Bryan Caplan has been lending me CDs from the splendid series Lebendige Vergangenheit (and here), so I’ve been hearing or rehearing the best opera singers from the past. I’m no cultural pessimist, but I share the common opinion that opera singing has declined since, say, 1935. Why might this be?
1. Opera is less culturally central, and so the best voices do something else, or they are more likely to be narrow technicians rather than inspired musical creators and interpreters.
2. The best voices grow up watching TV, rather than reading Romain Rolland and Thomas Mann. The Zeitgeist makes them dull.
3. The average voice is much better, there is simply less individuality in approach and thus lower peaks. This sort of culturally mysterious process also seems to be governing fiction.
4. The best voices came from Germany and Italy and Austria, and World War II destroyed the musical and vocal training networks of those countries.
5. Conservatories and agents choke off musical individuality in the interests of technique and conformity.
6. Opera is now more heavily subsidized and more organizationally bureaucratic. The programs, while still excellent, are biased against individualistic, crowd-pleasing singers and biased toward singers who don’t make many identifiable mistakes. It’s a bit like the advent of peer review in economics.