There seem to be to be much discussion about "relevancy" in the opera world right now. The standard classics of the repertoire are often given updated productions to make them more relevant. Subject matter for new works, commissions, workshops, and the like encourage relevancy. What exactly is relevant? What makes a production, a work, a subject matter or character relevant?
In its most basic form, relevant is usually equated with current. Does something have to be current to be relevant? How far back can you safely go before irrelevance sets in, 10 years, 50 years, 5 minutes? If not time, then perhaps subject matters that touch on shared concerns and preoccupations? Or universals of the human condition? This chestnut is often touted at the reason for Shakespeare's greatness—it withstands the test of time. But wait a minute, does that mean he's great but not relevant (if relevant is only about time)?
The above paragraph is somewhat silly, like watching a dog chase its tail. Relevancy is hard to quantify and I, as most people would, just leave it in the category, along with pornography, of "know it when I see it."
These thoughts come to me as I am at work on two different librettos. One of which draws on material from the 20th century, the other the 17th. (I won't describe them right now—but rest assured, dear reader, I will in due course!) The question of relevance of the 17th century material has been raised—at least in my own mind, and in the context of getting opera companies interested in the idea—and I'm not sure it would meet anyone's definition. So, do I abandon the idea? Should we engage only in work that is relevant—even if, when pressed, we can't define relevance?
I would encourage looking at the question in a slightly different manner. Instead of asking if something is relevant, why not ask yourself, what is the impact of this work on me, my collaborators, my audience, on society itself? Is the work suffused with and driven by vanity, escapism, aggression? Or is there something deeper or more noble to the work? Dignity, compassion, courage, love? The temptation here is to boil all of this down to happy or sad. I hope you'll agree it's not that simple. I also hope you'll take a moment to contemplate your favorite work of art and ask yourself what its impact is. What motivates the work and its creator?