Why is opera routinely styled as the antithesis of everyday life? Let’s change the conversation and focus on the real thing, says Alexandra Wilson
Once upon a time, opera was popular culture. In late 19th century Britain, brass bands played the latest operatic hits. You could hear snippets of opera in the music hall. Dozens of touring opera companies performed each week to factory workers and shopkeepers up and down the country. Operatic parodies were all the rage – and everyone knew the operas themselves well enough to get the joke.
Fast forward to the present and opera is still all around us – whether in adverts or films, or in the growing number of performances in unusual places, from pubs to railway stations. We can hear world-class opera singers for free at the click of a mouse. And yet the rhetoric surrounding opera has changed. These days, when opera is mentioned in the media, the “e-word” is rarely far away.
Today, opera is routinely styled as the antithesis of everyday life. The clash of opera (assumed to be “posh”) with “ordinary people” is a formula wheeled out repeatedly in reality TV series such as From Pop Star to Opera Star and Maestro at the Opera. Similar associations are often employed in adverts that poke fun at notions of prestige and sophistication.
But not so far removed from this harmless fun is the charge of “elitism”. In contemporary Britain, opera is routinely caricatured in the media as a publicly-subsidised pursuit for the snooty rich, who dress up to enjoy fat ladies singing loudly in opulent surroundings. It doesn’t bear much relation to most people’s experience of opera, but it’s a cliché some journalists just can’t seem to resist.
Sometimes even musicians who claim to be standing up for opera play into the same myths. Katherine Jenkins recently invited the press to the Ritz to announce a new record deal. The opposition Jenkins set up between herself (a “normal” person) and “critics who want to keep [opera] to themselves and an elite” was gleefully seized upon by a writer for the Telegraph and reported under the provocative title “Katherine Jenkins: why classical music snobs are wrong.“
A blog post I wrote speculating about who these supposed “snobs” might be generated over 12,000 hits in 24 hours and started a lively debate on Twitter and Facebook. Those who joined in were diverse in background and in age (so much for the cliché about opera audiences dying out). In the words of one commenter, “opera audiences are the most motley group I sit with”.
The enthusiasm for opera to be presented in fresh ways was overwhelming. A particular topic that got people talking was the consequence of off-putting stereotypes for younger generations. As one reader put it, references to a snobbish elite enjoying classical music risk discouraging other “normal” children from taking it up. A second recalled childhood comic books in which opera singers and opera fans were portrayed as “faintly ridiculous or snobs”. A third told a touching tale of discovering Wagner as a 13-year-old half a century ago at a time when nobody thought to tell a working-class boy that opera wasn’t for him.
There are so many more interesting stories we can tell about opera. All of human life is here: love, sex, death, jealousy, power, humour and grief. Operatic tragedy, however apparently overblown, can help us make sense of the sorrows, great or small, that we encounter in our own lives. The characters are colourful and so are many of the performers, past and present. The fact that operas have been used as emblems of national identity and tools of propaganda testifies to their political potency and on-going resonance. And, of course, the music is great.
Repeating stereotypes doesn’t always help a cause. If we really want to “share the joy of opera with as many people as possible”, to quote another response to my blog, it’s time to start changing the conversation.