Opera has become a byword for high ticket prices, bow ties and self-indulgence, but it’s an egalitarian art form that has its roots in unamplified simplicity, says former ENO music director Mark Wigglesworth
The earliest operas were performed in a relatively small room. They were chamber operas in which the communication between the singers and the audience was both intimate and direct.
In such a confined space there would have been a simplicity to the expression, an intense focus on both the text and the music. I imagine those lucky enough to be there had no idea that more than 400 years later, the term operatic would be used to imply something grandiose, larger than life, even perhaps a little self-indulgent.
Those who love opera know these qualities are far removed from its fundamental nature. People have been telling stories for as long as they have been singing songs. Combine the two and it is easy to understand why opera touches an elemental nerve. The ability of the human voice to express thoughts and feelings through words and melody makes a song the most common form of creative expression. Place that within a dramatic context and the result can be joyous, exciting and profound.
When people say that opera is not for them, I think – more often than not – they mean that going to the opera is not for them. Or at least what they perceive the experience of going to the opera to be. I don’t believe the art form is the problem. But many find it hard to imagine opera away from the expensive, exclusive and entitled associations attached to it. That’s understandable. For at some point the reputation of opera became separated from its actual performance. The evening parted company with the event.
This parting of ways was initially fuelled by the vanity of patrons and promoters who vied with each other to produce ever more splendid occasions, a competitive spirit that can still rear its head today. But adding extra layers to the experience easily gets opera tangled up within its own circumstances. The packaging can mask the gift.
Opera works beautifully in a well-heeled traditional opera house, but it can also be successful in a tent. It can be watched alfresco on a sultry Italian evening, or heard sheltering from the rain in an English country house. It can move people in village halls, schools and prisons. It can delight on the streets; provoke in an old warehouse.
Some audiences wear T-shirts, others bow ties. There are those who like to understand the words and those who think the music speaks for itself. Just because people want to drink champagne during an interval doesn’t mean they love opera less. And if they want to dress up, it doesn’t mean they value it more. Everybody’s preference is valid.
Similar to television, opera can mean many different things to different people. Most of us have our preferred channels, but we don’t judge the whole genre simply because we don’t like some of its programmes. Opera is a very adaptable medium. Yet maybe it is the very range of experiences it offers that causes some of the confusion surrounding its identity.
It is not true that the more expensive it is, the better one can assume it will be
Opera is rarely cheap simply because of the sheer number of performers it requires. But it is not true that the more expensive it is, the better one can assume it will be. We need a climate that doesn’t define the experience based on the cost of the ticket.
Not every performance is right for everyone and the more we can turn the profession’s hierarchical ladder on its side, embracing a wide variety of successes, the better we will be able to promote an overall openness to the form. Ultimately quality is the only thing that will conquer prejudice. And there is not always a correlation between quality and cost.
I am not sure how many people realise how vibrant and varied the UK’s operatic life is. I am inspired by the fact that on any given night you can hear celebrated national and international performers, emerging talent, student and amateur productions uncompromising in their ideals, and community projects that bring confidence and hope to all who take part. There is a deep commitment from the profession to connect to the far edges of society without diluting the quality of the communication. We certainly don’t get it right every time, but a constant desire, understanding and collaborative spirit underpins the ethos of all our companies’ operatic values and motivations. That doesn’t happen everywhere in the world.
You have to believe in opera if you are going to promote it. In doing so, you can persuade people that a combination of music, poetry, design, movement and drama – expressed through the visceral power of unamplified voices articulating emotions too intense for words alone – offers a genuinely transformative experience. No one has to conform to any presumed conventional rituals and nothing is demanded of them except an open heart and mind.
As the Old Vic celebrates its bicentenary, the achievements of Lilian Baylis are worth remembering. Her commitment to the work, the performers and the community they served was extraordinary. She valued these things equally. Opera for her was something everyone had a right to, that anyone would love. She recognised its ability to transcend social, financial and political barriers with the strength of its communication and the depth of its expression.
Opera is about all of us. It is for all of us. An opera at the Old Vic was a thoroughly egalitarian occasion 100 years ago. There were no preconceptions. A diverse community joined together to share in the direct expression of the sung word within a dramatic context. Baylis trusted the sincerity of opera’s original eloquence and she trusted her audience too. They trusted her back.
Opera can be grand, but it also can be thrilling without spectacle. I believe respecting its essential simplicity is the way to make it most accessible. Opera did not start with extravagance. It does not need extravagance. It needs passion. And passion can come at any price.