The snobbery that says that opera, and other high culture, is only for the privileged, the rich and the powerful, is a particularly insidious kind of prejudice. I felt Angela Rayner‘s pain at Dominic Raab’s (and others’) jibes because I have fairly humble origins, and yet opera is my thing.
It started with my parents, who loved classical music but never really had the resources to enjoy it to the full. They would pay for LPs by instalment at the local record shop, eventually slapping each new fully-paid-for recording on the turntable with great fanfare. Dad’s generational machismo meant that he would conceal the tears that naturally flowed from listening to che gelida manina or un bel dÌ vedremo. Our later trips to the opera and concerts together are among my most treasured memories.
I guess I was conscious throughout that opera was a bit of a minority pursuit. It was something elite – those performing it were simply the best at what they did – but I never felt it to be elitist. Yes, there were wealthy people and corporates in the premium seats, but I don’t think I was totally awry in thinking that my knowledge and understanding of opera was more than most of theirs. It’s an ignoble sentiment, I know, but I confess that, in consequence, I rather looked down on them. This was an art form for people like me, who’d taken the trouble to study and imbibe it. The other people, rattling their jewelry in the stalls, were interlopers in my world.
All of my opera-loving friends have been from ordinary backgrounds. Their love of the form might have come from nature or nurture, but always at a level as profound as their lack of privilege. On the supply side, though, the unprivileged – those without the money, the networks, the connections behind them – can find it a difficult industry to break into. They might not even know it’s an option. Sometimes talent itself isn’t enough – and of course classical music isn’t unique in this respect.
Opera is a bit crazy. What Richard Wagner called the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’) will throw singing, orchestral music, stage design, acting, literature, stagecraft, history, composers’ individual psyches and goodness knows what else at you.
It isn’t necessarily expensive to produce, but can be. Some tickets are pricey, but most are comparable to a West End show or a Premier League football match. There are cheaper tickets to be had if you don’t mind not having the very best seats in the house. Not that these are trivial amounts during a cost of living crisis, when some people are choosing between heating or eating, but maybe not as out of reach as you might think.
Of course, not everyone takes to it. Someone asked me many years ago to introduce them to opera, so we went to a couple at the London Coliseum. No, they concluded, it’s not for me. Like reading two novels, I think I said, and deciding never to pick up another book. Opera’s a complex, demanding art form, and can require a bit of effort – it can be an acquired taste.
It can also appear intimidating to the uninitiated. What to wear? Except for when I went straight from work, I’ve tended to range between jeans and t-shirt and smart casual; Bayreuth and Glyndebourne do demand an extra level of posh, though. How to behave? Pretty much like the theatre – just don’t talk during the performance. Will I stand out from the ‘normal’ opera crowd? It doesn’t matter if you do as long as you’re respectful towards other members of the audience and the performers, and enjoy what’s on stage. I’ve been to opera houses all over the place, including Glyndebourne, and have never felt intimidated by the experience; more like (as in so many social situations) an anthropologist at large, observing and enjoying the idiosyncrasies of human interaction and ritual.
I don’t think it’s quite right to say ‘opera’s for everyone’. Like the person who wanted me to introduce them to it, maybe it’s not for you. But opera is for anyone who wants to give it a try. It’s there for anyone who wants it to be a part of their wider portfolio of interests (for total transparency, mine also includes streaming box sets, League One football (becoming Championship football, I’m quietly confident, in 2022-23), a bit of reading (disproportionately non-fiction), learning about birds and dragonflies, and appreciating the tiniest, almost homeopathic quantities of wine).
That spread of interests, though, rather conceals the fact that I lean towards opera at the expense of other pursuits. I even sing it as a chorus member with the wonderful London company called Midsummer Opera, and have recently taken my first tentative steps into solo roles; don’t miss our performances of Smetana’s Bartered Bride on 4 and 6 November 2022.
Opera belongs to the ordinary people, the unprivileged. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a local, small-scale production or a world class blockbuster at the Royal Opera House. Angela Rayner isn’t even in the vanguard – ordinary people have been going to opera probably for as long as the art form has existed.
But, toffs and corporates, you’re still welcome. Partly, that’s just diversity and inclusion: toffs are real people too, and should bring their whole selves into the Gesamtkunstwerk-place. But frankly, it’s also that opera needs the money – despite government funding, it probably wouldn’t survive, at least at the topmost level, without private philanthropy and people prepared to pay top dollar for the priciest tickets. Fear not, then, toffs – no Töfferdämmerung just yet.
Opera might belong to ordinary folk, but please, privileged members of our society: do come along and enjoy it with everyone else.