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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The arts vs. the rest: why arts education is necessary

In light of proposed cuts in arts funding around the world, people everywhere have been promoting the importance of the arts. Arts education, in particular, is an issue that has become a veritable battleground for politicians, educators, and celebrities alike. In many ways, the cuts to arts funding seems to be completely logical; should we be training more ballerinas and painters than doctors and engineers? Unfortunately, it’s not as black-and-white as this. There’s been a lot written about the correlation between arts education and overall cognitive thinking, and nearly just as much has been written to disprove that. In this frenzy of scientific discoveries and refutes, I feel that we’re ignoring the main point – why does everything have to be about science?

Let me make one point clear upfront: I’m not just some fanciful arts major whining abstractly about why nobody will listen to me sing (in fact, I am fully aware why nobody wants to hear me sing). I am in fact a science major in one of the best science faculties in North America, and I am fully aware of the importance of scientific study and inquiry in today’s society. Growing up, I was always told that we could either grow up to be scientists or artists. There was no possibility of being good at both – our brains are all wired to either be creative and emotional, or logical and numerical (from a neurological perspective, this is flawed, but I’ll let that slide). Of course, being the rebellious child I was, I attempted to excel in both. I studied and performed music, derived and integrated functions, analyzed poetry, and dropped eggs from three-story buildings with equal enthusiasm. I quickly realized that there is no concrete distinction between “the arts” and “the rest”: studying the Berg violin concerto, for example, required a great deal of mathematical thought and precision, while designing an effective chemistry lab required creativity and imaginative thinking. When I applied for university, I made the decision to go into science, but knowing well that my success in science was due to the discipline, accuracy, problem solving skills, memory, and critical thinking skills that I had gained through my arts education.

I strongly believe that arts education in not only important for training up future scientists and engineers – the arts are valuable in themselves. Today, the arts are viewed as a luxury; an impractical, inferior, and inefficient form of communication, created by and (hopefully) inciting bursts of illogical emotion. It’s true that art is qualitative rather than quantitative, but sensory experiences are as valid a form of cognition as logical reasoning. In fact, the arts and the sciences share the same overarching goal: comprehension. This may sound hopelessly abstract, but just as science tries to categorize and rationalize physical phenomena, paintings, music, dance, and other forms of art are used to understand and deal with experiences. Science is a great tool, but after we have a set of facts, what can we do with them? How do we determine how to use a scientific discovery in the most constructive way possible for society? Morals and ethics are based on philosophy (often relegated to the arts faculty in universities, despite the fact that one of the highest achievements in any field – a PhD – is in fact a doctorate in philosophy), and are often based on emotional responses to past and current experiences. Hard facts in themselves are often useless; it is their value and application that can help us understand anything.

Education is a transfer of knowledge and experience with the ultimate goal of understanding – how can this be possible without the arts? Humans are not human because of their ability to make logical deductions, but to feel and express emotions. Arts education is not simply important; it is necessary, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that the arts stay in schools.

Opera and Teenagers: ENO’s new ‘Undress for Opera’ campaign

Yesterday, London’s English National Opera announced their new ‘Undress for Opera’ scheme to try and target younger audiences. Led by Terry Gilliam and Damon Albarn, ENO is trying to dispel the common myths about opera – that it’s expensive, snobby, and old-fashioned. For 25 pounds, you get a good seat, access to a synopsis and pre-show chat, as well as a post-show drink with with the cast and crew, all the while wearing whatever you want! Wow! Now, it’s not like we haven’t heard this all before – opera companies have been trying to attract younger audiences for years (as they should), and most of these are common and arguably successful methods. However, what seems to be setting this particular campaign apart is the veritable media and social media frenzy that has ensued. A number of articles have already been published, criticizing the scheme for not being respectful of the opera or democratic (Rupert Myers, in the Guardian), along with a rather more entertaining article questioning why opera companies should attract young audiences at all, since we all have “no money, and when [we] do [we] spend it all on super-strong alcohol, rolling tobacco and condoms” (I’m not even kidding – that was Bryony Gordon, who proudly proclaims that she’s never been to the opera, in the Telegraph). Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair – both articles make fair points, and it’ll be interesting to see how this works out for ENO.

The largest debate seems to be about the dress code – do we have to dress up, or is it alright to show up in jeans? The thesis of Myers’ article is that dressing up is both democratic and respectful. He argues that contrary to its ‘elite’ image, dressing up in fact democratizes the audience. Buying a blazer or cocktail dress doesn’t have to be expensive, and somehow ‘equalizes’ the audience and prevents you from being judged. And therein lies the problem – why should I be judged if I don’t show up to a performance in a suit? Myers states correctly that most opera houses don’t have a formal dress code anymore, but in many ways the fellow audience’s judgement is far stricter. There have been times where I’ve had a full day of class, rushed home to change into a dress shirt and a nice pair of dark jeans, only to have some well-dressed lady snarkily proclaim that “teenagers know nothing about opera”. Why should the audience be equalized, anyways? If opera houses are truly trying to appeal to a diverse audience, it’s wrong to force everyone to conform to one social group’s expectation of ‘proper’ dress, no matter how cheap or easy that dress code is to attain.

Myers’ second point is that audience members should dress up to show respect not only for the performers, but also to show respect for the occasion. I think it’s important that we not only show respect for the cast and crew, but as long as I don’t show up in dirty, ripped clothes, I can’t see that being seen as disrespectful. Honestly, I don’t think that Netrebko looks out into the audience every evening to see who’s wearing jeans or dress pants. I would even argue that we must dress a certain way to respect our fellow audience members – don’t go to the opera straight from the gym without showering, and conversely don’t go to the opera having bathed yourself in cologne. Yes, it’s important to be well-groomed and neat, but I take issue with Myers’ inference that because I’m not showing up in a suit and tie, I don’t care about the performance.

To be honest, I’m torn on the issue of dress codes in relation to younger audiences. Yes, many teenagers are attracted by the glamour of the event, and enjoy having an opportunity to dress up and have fun. However, that reinforces the idea of opera as an ‘event’ – a special occasion with a special set of rules. However, if we want to cultivate younger audiences as regulars, I think we need to prove that opera doesn’t HAVE to be an event. Yes, feel free to dress up, but if want to show up in a t-shirt and jeans, that’s alright as well. That way, audiences don’t see opera as a chore in any way – it’s just as easy as going to a movie.

The last word should go to Jessica Duchen, who succinctly states that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the audience wears. The primary reason why people find opera intimidating is because they’re not exposed. The most important thing for an opera house is to present an interesting, thought-provoking performance with musical integrity, and nobody will even notice what their neighbour is wearing.

Opera and Teenagers: What can opera companies do?

Every opera company wants to achieve the seemingly unattainable goal – to lower the average age of operagoers, to attract young people to the opera, to make opera hip and part of the regular arts scene. Of course, nobody gets any younger, so it makes sense to try to appeal to a younger audience who will hopefully return. Sometimes, the results can be painfully embarrassing – after all, how can a group of adults know what teenagers want, especially in today’s fast-changing society? I’ve assembled a list of 10 things opera companies can do to attract teenagers to not only attend, but regularly return to, the opera.

1. Don’t apologize for the art form. Everybody I’ve talked to who works in an opera company starts off with “Well, we know it’s an unrealistic, archaic art form, but…” or “The stories are really stupid, but…”. Most teenagers have had no prior experience with opera, and may not even know about these stereotypes. If you work in the area and even you think it’s “stupid”, who are we to argue? Besides, our idea of entertainment is Twilight or Gossip Girl – we can probably follow the plot of Trovatore and not find it stupid.

2. We’re not 6 years old. Teenagers hate being talked down to. In fact, we tend to have an inflated sense of our own knowledge. Instead of explaining that “sopranos sound like little squeaky mice when they warm up”, just tell us that they’re the highest voice type in opera. If there’s something we don’t know, we’ll ask, or more likely, nod in agreement and google it later.

3. Don’t give away the ending. I was always taught to read over the synopsis of the opera before seeing it. With the text projected above the stage, that’s no longer really necessary. It takes all the suspense out of the story if you KNOW Mimi has tuberculosis, and as a result those arias where characters are wondering if she’s going to die seem pointless.

4. Perks are always good. Whether it’s going backstage after the performance, or a free coffee, or discount tickets, anything will help. Most of the time, we’re not rolling in cash and anything, no matter how small, will make us feel special. One thing about discount tickets though – why would there be a minimum age for student tickets? Quite a few opera houses have a minimum age of 18 or 21 to join a student discount program, which really makes no sense to me. We’re students too.

5. Get rid of the elitist image. This is a tough one, because many people ARE attracted to the glamour aspect of opera. However, I think this gives the impression that opera is only for special occasions, which is simply not true. If we have that impression, we’ll come once a year at best, but if we know that we don’t necessarily have to wear a tux or gown, we’ll be a lot more comfortable going to the opera regularly. A lot of my friends ask “But don’t I have to dress up for that?” or something similar. Put it this way – you can make the opera a special occasion by dressing up if you want, but it doesn’t have to be. If I’m seeing Tristan or Troyens, there is no way I’m wearing a suit.

6. It doesn’t have to be ‘cool’. Many opera companies try to sell opera based on the fact that it’s “super hip!” and “the place where all the cool people hang out!”. I’ve seen so many posters advertising modern retellings or English translations, and that doesn’t seem to help. Half-naked singers and dramatic taglines on billboards don’t make opera seem any cooler either. We don’t go to the opera because it’s modern or attractive or cool, but because it’s so different from anything else we normally do.

7. Use the internet. Facebook and Twitter are both great resources, so use them. Make sure the Facebook page is professional and has a variety of photos, videos, and links – it should have as much information (including pricing, dates, and cast) and be as regularly updated, as the company’s regular webpage. Most of us now have Twitter, and we use it to ask questions. Please make sure that somebody knowledgeable actually reads and responds to these tweets. Yes, we could pick up the phone, but for some reason, that’s not something we ever do.

8. Create a community. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but maybe set up a meeting point within the opera house for youth, or an online forum. Nobody likes to feel like they’re the only one interested in something. If we know that there are others just like us, we’ll feel less awkward and inexperienced. If we can have a group of people to discuss our experiences with, ask questions, recommend recordings, or even talk about non-operatic things, we will be happier to return.

9. Try to avoid comparisons. A very common refrain I hear is “Oh, but you should have heard so-and-so in the role. There are no good singers performing any more.”, and while this is more common among fans than with the opera company itself, this is incredibly off-putting. We always hear that opera is dead and there are no longer any good Verdi singers and verismo is dead and…Is it really that surprising that we find opera, and its fans, rather intimidating? So Radvanovsky wasn’t as good as Milanov – great, is it my fault that I was born 50 years too late? I know that these people really have the best intentions, but it’s not at all helpful.

10. Present a good-quality performance. Really, everything depends on the performance. It doesn’t matter whether the production is updated to today, or it’s in English, or whether the soprano is in a bikini – if all the singers and musicians and dancers and backstage crew really buy into the performance and try and communicate with the audience, that’s enough. My previous 9 points may bring in a new audience, but if the performance isn’t effective, they won’t come back. The singers don’t have to be famous, and the production doesn’t have to be lavish, as long as they’re convinced in what they’re doing. Challenge, provoke, and communicate with us – and we’ll come back again and again.