Opera and Teenagers: snobbery, elitism, crossover, and such

“Opera is elitist”. We’ve all heard this phrase hundreds of times – ironically, more often from opera houses trying to prove that statement wrong than from actual potential audience members. It’s a phrase I’d never given much thought to, beyond it often being accompanied with a rather desperate attempt to make opera hip: “We’re not a bunch of elitist old people, we’re young and edgy. See? We even have underwear on stage, ooh…”. However, two events within the past few months have forced me to really think about the issue.

The first, obvious event was a panel discussion at the ROH, aptly named “Are Opera and Ballet Elitist?”. Ironically, what interested me were not the questions addressed. The discussion itself was rather frustrating, with the panelists basically repeating the fact that they have cheap tickets and media misrepresentations of opera and ballet. Fair enough points, but nothing new. The one panelist who seemed to have an interesting take on the matter, a novelist who disliked opera and ballet, was studiously ignored. Rather than the ‘big question’ that the debate sought to answer, I found myself considering another question: what exactly does elitism mean? Depending on the definition, the answer could be totally different: yes, opera and ballet are elite in that the people involved are at the top of their profession and have worked hard. No, opera and ballet are not elite in that they can be enjoyed and accessed only by wealthy patrons. That’s something I wish the panel had addressed, which would have made for a much more coherent discussion. This led to another question: is there a problem with elitism? Of course, I believe that opera should be available to everyone, but what about the other definitions? Is it wrong to say that opera was written for the rich when accessibility has clearly changed since then? Is it wrong to advertise opera as the apex of the arts?

The second incident that provoked me to think about this issue was an article by Joyce DiDonato in the online magazine Opera21 (a fabulous magazine by the way, in case you haven’t read it). In it, she requests that opera fans not become snobs, to avoid flirting with “that imperial ‘level of knowing’ where you stop listening, stop feeling, and stop learning”. When I first read this, I felt rather smug. No, I was not like ‘those’ fans, who go around complaining that opera isn’t as good as it was fifty years ago, that I should have heard Callas and Ponselle, and that the Italian tradition was DEAD. I wasn’t like that at all, how very enlightened and modern of me!

Of course, I quickly realized that I was guilty of the same musical snobbery, though in a slightly different form.¬†Recently, a friend had asked me about opera. She had heard some on the radio, she said, and she rather enjoyed what she heard. Would I be able to give her some advice? I was glad to do so, of course, and asked what she had heard. It turned out to be Una Voce Poco Fa, sung by none other than Katherine Jenkins. I immediately retorted with something along the lines of “Oh no, that’s not opera. She’s not very good. Here, I’ll give you a list of other singers who are much better”. I did so, she thanked me, and she never asked me about opera again. Although this whole issue of crossover is a tricky one and worthy of its own post, I was essentially guilty of the same sort of snobbery as ‘those’ fans. I don’t think my statement was necessarily wrong, but in saying it, I was demeaning my friend’s musical taste and coming across as a condescending snob. Much of this, I believe, stems from the belief that opera is the best art form. The culmination of art forms, the apex of creativity, whatever – basically, the implication is that the artistic world is a pyramid, and opera is the little point at the top. First of all, this pyramid image is doing absolutely nothing to help the image of opera as being inaccessible and enigmatic. It encourages the notion that a) opera is forbidding and difficult to understand, which (mostly) isn’t true, and b) that everyone SHOULD like opera and would, if only they’d stop being so darn lazy and study the vocal scores. Obviously, this isn’t true – many people who have diligently studied their libretti and listened to their recordings still don’t like opera, and that’s absolutely alright. Secondly, it encourages the widespread use of condescension: “Oh, she’s a lovely singer, but she wasn’t classically trained, of course”. Personally, I don’t believe that opera is *the* greatest art form; yes, pop singers could never sing through a complete opera unamplified, but there are plenty of examples of classically-trained voices failing miserably in pop or jazz. I’m not trying to undermine the achievements of singers when I say this; opera, jazz, and rap are all very different styles of music, and it ultimately does no favours to any of them to cling to this supposed superiority. Opera doesn’t have to be the ‘best’ – whether it’s Andrea Bocelli or Joan Sutherland, people enjoy it and gain something out of it, and that should be enough.

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6 thoughts on “Opera and Teenagers: snobbery, elitism, crossover, and such

  1. Elitism is a slippery concept. Art, beyond the most superficial, requires a certain amount of education and experience to really get the most out of it and, at times, to get anything out of it at all. That’s true of literature and painting as much as music or dance. Actually it’s true of things like rugby and cricket too because they take some effort to learn to appreciate. Just ask my partner who only learned to appreciate rugby by trying to photograph it. I don’t think it’s “elitist” per se to have something that requires a bit of effort to appreciate but, for whatever reason, it’s considered OK to take that attitude where music and dance are concerned. It will likely spread. The pessimist in me supposes that literature education will disappear from our schools just as music education pretty much has. Then it will be “elitist” to prefer Jane Austen to Dan Brown. Mostly I think “sod it”. I will enjoy what I enjoy and if I can help introduce friends to, say, opera (and I have) I will do so unapologetically.

    • Yes, it is rather odd that the term seems to only apply to the arts. It took me quite a bit of effort to understand all of the rules of hockey, and I certainly didn’t learn that in school, but it’s not considered ‘elitist’. I wonder why.

  2. If you’re a teenager, I’m a young adult in my early twenties. If you wish to contact me, you can email me:

    In my humble opinion, you’re exaggerating the elitism issue. In the past, maybe opera was inaccessible to the public because of the high ticket prices, the expensive recordings etc. but now with YouTube and blogs where you can download opera performances for free, the barriers which had existed in the past are mostly dissolved. If elitism was the reason why young people are dissuaded from venturing into opera, with YouTube and the blogs, there should be more opera fans.

    I come from Singapore where the only opera we have is when a local company stages an annual performance. Here, even if people here have the same misconception that opera is for the elites as people in the West do, it doesn’t stop them from sampling my opera performances. Only one person was willing to give them a second try. If you’re interested, I can share my experiences and observations in greater detail.

    DiDonato was right to some extent. When you listen to the great singers of the past, you end up expecting the singers of the present to emulate if not surpass them. When singers of the present fail to do so, you begin to find yourself regarding them with disdain. That’s where the problem begins. You become snobbish but are you being snobbish because you feel that the singers of the present really aren’t performing up to standard or you are you refusing to give them the chance to prove their worth.

    In Ms. DiDonato’s case as well as those of her colleagues, Mr Florez, Mr Brownlee and so on, they can acquit themselves unabashedly with the good work they have done in Rossini. Honestly, if you compare their recordings to the ones made by their predecessors, Frederica von Stade, Rockwell Blake etc., they do just as well. However, if you compare the work of the ones singing Verdi and Puccini now, there’s a problem..It’s one thing to give you a night of good music. It’s another to allow you to take home something from the performance. Today’s singers without doubt can sing the music well but it’s sadly the old-timers who could leave their mark on me with the way they sang the music. Singers today need to understand that not all their fans can come to the opera house and see them live. There are also the fans from countries where there’s little or no opera like mine. We fall back on the great singers because they sound so much better on record although there are some exceptions to this rule.

    I heard the Katherine Jenkins video. There was something very wrong with the way she sang the aria. You did the right thing. She was crooning it. Nobody expects her to do the coloratura all trained sopranos are able to perform but at least, she could have tried to play Rosina when she was singing that song. That was what I honestly felt about the performance but how many people can understand me when I explain this to them? Hardly anybody. To most people, a song is just a song. They’re so fixated on the lyrics that they don’t think much about the music or the way the song is sung. Even if you had showed her Berganza’s or Callas’ Rosina, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to her. She’s likely to prefer Jenkins. If she was really interested in opera, she’ll have asked you to show her how could anyone do much better than Jenkins did.

    If you’re interested in learning more, please send me an email. When I reply, this commenting and replying would morph into a conversation.

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  4. This is a fantastic article! Your thoughts on the elitism of opera are spot-on. I’m guilty of having made the mistake of recommending “true” operatic artists to my friends who have said they like a particular crossover or even Broadway star’s voice in an opera aria. Oh, the snobbery… How do you think we as bloggers could make opera more accessible to everybody? I’ve been blogging for almost a year now about opera, and I’ve been looking for more ideas on how to get more people to enjoy it without worrying too much about all its decorated terms and its reputation for being difficult for pop lovers to relate to. I’d like a little help from someone who’s been writing about my favorite art form for much longer than I have. By the way, I’m a huge fan of Opera21 and am in the process of completing an article I’d like to submit for publication in the magazine. Your interview with Nicholas Phan was excellent! I found the link to your web site on the final page. Thanks for your thoughts!

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