Jordan Rutter and the changing face of opera [Interview]

jordan rutter opera

In recent generations, opera was largely perceived as an art form reserved for the wealthy. It developed a reputation for being abstract, entirely in foreign languages and demanding of the highest class dress code. Jordan Rutter is here to explain how this happened, why it’s changing and how the heart of this medium is actually connecting people.

Hailing from Florida, Jordan Rutter began singing in Church at a young age. As his voice developed through highschool, the artist found himself consistantly drawn to classical music. Rutter then joined the University of North Florida music school. His first year in the program, Rutter was cast in The Magic Flute as an understudy to the lead, Papageno. In the end, he not only performed the role, but did so internationally with the school.

After a successful undergraduate experience, Rutter attended graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music. The artist continues his New York-based career, performing in and collaborating on a wide array of work. Rutter has the music history, technical knowledge and on the ground perspective to shed a great deal of light on opera. He sat down with to demystify the art form and share its modern evolution. 


The contemporary face of opera


The Celebrity Café: You aren't just performing somebody else's work that’s been handed to you. Tell us about developing that.

Jordan Rutter: Well, contemporary opera is a collaborative field. More so than the traditional repertoire. Because obviously, the composers are still alive. And you have to really deal with the fact that they might want it to be this way, or they might've had something else in mind.

And New York is also very good about sharing the responsibility between performers because nobody can do it all by themselves here. I guess I've always wanted to be creative. And if I see some way for me to make a piece better, I want to.  I know when to shut up [laughing]. But if I think that it's appropriate and that the process in the project can be improved, then I'm happy to wear a different hat.

Although, the other thing is that these pieces that have already been written - the Italian operas, or German, French - I believe really strongly that they're still relevant. And I guess a lot of the projects that I do kind of stem from that place. Wanting to maybe prove to people that this - or not even prove it - to share with people what these things mean to me.

I ended up turning to classical music a lot in a period of my life when I really needed something to be there and I needed an outlet. And if it was able to be that for me, I think it can be able that for other people too. I think it can be a way for people to communicate things that we can't really communicate other ways in today's society. We are so scared of feeling things and of anything having emotional stakes to it. And what's so beautiful about the medium is that it's all kind of abstract and stylized. But the emotional investment is very real.


How we got here

TCC: We were at the Met watching Tosca. It was a reimagined version of it. There were men in tails and women in furs hissing and booing because it wasn't what they were used to seeing.

JR: But there's something that I think is very important for us to realize about this phenomenon. It's not as simple as old versus new. And I think you know where I'm going with this. Because if you want to talk really old, in the 18th-century people were having sex in the boxes and eating snacks and screaming at the singers. So where did this come from? This very “rigid” concert? It came from Wagner, right? Wagner came in and he built his own opera house and he had all these rules about what you were and were not allowed to do in it.

There's a few other things like the development of new lights for houses... And that, combined with the shift towards realism, created this vacuum that allowed for people to go in. They would experience the story that you would have to pay very close attention to. And we haven't really gotten away from that because we believe that is somehow tied to the spirit of the medium. And I admit it, that when I was 16, 17 years old part of what I found appealing about opera was that it was sophisticated and classy, right? And these are all code words for rich and expensive [laughter]. But that's not in the music. It's not tied to the medium either…

I guess my point is that we've created this veneer around it. And the way that we talk in the industry, we act like it's this insurmountable thing that exists as long as the art form has, but it isn't. I mean, it's really one generation's idea of what this medium should be. And when you look at all the movements that are happening in the classical music world: the early music movement, contemporary opera, minimalism, avant-garde writing, the Bel Canto revival. I mean, there are people who are trying to look more at the artistic integrity rather than the “classiness” of it all and the classism behind it.

And I think that there are a lot of companies in this country that recognize that and that are really being a part of that push. And so it's exciting for me to be a singer right now. And I recognize that part of what that means is being a little bit entrepreneurial and saying, "My point of view does matter." Because these operas aren't about people in pearls who take cabs everywhere. They're about people like us, right? Or anyone. I mean, the whole point is that it could be anyone.

Jordan Rutter (C), with Alaysha Fox (L) and Kalianthie Anastasiou (R). Photo by Knud Adams.

Driving change

TCC: Who do you think is driving that evolution right now? Do you think it is these larger companies or do you think it is individuals who are saying, "This is my voice and this is what I want to share?"

JR: It's a pretty complicated question. I think in the United States right now the driving factor is American Opera. I believe in the last year if you look at how frequently certain Operas were produced. Laura Kaminsky’s piece As One is in the top 10 and it's ahead of Abduction from the Seraglio and I think Turandot. But these are not-- it's not that it's being done more than Boheme or anything. But it is being done more than pieces that we accept to be pretty standard. And I think it came out like five years ago maybe.

And even beyond that, almost every company now is doing at least one contemporary piece. And depending on how broad your definition of “contemporary” is, some might even be doing two or three. And it's in a large part due to production companies that pick up, produce and make it their mission to do these things…

This is all happening under this umbrella of our culture wanting to see ourselves represented on the stage more. And it demands a step away from abstraction. Where we want characters who are specifically meant to be a certain race or gender or have a certain sexual identity. And that doesn't really exist in Opera and so it demands that new pieces be written.

TCC: Do you think that motion is changing who the audience is? Or do you think the audience is demanding that change? 

JR: I think what we’re seeing is it’s skipping a generation a little bit. The current audiences are, I would say 40's and up. But a lot of the people that I see in the shows that I do, they're either industry folks or they're in the 20's and 30's. They’re fairly young. And especially the people that are most interested in contemporary work, are going to be of a certain demographic that's not already represented.

People who want something else are obviously not having their needs met by the status quo. And there are people who suggest that people in my generation are more interested in experiences than material possessions. And I think that Opera is able to provide that. I think there are all kinds of companies that go out of their way to contribute to the experience of going out beyond just what you see on the stage. And I think that's an important part of making sure somebody has a great time.


The importance of truth in the matter

TCC: There are so many perspectives about the way to go from here… Do you think that really pushing the envelope as far as possible is the way to pull people in? Or do you think it is that realism that you’re talking about and people being represented?

JR: Well, it's not a matter of realism or abstraction so much as it is integrity. Part of the problem and part of the reason why people feel alienated by this art form is that we put so much emphasis on style, right? We're all about having 500 naked boys parading out, someone on a giant fluffy mattress or whatever. And that's really fun to watch from a certain perspective. But what I think actually moves people about the art form is not that. So, by all means, have that, have the spectacle, I love camp as much as the next person.

But every single one of these pieces has some-- certainly, every piece that we still do 100, 200 years later, has some sort of truth to the human condition buried in it. And we very frequently ignore it. Because you can only uncover that truth if every single piece falls into place. If somebody has a bad night and they don't sing very well, the audience gets distracted by that. If the director makes some wonky choices then it's a missed opportunity.

And so I think we all aspire to make that happen, whether or not we are 100% consciously doing it. But the realities of the industry, and what people want and what people expect, can get in the way of that. And so I think what directors like [Barrie] Kosky are going for is finding the truth by going for a really unconventional path, which I think is legitimate but it's not-- If I was big name opera director, I wouldn't necessarily do that.

I don't think that there's any reason to abandon period pieces or conventional settings of things. But we should start doing them from an informed perspective, right? I mean, we have the Internet as a resource now and doing the scholastic work necessary is easy. And also to accept that pieces are conceived within the time that they're conceived in. You should realize if you take a Handel opera and try to apply early 20th-century acting techniques to it that you're working against the conception of the piece and conventions of the time.

And I certainly think that it's possible to be successful if you do that… [But] If you're going to take a piece that's conceived a certain way and reimagine it, you have to be honest about it. And artistic success or failure is determined by the audience's response and what your goals were as the artist.

So to not use all of the resources that we have access to is, I think, a really common mistake for people to make on all sides of the process. And what's so exciting about being in New York is that you can find the people that are really into one component and you can learn how to approach these things and develop your own ideas.

TCC: It feels like you're speaking a lot to truth and to integrity from all sides -  both in uncovering the truth in a piece and approaching it with your own truth.

JR: Yeah, with your own perspective.

The key in connection

TCC: It sounds like what you're driving at is not “don't explore or experiment,” it's just do what you're doing with intention.


Jordan Rutter (R) with Melisa Bonetti (L), photo by Stephen Pisano
Jordan Rutter (R) with Melisa Bonetti (L), photo by Stephen Pisano

JR: I have been to certain shows that just worked beautifully. But people will always hate it. People will always love it. Or people will always be indifferent, which in New York means they hated it [laughter]. And that's sort of the other side of this, right? It takes so much vulnerability to go and say, "This is what I want to do and I tried my best to execute it well. This is where I'm at." And you just have to accept that not everyone's going to like it…

And I think it is sort of a little bit in style now to make fun of the old guard, but the reality is what we really want is to find how to connect these people. How to connect people across class lines, race lines, gender, sexuality, all of that stuff. And it's why I think that this medium is really ripe for a Renaissance right about now, because people are hungry for it.

Every time someone puts out a movie, there's some outrage over a character getting whitewashed or whatever kind of washed. And I think that Hollywood is so institutionalized that it's going to be several-- it's going to be decades, I bet, before we see real change there. But there's change happening in opera. I mean, it's not necessarily obvious all the time, but I worked with too many really cool people who have really good intentions to be told that it's run by a bunch of people who are out of touch with society.


Building the future

TCC: Specifically in America, where do you think it's headed in the near term? 

JR: I think that this American opera thing is going to stick with the regional houses. There's a little bit of a shift in the balance of seasons. So now every season includes at least one thing in English. Most of them still have a standard rep piece and then maybe a curiosity from a certain time period. The thing is the industry can be affected by one person so easily… But that's what's exciting.

I'm a countertenor, and my voice-type wasn't even taken seriously until maybe 30 years ago. And now one wins major competitions every year. So a lot of it depends on who gets famous. It depends on what the great American masterpiece of this decade will be, which we can't really know that is until someone writes a textbook about it [laughter]. But I certainly think the field will still be around. The way people talk, they make it sound like every opera house is going to close down in 10 or 20 years.

TCC: We don't see that happening.

JR: No. There's just too many people that care about it, and too many people that are looking for ways to revitalize the community. And it seems like a very vitalized community as well. The money is a question always, of course.

TCC: As in many an art form.

JR: Yeah. I'm interested in how companies are going to rebuild donor bases, especially because generationally speaking, we don't have very much money collectively, people in their 20s. I hate to use the M-word, but there is some truth to it. And if people aren't paying mortgages or renting cars or anything, how do you get those people to take the plunge on making donations?...

And it's why people want to see themselves on that stage so badly. Not just because we're narcissistic, but because we need to feel like we have that kind of agency. Especially people our age who inherited a bad housing market and a stagnant minimum wage and the over-saturation of almost every job industry.

So I guess I can't predict what opera will really look like in 20 years but I certainly think it's at least as important now as it ever was. And I'd actually argue it's a little more socially relevant than it was 50 years ago. Because it's not about this spectacle or the luxury of it, you know? People are in a state of discontentment and they need to feel that there's some kind of way to understand it. And the idea that a piece written in the 18th or 19th century can still speak to that makes it feel like your problems aren't so insurmountable, you know? That they're not impossible to understand or pick up.

TCC: And not specific. There’s something in that joint experience.


Representation and reality


Jordan Rutter, photo by Matt Madison-Clark
Jordan Rutter, photo by Matt Madison-Clark

JR: Oh yeah. My parents ran up their credit card bill so now I'm poor and can't get a job. Nobody loves me and the internet is the only friend I have. If you gave me like 10 minutes I could come with an opera that that person would feel better about. And there's all sorts of specific things in terms of a lot of the social issues we're discussing. But I would say what I find is we don't do our homework in general. And I include myself in this. We can always do better…

All of this talk of the post-truth era. And maybe it's just me as a 26-year-old wanting to be hot-blooded, but you can't just accept that. You can't just accept that the truth doesn't matter anymore. You have to present the truth more strongly than ever and stick people’s noses in it if you have to.

But you can't do it alone. You can't do it with a hope and a prayer. You have to play nice with other people and you have to respect other people’s opinions. And that is actually really one of the really beautiful things about doing these sort of interdisciplinary practices. That it's the perspective of every single person and it all combines to create a more profound truth than a single person could possibly hope to conceive…

One of the roles that I'm studying right now is an operatic adaptation of The Scarlet Ibis by David Cote and Stefan Weisman. And the character is this terminally ill little boy who lives in North Carolina. And I don't know what it's like to not be able to walk. This is another big conversation in entertainment right now, is casting. But at the same time, neither does the audience, mostly.

But regardless of your physical abilities, you do know what it feels like to desperately want to do something and not be able to. And conversely, you also know what it feels like to be terrified of being perceived a certain way because of things that are out of your control. That doesn't have anything to do with politics or social identity. These are common things that people experience.

And if two people who disagree on everything else in the world go and see me play this character, and they both recognize that emotion at the same moment, at least that is one thing that they can share together. It's easy to talk about how art brings people together. But that's sort of the specifics of how it works, I think. And from where I'm standing, that's what I can do to fight the good fight and try to make things better for my people, as it were.

TCC: That's no small thing.

JR: Yeah. It gets me out of bed. And it keeps me plugging away in this city, in relative discomfort [laughter]. But still very happy.


Follow Jordan Rutter online and catch him this June in American Opera Projects: Three Way.

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