Thursday, 7 March 2013

Elitism in Opera

The idea of opera as elitist is never going to go away, I fear, and nor, I suppose, should it. It sets up camp regularly in comments sections beneath reviews, is a standard observation of anyone charting the cultural landscape, and seems to hover behind every press release or PR campaign to do with this extravagant art-form--ENO's much maligned 'undress for the opera' perhaps being a low-point for a company whose PR this season has had a few, and it was hardly a coincidence that it was yoked to its poor Don Giovanni. 

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. 


  1. I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Holten.

    Sure there might be a couple operas that one can appreciate and love at first but in general opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form. Opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population. Why? Because listening to and assimilating the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving).

    Furthermore, opera is first and foremost a musical phenomenon. In other words, the ESSENTIAL argument is posed in musical language. Does anyone seriously believe that if the director were to take a backseat to the music, vocalists and conductor that this will encourage potential opera lovers to turn away from the art form? It’s incredibly silly and this is why I’ve never seen anyone answer the question. The drama and the music must always be evaluated separately. I don’t care if the libretto is of the highest quality, there is still something trivial about all of the stage business next to being delighted, stirred, overwhelmed or profoundly moved by a score. And I don’t care what style of music it is. Isn’t it the instinctive response of most sensitive people 99.9 percent of the time to turn inward and let it all transpire in their own head and imagination?

    It has always been obvious to me that contemplative listening of recordings in private (with amplification) represents the purest and deepest form of opera love. Those who recognize that one cannot truly know and love an opera unless one has devoted the many hours to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize all of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details of the score. Or the acknowledgment that one must at least make a wholehearted effort to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize most of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details. Apparently there are some in the opera world today who need to be reminded of the fact that listening to music is a major cognitive task that requires very considerable processing resources. The simpler task of reading libretti or studying dramaturgy just cannot be compared to the process of meticulous listening. Let me also stress that this type of opera lover always experiences a thrill or sees aesthetic value in passages that many others dismiss as “inferior, dull or mediocre”.


    Are you hopeful that this generation’s tedious insistence on the physical and material aspects of operatic production rather than the musical will, like all controversy, pass away?

  2. I believe it does take a degree of focus and concentration to appreciate opera. Even if someone does have the level of commitment and patience to give to the art form a person needs to have the time. People work and have responsibilities. When does one find a four to five hour chunk of time to appreciate Tristan und Isolde or Die Meistersingers while trying to make ends meet. This is a reality of many people including myself.

  3. People find four to five hour chunks of time to watch sports on TV or play video games. Often more than once a week!