Worth three tenors? The value of opera

Saturday 30 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Henry Moore Gallery

Although a night at the opera can be cheaper than a day at the races or at a Premier League football match, it is still often decried as a slightly curious indulgence of the rich and elitist. Many are not quite sure just what opera actually is: a peculiarly camp form of classical music, stylised musicals for the posh, or just something that allows people to feel superior by listening to something in a language they (or we) can’t even understand? Opera today has a question to answer in terms of just what it is that makes it valuable. Against a backdrop of deep cuts across arts funding, has opera a particularly strong case for the defence in comparison to, say, fine art or indeed street dance?

Some defenders of opera make an appeal based on its continuing relevance to contemporary society and even its value in educating and integrating the young through various forms of outreach projects. The success of tenor Paul Potts on Britain’s Got Talent, or of the other reality TV show From pop star to opera star, reveal a potential for crossover, while various ‘street opera’ or ‘flash opera’ initiatives have helped overcome opera’s stuffy reputation. Few, however, are really comfortable with explaining just what the value would be in giving up the fame and riches of pop stardom for the arduous training and – for most – relatively impecunious life of an opera singer. The obvious appeal of being a musical star on TV is rather different from a self-sacrificing dedication to one’s art. And as for the audience, why would anyone want to sit and watch an opera all the way through rather just than listen to ‘Nessun Dorma’ on a greatest hits CD? After all, one can thrill to the beauty of the music yet be blind to the (often silly) storylines or stylised spectacle.

But does opera really have to be ‘relevant’? With music, singing, the libretto, the drama and spectacle, opera is a unique synthesis of artforms meant to give voice to what is inexpressible in our existence. That makes it hard, at first sight remote and certainly not easy to digest at first sitting. But not necessarily unworthy of the attempt, even without sugaring the pill. So, is opera worthwhile in its own terms, or should it be forced better to justify its existence? Is it unpopular precisely because it seems so hard to make a case for its relevance? Should we make room for an artform seemingly marked by pretentiousness precisely because art is supposed to take us beyond the everyday?


Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
John Berry
artistic director, ENO

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Nikola Matisic
opera singer and pedagogue; founder, Operalabb

Matt Peacock
founder and CEO, Streetwise Opera

Penny Woolcock
writer and director, documentaries (On The Streets), films (Tina Goes Shopping) and operas (ENO's Doctor Atomic and Pearl Fishers)

Chair:
Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Recommended readings
Jonathan Miller’s Pub-lic opera

Where is the audience? It’s a question that eats at every art institution in this age of austerity. Maybe opera houses feel it even more keenly than others: acutely sensitive to accusations of elitism and snobbery.

Angus Kennedy, Independent Blogs, 11 October 2010

Wagner for a Song

The average seat at the Met costs $138, which is almost exactly what people pay to see the Rolling Stones. Yet no matter how much the Met talks up its $20 rush tickets or its movie-theater simulcast series, which reaches millions of people a year, it can’t seem to shake its pince-nez image.

Alex Ross, New York Times, 25 September 2010

Opera in a London pub aims to end elitism and high prices

Britain is to get an unconventional new opera house – the first to open in London for 40 years – when the King's Head, the capital's first and most famous fringe venue, turns permanently to musical theatre next month.

Vanessa Thorpe, Observer, 20 September 2010

Homeless opera is up for lottery arts award

An opera company which features homeless performers has been nominated for an award for the best lottery funded arts project.

Tariq Tahir, Metro, 3 September 2010

The brave new world of immersive opera

Immersive and site-specific theatre is all the rage at the moment, but what about scrambled-up opera? That sings a different tune.

Emma Pomfret, The Times, 7 August 2010

Mark Ravenhill's debut opera goes for the gut

For years, playwright Mark Ravenhill kept quiet about his love for opera. Then he decided to write one – about irritable bowel syndrome

Mark Ravenhill, Guardian, 4 August 2010

Immersive theatre meets opera

In this production you don't go to the opera, it comes to you. The action takes place inside a characterless disused grey office block situated in a desolate urban landscape at the far easterly end of London City Airport.

Will Gompertz, BBC News gomp/arts blog, 15 July 2010

Is anybody listening? American opera faces crossroads as audiences for performing arts slide

Will new works help revive the opera field or help sink it under the weight of $3 million productions? At the keynote address of Opera America's annual conference in June, Daniel Catán, the composer of

Anne Midgette, Washington Post, 28 June 2010

Glyndebourne: not just for snobs

Beyond its elite image, country house opera is a source of artistic invention.

Alexandra Coghlan, New Statesman, 16 June 2010

How to make Bizet's gem shine anew

The Pearl Fishers isn't the most PC of operas but that doesn't mean we should dismiss it

Penny Woolcock, Independent, 1 June 2010

Love opera. Don't fall into the trappings trap

Robert Thicknesse's criticism of opera confuses the luxurious fripperies that surround the spectacle with the thrilling, life-changing art at its heart

Tom Service, Guardian, 29 May 2010

BBC launches biggest ever series on opera

Radio and TV stations will interweave performances with programmes about opera

Mark Brown, Guardian, 13 May 2010

Why we need 22 new opera houses - now!

The gap between the culturally enriched and impoverished is as wide as ever – and right now, we couldn't even cater to the former if we tried.

Tom Service, Guardian, 2 March 2010

Popstar to Operastar: Call that opera?

As celebrities are taught the basics in ITV's latest reality show, devotees say the programme cheapens and exploits the genre

Andrew Johnson, Independent, 18 January 2010

How performing arts can help disadvantaged young people

The performing arts are moving out of their quirky corner of social policy and being taken seriously as a method to improve the self-esteem of young offenders

Rowenna Davis, Community Care, 16 December 2008

If this is torture, sign me up

In last week's G2, Joe Queenan claimed new classical music is 'torture'. John Berry, artistic director of English National Opera, speaks for the defence

John Berry, Guardian, 16 July 2008

The Art-Work of the Future

As Man stands to Nature, so stands Art to Man. When Nature had developed in herself those attributes which included the conditions for the existence of Man, then Man spontaneously evolved. In like manner, as soon as human life had engendered from itself the conditions for the manifestment of Art-work, this too stepped self-begotten into life. Link downloads a .pdf

Richard Wagner, translated by William Ashton Ellis, The Wagner Library

Session partners



in association with