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:


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)

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
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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

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