The long read: behind the curtain of opera’s accessibility crisis

Josh Taylor explores opera's apparent lack of appeal

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Budapest Opera House

When most people hear the word ‘opera’, their mind is immediately flooded with a series of stereotypes: the fat Italian man belting out high notes like there’s no tomorrow, or the middle-aged, rotund soprano screaming her lungs out ten minutes after she was fatally wounded.

If asked to name an opera singer, most people can probably manage Maria Callas or Luciano Pavarotti. Challenge someone to name an opera singer still performing and the number of people who can find a name in the dark crevices of their mind drops even further.

Most strikingly of all, ask these same questions to university students, and you’ll likely be met with a sea of blank faces. Why then, does opera seem to be such a niche interest among the wider population, but especially among young people?

Opera as an art form is notoriously abnormal. For starters, its authenticity is compromised by the fact that it is sung in its entirety. Pile on top of this the duration of many performances, which require undeniably large amounts of concentration from its audience, and the fact that any English audience member is often going to be watching a performance in a foreign language, and it already seems slightly unappealing.

To make matters worse, the storylines tend to be either unbelievably complex, or based on mythology difficult to represent effectively on stage both with scenery and singers. Cio-Cio-San, for example, the lead role of Madama Butterfly, is meant to be fifteen years old. It is not uncommon for a woman almost thrice that age to be singing the role. The Rhinemaidens, another infamous example, are three water-nymphs who are supposedly submerged underwater in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

After accounting for the millennial reputation for short-attention spans and the tendency for other art forms in the modern day to be hyper-realist, you have a recipe for disaster. Even the dragons in Game of Thrones, or British politicians for that matter, are more believable than the complex mythological plot of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

But these abnormalities, if seen and embraced as part and parcel of the art form, can serve to enrich the opera-going experience. Much has been said about the aesthetics of opera, perhaps most notably by Wagner, who used the term ‘Gesamtskunstwerk’ (literally ‘total work of art’) to describe his understanding of opera as an art form. Unlike any other art form (except, nowadays, the modern musical), opera embraces theatre, music, and art in an unavoidable synthesis every time it is performed. For Wagner, the individuality of each art form was united in opera and subordinated to a common purpose of shedding light on the human experience.

Opera’s unification of mediums arguably allows these messages to be portrayed with greater complexity and detail than any other artform. The words sung carry their own meaning, but the true intent of their message can be reinforced, contradicted, or complicated by the music of the melody and of the orchestra. In Act two of Rigoletto for example, Rigoletto faces courtiers who have kidnapped his daughter and sings ‘la’ repetitively to a jolly tempo in an attempt to hide his dismay; yet the strings of the orchestra, in a minor key, reflect his underlying agony.

Add in the multitude of each performer’s ability to interpret, both dramatically and musically, the various roles played, and there is a vast level of meaning that can often go unnoticed because of the aforementioned issues. Despite its unbelievability, opera has the potential to be incredibly raw and human.

Issues with opera are not just restricted to what is performed on stage. Much of the lack of appeal, particularly for students, is the absurdly high ticket prices. To give you an example, I pay around £70 a year to be a Young Friend of the Royal Opera House which gives me early access to book tickets. Two seats in a less than optimal location to see La Traviata in January cost me £210. La Forza del Destino, the highlight of the spring season, had completely sold out by the time booking was opened to the general public. If you are so inclined as to become a First Night Patron of the Royal Opera House for a mere £16,094 per year, you have a guaranteed two ‘prime seats’ for the opening night of every production.

Combine this with the culture surrounding opera, and you have the main reasons why opera has come to be seen as an elitist art-form. Perhaps with the exception only of Shakespeare, there is no audience so renowned for its strongly (and sometimes stubbornly) held views as the opera audience. Still today (though mostly in Italy, where passions run slightly higher than the stiff upper lips of the Royal Opera House), singers can be booed off-stage mid-performance or productions halted mid-run because they do not satisfy the tastes of the ‘omniscient’ audience.

Unlike modern theatre, where new works are performed as the norm, opera seasons consist of the ‘repertory’; these dozens of operas, mostly from 19th and early 20th century composers (Verdi, Puccini, Rossini etc.), are repeated around the world every year. Thus, through repetition, the opera-goer expects certain opera to be performed in certain ways. Break this rule in the wrong opera house (La Scala in Milan is notorious for this) and the public backlash can be scathing.

The auditorium culture also reflects this elitism: complete silence is expected throughout the performance (apart from the occasional booing, of course) and if you are late or need to leave to go to the toilet, you are only allowed back to your seats after the interval. This exclusivity is also painfully evident in the costs of pursuing opera as a career. Unlike in normal theatre, there tend to be a maximum of two opera houses per city; consequently, auditions for Young Artist programs across Europe (often seen as a required stepping stone into becoming a ‘proper’ opera singer) can become extremely costly, involving flights to and from major European cities several times a year.

This is on top of the debt you will have accrued after an undergraduate degree or Bachelor of Music from a conservatoire, a master’s in music or vocal performance, regular singing lessons, performance workshops, and summer academies. Unfortunately, it is often a question of whose parents’ credit card is the most flexible, rather than a question of whose voice is the best. It is no wonder then, that opera has an elitist reputation.

More recently however, there has been some significant movement of the operatic tectonic plates, with many of these elitist aspects becoming seen as remnants of the past. Many opera houses across Europe and America have been trying bold new ideas to attract wider (with a focus on younger) audiences to the theatre. The Royal Opera House recently underwent a two-year renovation and is now open daily from 10am, with free lunchtime recitals from chorus members regularly each week. It hosts special performances for school children from disadvantaged backgrounds and has the Young Friends program with access to early booking and insider events at a discounted price for 16-25 year olds. The English Touring Opera travel around the country providing high quality opera performances practically on your doorstep.

The English National Opera (ENO) has enacted substantial reforms. For instance, it announced this December that Saturday-night tickets for under-18 year olds will be free; this allows the opera to be a family outing, not just a stressful evening for the parents who would otherwise have to worry about babysitting or reluctantly purchase a £50 ticket for their seven-year-old.

Moreover, the ENO has Opera Undressed nights at £20 for inexperienced opera-goers which includes a pre-performance talk, and has begun to offer a ‘secret-seat’ lottery whereby you pay a flat rate of £30 to ‘win’ a seat worth over £50 in an unknown location. Additionally, the ENO sings all productions in English to make it more accessible and has recently been casting more singers from BAME backgrounds; their website claims that a third of each nights’ audience have never been to an opera before.

There has also been a significant drive from within the opera singing community to make opera more accessible. The American tenor Michael Fabiano has consistently called for Opera houses to modernise their viewing experience, for instance by having a ‘mobile phones allowed’ section or specific performances where short video recordings are allowed – think of the Instagram potential!

Several opera houses have begun experimenting with more modern productions: a fairly recent production of Le Nozze di Figaro had the Count in a full Adidas tracksuit to highlight both his wealth, and the fact that he’s a bit of a clown. Websites like OperaVision have allowed for livestreams of opera to become regular occurrences and the world’s biggest opera houses have all signed up for their operas to be kept online for months after their initial livestream (because if there’s one business model to follow for success with young people, it’s Netflix).

The issue of a lack of modern repertory has also ruffled some feathers. How are operas meant to appeal to young audiences if they were written 200 years ago? Conrad Osborne, a prominent opera critic and writer, has spoken at length about the stagnation of the repertory. No operas from any later than the early 20th century are considered ‘repertory opera’, leading directors to push well-loved favourites to their conceptual limits. This attempt at innovation results in unbelievable or simply senseless productions;the Planet of the Apes inspired production of Rigoletto seems too far.

Personally, I think opera needs a return to its basics if it is to have a lasting impact on young audiences. Younger audiences will only return if they like what they see. That means not taking unrestricted liberties with the text: you wouldn’t see a Star Trek inspired Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, so why should a Harry Potter themed Magic Flute at the ENO fare any better? There’s a fine balance between a modern interpretation and a complete re-writing of an opera, the latter often having the potential to give a bad impression to any first-timers in the audience.

Drives to cast more BAME singers are extremely important, and there have been several drives put in place to tackle this issue since the late 1970s when famous sopranos like Leontyne Price began to emerge. World-class BAME opera singers like Pretty Yende are currently paving the way for a more inclusive environment in the future.

Yet with a growing number of such talented BAME singers, it is disappointing that some opera houses have started seeing inclusivity as a selling point, employing singers in roles out of their depth, rather than other singers of BAME or any other ethnic origin, better suited to the roles. The ENO in particular was criticised for doing this last season: looking at diversity as a selling point instead of genuinely attempting to promote it.

Moreover, it’s not enough to just sing the role. Opera is a performance, not a concert. Too many people have the image of the soprano on her death bed singing with perfect posture and as loud as she can, instead of resembling anything like a woman close to her death. Singers like Ermonela Jaho and Lisette Oropesa are good examples of the singing-acting combination that the realism-accustomed modern generation tend to prefer.

This recent change in the operatic world will all be for nothing though, if young people can’t afford to go and see the performances. There are several opera companies looking at making performances more accessible; for instance, the Oxford Opera Company had a performance of Carmen last term with tickets from £10-£35. Hopefully it won’t be long until bigger opera houses follow suit.

Opera is facing a tricky time in its long life. An elitist reputation, though fading, still no doubt dissuades many from visiting the opera. It is not a case of forcing opera into relevance and modernity – opera, like Shakespeare, is still relevant in the 21st century. It is just a case of noticing it. Be it professional or amateur, English or Italian, in London or abroad, I urge you to cast off any preconceptions you might have and go to a production. Hopefully, like me, you will agree with Maria Callas that “an opera begins long before the curtain comes up and ends long after it has come down.”

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