While some of those stereotypes may have some validity, it’s certainly not the whole picture. If that’s all there was to it, it wouldn’t keep people who are not rich, snobbish and prone to boring themselves stupid coming back to opera houses again and again.
Let’s look at some of the issues that crop up when people think about going to the opera:
While it’s true that the majority of tickets for opera are higher than for almost any other art-form, it is still possible to get plenty of nights out at reasonable prices.
Top price at Covent Garden is £205 now, not in most people’s range, but there are cheaper tickets, which are not too difficult to get hold of. OK, so sitting in the amphitheatre (the top bit) can set you back £90, but you can also see top-class opera at the Royal Opera House from just a fiver.
The first few hundred operas I saw were in seats that were not that comfortable or close to the stage but that didn’t matter because I wasn’t there for the seats. Sure, it’s great to have the Rolls Royce experience of sitting in the stalls but, over the years, I’ve had some wonderful nights in the gods.
Last year I saw Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur twice – once in the stalls on press night and then later in the run sitting in a £5 seat in Covent Garden’s upper slips. I enjoyed the performances equally well. A tip with upper slips seats is to get the lower numbers (1-11), as you get part of the stage cut off the nearer you are to the proscenium arch.
Apart from the upper slips, there are also standing places that cost £11-£15. This won’t be to everyone’s taste or capability (I can cope with standing through 5 hours of Wagner but I understand that not everyone can).
The good thing about these places is that, positioned at the back of the Stalls Circle or Balcony (the second one down), you get a brilliant view of the stage. Try and get central places if you can, as there is cut-off at the sides. The person sitting in front of you has paid 10 times as much but is seeing and hearing what you are. Provided you don’t have back problems, it’s a great way to see opera.
At the Coliseum (where English National Opera is based), prices are generally much cheaper than Covent Garden’s, the top being £86, and for some operas (the least popular) you can find tickets as low as £5. You can get day seats for £10-£15 but these are in the second row of the balcony where you have a bar running across and obstructing your view, which is off-putting. There’s no standing room.
In our Brief Guide to London Opera, you will see a survey of what’s available in London. There are a lot of companies doing great work at reasonable prices. It’s perfectly possible to see high-quality opera (in good seats) for the same cost (or less) than most theatre shows or going to the football.
The question of the morality of putting large amounts of public money into a minority interest art-form is much more complicated and I won’t deal with it here.
At Covent Garden you’ll see plenty of people in suits and frocks but casual dress is widespread as well. I’ve been attending there regularly for 35 years and have always worn jeans. Nobody will look down on you for it (or if they do, I’ve never noticed because I’m not looking for it). The Coliseum is even more casual.
Glyndebourne is different. There you are expected to wear evening dress or at least a suit and you can get funny looks if you don’t dress up as a trussed-up penguin or a Barbara Cartland lookalike. It’s a rarefied world of tuxedos, champagne tents and luxury picnics that all conform to the stereotypes but that’s got nothing to do with the music. Best to keep away if you don’t like this sort of thing (with tickets at up to £300, you might have to give it a miss anyway).
The Royal Opera House serves up champagne at about £8 a glass and itsy bitsy sandwiches at not much less. They’ve got a nice restaurant as well, at higher than average prices. If eating is an essential part of your evening, you might do best to go elsewhere beforehand or after the show, if this doesn’t fit your pocket. Or don’t bother. Have your tea at home and then go and enjoy a great night of music and drama. The two things don’t have to go together.
Similarly, it’s not essential to buy programmes (£6 at the ROH and £4.50 at the Coliseum), with free cast sheets usually available.
English or original language?
This is a really interesting area and one that has caused much debate among opera afficionados. Covent Garden always performs operas in their original languages, while ENO uses English translations. There is continuing debate about which is best and the thorny question of surtitles muddies the waters. The ROH only started using them about 20 years ago and ENO introduced them much more recently (about three years ago).
There’s fierce debate about whether they help or hinder. To some they’re a god-send, to others the end of civilisation as we know it (I’d say these are at the snobbier end of the opera fraternity).
I’m quite clear about the question. Personally (and it is very subjective), I’d rather see an opera in its original language, whether it’s English, Russian, Italian, German or anything else. They lose in translation, the Latin languages suffering in particular. I also want surtitles, which are a great enabler in following what’s happening second by second.
I also want surtitles for operas sung in English because operatic singing distorts the words and you can rarely hear much of what is being sung (although some people claim they can pick up every word). Some say that standards are slipping because of the use of surtitles but it’s something that hasn’t changed in the three and half decades I’ve been going to the opera. So it’s not just a case of “fings ain’t what they used to be” (those for whom I am a mere whippersnapper might disagree).
I don’t believe surtitles make singers or audiences lazy. Neither is it a form of dumbing down. You don’t have to look at the surtitles and they are not really a distraction, as is often claimed. You will have to make up your own mind. Surtitles seem to be here to stay, so if you do hate them you’ll just have to get used to them.
Outsiders often see opera as elitist and snobbish. I tend to think this is just because it’s a soft target for prejudice and class hatred, although, of course, you do get snobs in opera - just as you get them in rock and pop music and football.
Sometimes, an approach that discriminates between good and bad can be seen as snobbism. Adherents of Paul Potts or Katherine Jenkins often accuse anyone who doesn’t worship their idols of this. The fact is those artists are just not very good so, while they’re loved by millions, anyone with the slightest knowledge of opera isn’t taken in. It doesn’t take away from their entertainment value but they’re not what their fans or marketing people claim they are.
Call that snobbish if you like but it’s no different from saying that David Beckham can play football and I can’t (how many people would say that was a snobbish statement?). It’s like saying that Todd Carty isn’t a terribly good ice skater or John Sergeant a great dancer. Sure, if you’ve never seen anyone else dance or skate, they might appear to be good but compared to the professionals, they don’t quite shape up.
I have problems myself with self-satisfied quasi-intellectuals who chunter on endlessly about music in overly-technical terms but they have their place (and their own very small audience) so good luck to them.
Oh yes, the music
So, after all these peripheral matters, what’s the fuss all about? What’s so great about this old-fashioned, outdated, overblown art-form where people sing in any situation and take hours to die? There’s not room here to explain why opera is a great art-form except to say, believe me, it’s one of the most exciting theatrical and musical experiences you can have.
One problem that people often have is that opera’s not “easy” and it’s this that causes “inaccessibility” as much as the social and physical factors. It’s just long and, well, pretty boring. Most opera is longer than an episode of Eastenders. Wagner’s major works have about four and a half hours of music but many are much shorter (La boheme is less than two hours, so the same length as an average film).
It’s true it can take a bit more effort and application than some other forms of entertainment. It might be worth reading up about an opera and listening to recordings before seeing it, so you get more out of it. I find, even after all this time, I don’t always “get it” straightaway. I recently listened to a Handel opera four or five times before I started to really hear it. This “difficulty” doesn’t in itself make it good but just because it doesn’t land in your lap with a cherry on top doesn’t make it bad or impossible either.
Some people like early music, some lush romanticism and some spiky, harsh, modern music. I’m lucky in that there’s very little I don’t like and so I enjoy pretty much all genres of opera. Not everyone’s going to love opera but if you’re prepared to give it a go, it can be extremely rewarding.
At another time, we’ll look at a basic history of opera and give an overview of what there is to listen to and see. In the meantime, I’d urge you to try everything once. If it sticks, you could find yourself addicted for life.- Simon Thomas