The Editor’s View: Culture wars rage on in our opera houses

London's Royal Opera House. Photo: Rob Moore/ROH
Alistair Smith
Alistair Smith is editor of The Stage. Having joined the publication on staff in 2004, he has also held the roles of reporter, news editor, opinion editor, deputy editor and print editor at The Stage and has written for publications ranging from The Guardian to Hello! Magazine. He is also the author of two major industry reports (the London Theatre Report and the Theatre Workforce Review) and a founder of the My Theatre Matters! campaign.
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Our opera special arrives this week, riding on the coat tails of a small controversy. Exeunt, a website that specialises in experimental and long-form theatre and performing arts criticism, reviewed a production at the Royal Opera House and put a few noses out of joint. This was not because of its critique of the production, but of its audience.

The critic in question (who also writes for The Stage) took issue with her neighbour, who had “remarked that in several years’ time he hoped to see an all-British roster of principal dancers”. She described the unidentified audience member as a “tweedy prick” and complained it had been “another night at Covent Garden in which astounding artistic achievement is clouded by an obnoxious fug of plummy pronouncements from the audience”.

I don’t propose to get into the rights or wrongs of the review, other than to observe that this incident strikes me as the mirror image of another we affectionately refer to in The Stage offices as ‘McNugget-gate’. Our regular columnist, producer Richard Jordan, complained of a night in a West End theatre being ruined by a nearby audience member eating Chicken McNuggets during a show. He described it “as possibly the worst West End audience I have ever encountered”.

These incidents are the result of clashes of expectations between different groups of audience members. In ‘Tweed-gate’, the less traditional audience member was offended by the actions of a more traditional audience member, and in ‘McNugget-gate’ vice versa.

Who is right? Who has more of a right to enjoy art in the environment they desire? We live in divisive times and these divisions are being played out within our public spaces.

If this is a growing problem for theatre, it strikes me as nothing compared with the challenges that opera faces. It is striking just how many of the features in this issue touch on perceived elitism and audience expectations.

Oliver Mears refers to “challenging people’s preconceptions about the art form”, Michael Chance wants “to be accessible to a wider demographic”, James Clutton comments on Opera Holland Park’s lack of dress code and Antony Feeny warns of country-house opera’s reputation for “toffs snoozing through antiquated performances”. Wasfi Kani is eager to stress: “All this stuff about opera being elitist is simply tosh.”

The culture wars are alive and well.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

This article is part of The Stage special on opera. Read more stories here

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