch, it would be a very disturbing thing to me,” says Hancock, of the prospect of Opera San Jose going under.
The People’s Opera
“The days of black ties and tails” are largely in the past, Frank says, noting that the only place one is likely to encounter that kind of “stuffed shirt quality” are at opening nights of the San Francisco Opera or The Met. “It’s become much more relaxed.”
It’s not uncommon for opera patrons to show up in jeans and sneakers—especially in Silicon Valley.
It’s more important, Frank says, to remind people that composers have been creating operas for popular audiences for centuries. “The Magic Flute was written for the common people,” he says.
Since Mozart’s time, opera has evolved with the zeitgeist and adopted new technologies. The practice of projecting supertitle translations of lyrics has been common since the 1980s, Frank says. “That was introduced to dismiss the stigma of ‘Oh, they’re speaking another language and I don’t understand it.'”
For Hancock, the conventions and social etiquette surrounding opera have never been as important as the art itself. “Subject matter counts,” he says, explaining that “universal” themes are what draw people to all great art. Aguirre and Sessler can get with that.
Reflecting on The Rap Opera Project, Aguirre says his aim has never been to save opera in its current form. “I don’t think that our goal is to expose the kids to opera so they can try it,” he says. “I think of it more as another way to use your voice.”
A recent workshop performance of The Rap Opera Project at MACLA seems to have achieved that goal. Diante Brown, a rapper and producer who goes by Overlord, attended the event, which featured Aguirre’s rapping and beatboxing, Sessler’s singing, live cello by San Jose-based multidisciplinary artist Cellista, and Armienta on piano. Brown says he’s now thinking about how he can incorporate some of what he heard into his own music.
“Opera is anything,” he says. “Star Wars is a space opera.”
Brown adds that he doesn’t want to limit the way he thinks about music. “Knowledge is power,” he says. “Culture is a way to get that.”
Over the course of an hour-long conversation with Hancock, death comes up quite a bit. He admits that a bequest left by a recently deceased patron, Ruth Bauer, has kept Opera San Jose from dipping into reserves this year.
Of course, opera is famous for its death scenes. They can make a melodramatic Hollywood demise seem downright realistic by comparison. But it’s Hancock’s analysis of why these episodes touch us that seems apropos.
When an audience weeps for the death of an operatic character, they aren’t bemoaning the life lost, Hancock says. Rather, they’re empathizing with the pain of the characters who must carry on.
Hancock is unsure whether efforts like the Rap Opera Project—or even its wildly successful Broadway counterpart, Hamilton—will ultimately help reinvigorate foundering ticket sales or draw new blood to the genre. But as with all great works of art, an uncertain ending is neither good nor bad.
“There’s no way to know if this is happy or not,” he says. “It’s too soon.”
In other words, the fat lady has yet to sing.