I have no intention to dive headlong into the debate here: it's too often fruitless, with those, basically, who love opera locking horns with those who, basically, don't. And it's also a debate shot through with highly problematic language, with the word 'elite' slipping treacherously in meaning between 'unashamedly excellent', 'prohibitively expensive' and 'only for the social elite'. Opera is often compared with sport--particularly by those trying to defend the price of the former, arguing that it is really no worse value than the latter--and it is remarkable how the word 'elite' can exist in a state of grace when it comes to sport, while it is weighed down with all manner of self-flagellating guilt and shame when applied to opera or classical music (witness the phenomenon of technical proficiency in music being seen, somehow, as morally suspect--much better a performance by a plucky amateur).
This, of course, is in part down to the historical position of opera and ballet as entertainment funded by wealthy courts, as a brief article by Sarah Crompton, who chairs a debate this Monday at the Royal Opera House, notes. I won't be there, alas, since I've got a ticket to Written on Skin, but will be interested to hear if anything new comes out of it (and to see if the stream will be available after the event, too). The timing seems propitious, given a certain amount of not unrelated activity in the blogosphere, reacting, for example, to the BBC's two recent programmes to deal with C20th music: here are interesting pieces from Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Gavin Plumley and Gavin Dixon, which have in turn inspired some fascinating comments. It coincides, too, with Nicholas Hyntner's stinging critique of the BBC's arts coverage.
One of the UK's main faces of operatic accessibility is Kasper Holten, who provides a typically passionate introduction to the debate below, albeit one that only really sticks to the line, 'Opera isn't elitist because, well, it's really good'. This seems largely to equate 'elitist' and 'off-puttingly different'--perhaps the first thing to do on Monday will be to define what exactly is meant by 'elitist', whether we're talking intellectually, socially or financially...
I'm inclined to prefer the argument put forward by Marek Weiss of Opera Bałtycka in Gdańsk, which I came across this morning when researching something else. What he says--from around 9'16; what comes before is specific to the company's premiere of Elżbieta Sikora’s Madame Curie a couple of years ago--is laced with a healthy dose of cultural pessimism (particularly from around 11'10). I don't know if this is shared by Holten, but it seems such thoughts are taboo when it comes to the debate in this country--which surely doesn't help anyone.