While the work certainly appeals to educated musical palates like mine, Bradshaw went to great lengths to make his opera accessible to audiences who might not have a lot of experience with opera. (And actually, come to think of it, I don’t have much experience with opera, myself.) Opera is still very much a vibrant part of the culture in major European cities. The great opera houses in Vienna, Paris, and Milan celebrate all the glamour of a bygone era while still luring in young audiences with 5€ tickets. But here in the United States, opera feels anachronistic to our way of life. Operas tend to be lengthy affairs, overwhelming in their grandiosity. They ask a lot of their audiences, who must dress up nicely and put away their smartphones for an evening that will likely be spent following English translations to songs they don’t understand.
Yes, I’m sorry to say that opera is a hard sell for many people. But Bradshaw’s QWERTY was a perfect way for an opera newbie to dip a toe in the water. It was short, humorous, and focused on a theme that will resonate with any modern viewer. But most impressive of all was the way that Bradshaw framed up the evening. He began with a brief explanation of the genre and his inspiration for the work. He then introduced the musicians who would serve as the accompanying ensemble playing piano, marimba, violin, and clarinet. One by one, each of the four musicians played a brief selection highlighting the unique qualities of his or her chosen instrument.
At first glance it seemed elementary and unnecessary. “I know what a clarinet sounds like,” I told myself. But as soon as the singers emerged and the opera began, I understood why Bradshaw had chosen to feature the four instruments at the outset: as an ensemble they melded so seamlessly that one could easily miss the unique tone color contributed by each player. I often joke that I have a masters degree in listening, and yet I too benefited from Bradshaw’s carefully crafted introduction. It made me wonder: would more people take an interest in classical music if they were taught how to listen?
The opera itself explores the relationship between Ella and Joe, who find face-to-face communication to be far more difficult than the text messaging that has become their norm. The opera opens with Joe as he turns off his cell phone – with great trepidation – as he prepares to pose a question to Ella. One gets the sense that this is a big important question – perhaps the big important question. Meanwhile, she is too absorbed in a stream of text messages to notice – in fact, she scolds Joe for his rudeness in turning off his cell phone, rendering himself inaccessible to his friends and, she believes, even to her. Meanwhile, Joe becomes increasingly frustrated to find that he can’t get through to Ella, even when she sits just inches away.
Before the performance began, Bradshaw made a point of affirming that QWERTY is a comedy, and that we had permission to laugh – at an opera! He suggested that we musicians are sometimes guilty of taking ourselves too seriously. The story was indeed satirical, but it rang all too true for anyone who dates or relates in the digital age. I recognized myself in both Joe and Ella.
If art is meant to comment on our social mores, then QWERTY has succeeded. If art is meant to educate, then Robert Bradshaw has surely succeeded, too. I commend him for proving that opera is not only alive and kicking, but entirely relevant.