“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.