Arts Investigates: Is Opera Relatable to Everyone?

Shanai Momi discusses if we can all enjoy and understand the opera...

It is a widely accepted notion that opera is elitist and inaccessible for many people in our society, but this stereotype means that many people are missing out on the excitement and joy of the opera. Millions of British people have never attended an opera performance for fear that they will not understand or follow the story lines. Others believe it is too posh or expensive, which suggests there is a hierarchal barrier when it comes to the genre of classical music. Breaking this expectation, however, is possible since new productions have made it easier for more people to get involved and immerse themselves in this artistic world.

Having grown up on an impoverished council estate in a family of working class immigrants, activities like the opera and ballet were always viewed as something that only the wealthy elite could attend. Having formed an interest in the arts, I began to look deeper into opera to understand if it was solely for the upper and middle classes. Whilst some people’s relationship with the opera is strong in that they go to be seen, others view it as a treat that they save and get dressed up for. There is also a large proportion of people who never go for fear of not fitting in.

“It is important to cut through the stereotypes to give more people a chance to experience opera in an enjoyable, non-intimidating, way”

Classic FM has sought to change this perception by modernising three of the best know operas: Carmen, La Boheme, and The Barber of Seville, making them into separate animated films of thirty seconds each. These ‘opera shorts’ are greatly beneficial as they are specifically designed to break down some of the perceived barriers, making the stories more accessible to a contemporary audience. The narrator of these short films, Johnny Vaughan, says that there ‘are some fantastic operatic story lines which have more drama, romance and intrigue than a whole hour of Brexit negotiations’. Whilst he appears to be exaggerating slightly, it is important to cut through the stereotypes to give more people a chance to experience opera in an enjoyable, non-intimidating, way.

“Concern over not being able to understand the words sung is a key stumbling block that causes a divide”

Often regarded as exclusively for the rich and privileged, opera also holds different connotations as to why people of lower class backgrounds do not feel they would be accepted if they went to an opera show. Concern over not being able to understand the words sung is a key stumbling block that causes a divide. In addition, there is uncertainty as to when to clap, what times it is acceptable to go to the toilet, and the appropriate etiquette more generally that deters many from sampling. There is an argument to be made, however, that such concerns need not be dwelled upon since opera is seemingly more affordable today than in previous decades. For example, The Royal Opera House is one of multiple venues that is showcasing its commitment to a new generation of classical fans. As a student, signing up costs nothing and gives you access to over ten thousand student tickets. Prices range from £1-£25, and considering the amount we spend on a normal Crisis or Ocean night, these prices are not overly excessive. A trip to Cineworld or the price of a haircut is likely to set you back no more than an opera ticket would.

Even if you accept that ticket price is not the biggest issue, some may question the relevance of opera story lines. How can we connect to a story that follows the romance between two aristocratic teenagers? Or how can we sympathise with a rich businessman who has lost a sale? The answer to this is simple – opera now touches upon more contemporary topics. With increasing political engagement amongst today’s youth, the ideological questions demonstrated in opera are sure to engage young spectators. Many new productions offer perspectives that make the show pertinent and entertaining simultaneously.

“Opera is rapidly becoming more appealing as times move forward”

This can be seen in John Adam’s exploration of power, agency and authority in Nixon in China. Other productions feature prominent topics such as racism and unemployment. The stereotype of opera being elitist, full of sweeping staircases and red carpets suggests a world distant to the one we live in, yet this is far from the truth. Opera is rapidly becoming more appealing as times move forward. It is perhaps surprising that it is targeted at younger people. The Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme provides paid work for fourteen talented young musicians. In addition, The Youth Opera Company commissions and films its own operas. Young people already make up a huge part of the House’s vibrant community and this is only set to increase.

Opera has long been associated with snobbery and the wealthy, but with thrilling music, outstanding staging and brilliant story lines, the art of opera is for everyone.

Shanai Momi

Image credit Daniel Edwins via Flickr 

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