Opinion: What does opera have to say to the under-30s? | reviews, news & interviews
Opinion: What does opera have to say to the under-30s?
Opinion: What does opera have to say to the under-30s?
Will Glyndebourne's under-30s ticket scheme help the art form?
If, like me, your first reaction to the question “What does opera have to say to under-30s” is “What doesn’t opera have to say to them, or anyone, for that matter?” then you can stop reading now. Job done. Go out and spread the word. For everyone else – and that includes Tolstoy, Rousseau and Samuel Johnson, famous opera-detractors all – I have just one further question: what is your problem with opera?
There’s a myth that’s passed around by arts administrators and organisations around the world that audiences for opera are, and will always be, old. Don’t worry if the audience is looking a little grey, they say. Each generation grows into it in their own time – like gardening, or cruise holidays, or comfortable shoes. And while opera companies dutifully churn out initiatives for attracting younger audiences these too often involve apologising for the very thing they are trying to sell, trying to disguise the realities of opera like a parent concealing vegetables in a child’s dinner.
Too many initiatives start from the premise that opera is flawed, broken, an artistic problem-child
They set up straw men to defeat: the venues are too intimidating, so let’s stage operas written for powerful voices and large stages in pubs; the dress-code is too restrictive, so let’s invite everyone to come in their favourite onesie; the music is too long to hold their attention, so let’s encourage them to wander freely in and out at will. But every one of these proposals (and there have been plenty more) starts from the premise that opera is flawed, broken, an artistic problem-child.
But what if we do things differently? What if we assume as a starting point that opera is great just as it is, that it’s something worth sharing, something that everyone (however young) could love if we only stopped telling them why they might be scared or bored, and started telling them why they will be thrilled and entertained?
As with anything, opera starts and ends with its characters. If we can’t relate to or feel for these people then nothing else really matters. Which works out well for opera, because it’s filled with some exceptionally vivid portraits of young men and women – characters who are flawed or complicated, conflicted and passionate.
Take Cherubino, for instance, from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Have the stirring hormones of an adolescent boy ever been conjured as vividly as in every breathless quaver of “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio”, falling over its own musical feet in its eagerness to express itself? Da Ponte’s libretto gives us even more, inviting us into the mind of a boy overwhelmed at the simple yet alien urges coursing through him. “One moment I'm on fire, the next moment I am cold as ice, Every woman changes my color, Every woman makes me tremble.”
Or, for a teenager suddenly old before his time, thrust into responsibilities he is unprepared for, look at Handel’s Sesto in Giulio Cesare. You hear boy become man in the poised, seething restraint of his “Cara Speme” – the aria in which he resolves to revenge his murdered father. Listen as text dissolves into melisma, as his emotion forces him beyond words, and try not to be moved.
For all its bad press from feminists, opera has also created some extraordinary women. There are the assertive Hermia and Helena in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – still children in the eyes of society, but as resourceful and determined as any adult, transformed into maturity in one of the composer’s most exquisite quartets. And, speaking of quartets, what about Verdi’s Gilda? She may end up in a body-bag by the end of Rigoletto, but it’s through her own actions and by her own choice. So intensely, so far beyond reason, does she love the Duke that she sacrifices herself for him, expressing her confused adoration in another of opera’s finest and most character-revealing ensembles.
The characters and emotions of opera are the excesses, the intensities of youth, not the moderations of middle-age. Opera is life lived in HD, and if its plots don’t necessarily conform to today’s dramatic fashion for naturalism, then they go one better. Instead of offering a mirror to contemporary life, opera offers a hall of mirrors – at once exaggerating and distorting reality, conjuring a fantasy vision of what might be rather than just what is.
Think of current hit television shows and their individual appeal. The anarchic fantasy-world of Game of Thrones (pictured left), filled with violence and power struggles, is, if anything, outdone by Wagner’s Ring Cycle, with its incestuous liaisons, dragons and world-destroying conflicts. If you enjoy the political scheming and plotting of House of Cards or Scandal then you’ll find Machiavels every bit as ruthless in Verdi’s Don Carlo or Rigoletto, or even Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. Or if the implausible, overblown romantic twists and turns of Made in Chelsea are more your thing, then Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Puccini’s La bohème have that drama covered.
But opera also has something that no other genre can claim, something especially and increasingly valuable in today’s digital world. In an age in which pop music is increasingly created not at the microphone but the mixing desk, where electronic effects dominate, and even the most average of voices can be crafted into perfection by skilled producers, we have lost touch with the power of the naked human voice, the unmediated artistic experience.
Think of the last pop concert you went to. Chances are you watched not the stage itself but video screens projecting the onstage action; maybe you even saw those through the many glowing mobile phone screens held up by the audience. Either way, it wasn’t just you and the music, you and the artist; it was you, any number of middle-men, and the performance they made earlier – the one they planned and framed and photoshopped.
Practicalities mean we increasingly watch film or television rather than theatre, hear recorded music rather than live performances. Even when we make it to live performances, we go knowing that only a fraction of what we hear is actually being produced in the moment. But with opera there’s nothing between you and the music – no microphone, no pre-recorded elements. The performance you see in the opera house on one night will be unlike any other. It may go wrong, it may be better than any before or since, you just don’t know. What you do know for certain is that that performance is yours, it’s a gift from the performers directly to you, one they can’t replicate or share with anyone else.
And I haven’t even mentioned the music. Read any broadsheet review of an opera production and you’d be forgiven for forgetting that these sensational shows full of concept and visual interest are set to music. We’re so busy trying not scare people by talking about that knotty blend of music and drama that is at the core of opera that we consistently sell it short. These are great tunes. Why else would airlines advertise themselves to a soundtrack of Delibes’s Flower Duet, beers to the Overture from La Forza del Destino, cars to the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann? And then think of the films whose action would be so much the poorer without opera: Pretty Woman without the trip to La traviata, Apocalypse Now without Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries" (pictured above, Valkyries in the Metropolitan Opera's Ring Cycle), Gallipoli without that anthem to brotherhood “Au fond du temple saint”. And if you love musical theatre it’s worth remembering that Lloyd Webber learnt all he knows from Puccini (trust me, just listen to La Fanciulla del West), and that Sondheim wouldn’t be Sondheim as we know him without Korngold and Kurt Weill.
If Twitter and Facebook, Buzzfeed and Instagram are to be believed, the dominant emotion of today’s youth is FOMO – “fear of missing out”. Given a sofa and an internet connection you can spend a single evening streaming endless movies, watching YouTube videos of anything or anyone you can think of, chatting to friends anywhere in the world on Skype. The minute anything bores you it’s on to the next. With so many possibilities on offer for free, why would anyone pay to confine themselves to a small, not terribly comfortable seat for an entire evening and commit to a single performance of an entire opera?
It’s a question that cuts to the core of opera – a magpie genre so greedy for stimulation and sensation, for sensory pleasure, that it incorporates all the other art forms into one. It’s hard to think of a more contemporary catch-all form than one that brings artists and directors, singers and players, composers and poets together. Talk about bang for your buck. Opera is everything – an artistic and social, even a political, microcosm that absorbs everything culture produces and returns it to us gilded in song and framed in narrative.
What does opera have to say to the under-30s? What doesn’t it?
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