A dying art? The future of opera

Saturday 17 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Garden Room, Barbican Arts & Society

The fate of the English National Opera (ENO), which has suffered crippling financial setbacks in recent years, is seen by some not simply as the result of mismanagement, but of a more fundamental flaw in the company’s mission to bring opera to a wider audience. The uproar over the ENO’s budget crisis closely follows the failure of its American counterpart, the New York City Opera. Affectionately dubbed ‘the people’s opera’ by former mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the New York City Opera, which shared the ENO’s aims of bringing its productions to a broader populace, closed its doors in 2013 after filing for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, even London’s Royal Opera was mired in controversy after a rape scene that many saw as a desperate attempt to make opera relevant.

All this raises questions about whether opera really is for everyone. Was the New York City Opera simply a failed experiment 70 years in the making, or has a cultural shift since its opening made its work and the work of companies like it arcane and obsolete? Can the ENO recover from its financial turmoil and struggle for relevance before it, too, becomes defunct? Or does opera even need saving at all? Musicologists point to its historic versatility as proof of its continuing endurance.

Perhaps the best recourse is to step aside and allow the genre to adapt to the zeitgeist unimpeded, even if that means wealthy, grey-haired audiences. Indeed, the stigma of inaccessibility has plagued the genre for decades. Detractors from the ‘accessibility’ agenda argue that opera is, by its very nature, highbrow and exclusionary, an acquired taste that some simply fail to acquire. If this is the case, is there merit in continuing to support an art that can require considerable effort to understand and appreciate? Should we cherish the rich intellectual and aesthetic experience that opera provides to those in the know? Or are there artistic platforms better suited to our time and attention than productions that leave many newcomers bewildered and unwilling to return?

As the debate over public funding for opera continues, questions about the role of the art form in contemporary society are becoming increasingly thorny. Is there a place in the operatic realm for efforts to draw in new audiences with contemporary stagings and crossover productions, or is opera truly the domain of the social and cultural elite?

Listen to the debate

Dr Eugenia Arsenis
director; dramaturg, Center for Contemporary Opera, New York

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

Ashutosh Khandekar
editor, Opera Now

Robin Norton-Hale
artistic director, OperaUpClose

Stephen Plaice
librettist; writer in residence, Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
Recommended readings
Is Opera for Everyone?

The answer to the titular question is, of course, no. There are some people – possibly even a large faction of people – who will either never be able to experience an opera or abhor the experience regardless.

John Dorhauer, John Darhauer

In defence of opera

It can be digitalised, underground, racy or old school… Sarah Grice explains why opera is not just for purists.

Sarah Grice, Varsity, 26 May 2014

We need to move beyond the cliches about 'elitist' opera

Why is opera routinely styled as the antithesis of everyday life? Let's change the conversation and focus on the real thing.

Alexandra Wilson, Guardian, 11 February 2014

How Hollywood Films Are Killing Opera

Films have taught Americans a particular idea of what opera is, so that is the kind of opera Americans think they want.

Zachary Woolfe, New York Times, 16 August 2012

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