How opera got cool
Yeah, you heard me
People are talking about opera.
This week, the Royal Opera House placed warnings about sexual content and violence in the online description for its new production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Quite a few people noticed, and accused the ROH of sexing things up.
They say it’s not a ploy. “There have been controversies around operas along as opera has existed,” argues Simon Magill, Communications Manager at the Royal Opera House. “If you look back at the opera productions created over 100 years ago, there are things within those which are as controversial today as they were back then.
“The work that we do will always continue to try and push boundaries, but it will also always be faithful to our heritage. So it’s good that people are engaging with opera – we just want them to engage with it for the right reasons: we’re not doing anything for a cheap gimmick.”
It’s not about s-e-x, OK? “We’re not going to try and lure people into the theatre by saying people may take their clothes off,” agrees James Conway, General Director of the English Touring Opera. “I don’t think that’s the Opera House’s marketing ploy either, but people have created a storm in a teacup out of that one thing.
“For example, we’re showing Iphigénie en Tauride at the moment. It literally starts off with human sacrifice, and it does make you wonder if we could have got that into the papers and packed some people in that way. We didn’t sensationalise it, but maybe we should have – because it’s a show that young people will genuinely love.”
However, either way, something’s stirring in the state of opera.
Take, for example, Grimeborn – a creative collective who aim to “challenge the perception that opera is inaccessible and elitist” by staging innovative and modern shows at the Arcola theatre in Dalston. Their name is tongue-in-cheek: an urban play on Glyndebourne, the opulent country manor which plays host to the opera world’s most well-known festival.
And young people are cottoning on. Hear them out: Katrina Margolis, a 23-year-old journalist from New York, thinks liking opera isn’t as stuffy as it used to be. “People have always thought it’s weird and a bit pretentious, but I’m not an opera aficionado or anything: I just grew up with parents who exposed me to a lot of cultural things.
“They never got the chance to take me to the opera, but I finally made it to the Met and the production value was unbelievable. I was absolutely blown away.”
Will Lloyd, another young journalist working in London, shares Katrina’s outlook: “People think of it as this redundant, dead art form. Appreciating opera is like being fluent in Latin: it’s great, it’s pointless and it makes other people suspicious to the extent they might shun you if you bring up the fact you enjoy it in conversation.
“The thing is, I don’t really understand opera – but that’s fine. The key is to try and understand what it communicates, which is emotion in a very raw, pure form. Watching people sing at the opera means watching performers who are shedding everything
“It’s moving in a way that theatre and cinema can’t compare to. Cinema is to opera what Vine is to cinema. If you’re not a wreck by the end of Tristan and Isolde then I would question whether you have a soul at all.”
Conway thinks it’s been a long time coming. “With young people and opera, you see them watching as if they’re waking from a sleep,” he says: “Which is very beautiful, because sometimes what you see in theatres is people going to sleep.”
James believes we’re finally shedding the old stereotypes about opera, which is making it more attractive to a new generation. He says: “Opera being for posh people is something you read about and hear about on the radio, but in my experience it’s just not true.
“In England, as opposed to the rest of Europe, there’s a country house idea of opera where posh people go and have champagne and a meal in the middle and come back for the second half – you hear about that a lot because Hoorah Henrys having picnics on the lawn are an attractive topic for the press.
“But that’s the side of opera which is elitist, and it holds zero interest for me. It’s not my world – mine is much more touring from Truro to Perth, and I have to tell you: there’s nothing elitist about doing an opera in the Blackpool Grand.”
According to James, concepts like Grimeborn are just one of many reshaping the way we see opera: “There’s lots of small companies doing really exciting work in all sorts of interesting venues, whether that’s strange venues in Peckham or the East End.
“We recently put on a show at the Hackney Empire, which was important to me because it’s a message about opera being available to a very diverse audience.”
So what about the price? “Sure, you may not be able to afford the larger theatres in London, but that’s the same with West End shows. It will be for special occasions, there’s no doubt – you won’t be doing it once a week. But it is special, to see that many live artists making a show. Obviously it’s not for nothing, but it’s not that much more than the cinema.”
Simon agrees: “There’s a lot more opera and ballet and classical music available to the current young generation than there has been for a long time, so they should really seize the opportunity.
“It’s very easy to doubt something before you properly try it – but that’s stupid. You wouldn’t open a book, not enjoy it and say: ‘That’s it, I’m not reading books anymore.’”