Is Opera still relevant? 

Convener: Darren Abrahams 

Participants: Miriam Murtin, Louise Kemeny, Giuls Driver, Richard Heyhow, Kirsty Lothian, Charlotte Bond, Tina Ellen Lee, Elaine Kidd, Caro Metcalfe

Summary of Discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

The discussion was convened by Darren Abrahams who is an opera singer. This is a question that has concerned him for a while and although he believes that opera is still a relevant art form, he was interested to find out the views of peers who work in other areas of the arts. If opera is perceived as irrelevant by other theatre practitioners what hope do we have of convincing and engaging with the wider public?

Discussion began with the challenge – is it relevant if you can’t buy a ticket? Opera is perceived as being only for the very wealthy. Tickets at the Royal Opera are priced at £140. It is intimidating to go into an opera house. How can we engage with it when we don’t understand it, when it is “artificial” (hyper real or unconvincingly acted). There is a feeling that opera is “too much” – the hugeness of it makes it hard to identify with.

Responses to this centred around the fact that there is more to opera than the Royal Opera House and that the range of the pieces is as great as in other forms of theatre – from huge lavish epics to intimate chamber pieces. There is more opera being done in this country that is small scale, cheap and accessible than not. For some reason this is not getting through to the general public. 

What does relevant mean? Is it relevant to whom? Some people find it hugely relevant. If this is so, who is the audience? At the big established venues it often seems to be the same people mostly old, white and wealthy. (Darren – “sometimes it feels like your looking at this exquisite thing through the wrong end of the telescope, performing it to each other and some old people”). However this is only really at the highest end of the market – there are many smaller companies taking the work out to a wider and less wealthy audience.

Often the highest level of opera is the least satisfying, with stars flying in to deliver their own version of a famous role, with little regard to the production, company or other singers. You would never get a famous actor flying in to give “his” Hamlet. 

Discussion moved to singing. The majority of singers sing with a technique rather than with soul, so is opera only about beautiful singing and nothing else? This is part of the reason it is seen to be irrelevant by some of the other theatre practitioners present. Tina Ellen Lee spoke of the work of Opera Circus, a company that creates music theatre using operatic voices. For her the dramatic truth in the piece is a vital element. Peter Brook was an important inspiration for the company and it strives to put drama at the centre of opera. Singing needs to be a part of the acting process, rather than the sole purpose of the performance. There has to be a reason for singing and not speaking – the emotion gets so heightened that the only way to get it out is to sing. This is often lost in opera because the voice becomes more important than the emotion behind it. There is such a preoccupation with beauty of sound that this obscures the emotion – sometimes the sound needs to be “ugly” to convey the emotion and most opera singers are scared of this. Part of the reason is preserving the voice and another part is the tyranny of the CD – audiences are so used to the artificial perfection of a studio recording that they expect to hear the same in live performance. This is what opera singers strive for, often to the detriment of the drama. When opera is most relevant is when this isn’t an issue – (Tina “if someone comes out saying that the aria in act two was gorgeous, we have failed”). There was mention of a singer who had an enormous vocal range and performed a concert in which he did extraordinary and dangerous sounding things with his voice and finished it off by singing a soft sweet tune with no hint of damage or strain. This showed that it is possible to do anything with the voice if it is well supported. Mention was also made of Korean Pansori singing which is very powerful on the voice.

Perhaps there is a difference between the established cannon of famous operatic works and new opera. Most non opera people when they think of opera only think of huge lavish productions of La Boheme or Figaro, but there is a wealth of new work that is addressing contemporary issues and reinventing the genre. In this way perhaps opera is like Shakespeare – there is value in reinterpreting the famous works to discover their relevance to a new age and audience, but it exists in a different sphere to new writing. Is opera dying and music theatre having a resurgence, and by that we don’t mean musicals. A great deal of innovation is happening in the sphere of new opera writing, but perhaps it is taking it in a different direction to the cannon that we know and continually repeat.

Brief discussion about the ENO production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. Stylish interpretation using Javanese dance and very successfully conveyed emotion to members of the group that saw it. Darren revealed that he was in that production and there had been no discussion of emotional content during the rehearsal period and it was mostly about blocking and pictures on stage. Opera can be so large that it becomes a total experience taking in all the senses. It was suggested that perhaps this was therefore not theatre. 

We returned to the issue of expense. Because tickets are so expensive going to the opera is a risky experience for many people. If it was £2 people said they would be more inclined to try it out. The Travelex £10 season at the Royal Opera was mentioned, but many people didn’t know about it, which brought up the issue of how to reach out to the audience. There was a perception of corruption in the system – the opera house employs 1000 people. Why is the canteen so heavily subsidised? This was defended by Elaine Kidd, staff director at the ROH – it is very important that people get access to proper food when working very long hours. Covent Garden is an expensive area to feed oneself three times a day. 

A question was asked if it was the subject matter of operas that put people off. The answer was not subject matter, rather the perception that “I can’t believe the style will tell me anything.” “If I can’t believe it I won’t get it.” Also the barrier of language. In this opera can once again be likened to Shakespeare. The best actors will use the artifice in the language to get the emotion across – so will the best singers. Tina spoke of new Opera Circus piece by Nigel Osborne based on Sevdah music from the Balkans. This is a form of song that conveys raw emotion through the voice. This new piece is translating the Sevdah emotion through the operatic voice. You don’t necessarily need to know the language to understand the song.

We in the industry need to foster a sense of ownership in the audience. We need to out and meet them and invite them into the opera houses in a way that isn’t patronising but is inclusive. A good example is the Young Vic – they produced Tobias and the Angel, a community opera using amateur residents of Southwark and Lambeth boroughs alongside professional singers. Marketing was done in unexpected places like supermarkets and therefore generated interest from people who would never have considered going to an opera, let alone taking part in one. The Young Vic is a theatre that firmly places itself within its local context as well as producing theatre of an international standard. How does the Royal Opera engage its local community in and around Covent Garden and Holborn? It is incredibly important that we as opera professionals open the doors to the wider community, or it will disappear into an elitist cul de sac, remain the domain of the rich and elderly and lose all vestiges of relevance. The real answer to the original question lies in this simple answer:

There has to be a reason to sing!