Opera: a night out for the masses

So you’re thinking about going to the opera? You’ve got your several-hundred pound tickets, your dinner jacket, bow tie, cape, patent leather shoes, top hat and cane then? Not to mention 50p for the little red binoculars. Seems like a lot of money and effort, so why bother? Who wants to sit through four hours of dull music in a stuffy room full of pretentious rich snobs anyway? Better to just stay home and watch The West Wing on DVD. Again.

But you should bother. Operas are some of the most exciting, passionate and dramatic stage works, even artworks, ever created. From the soul-tortured wailing of Monteverdi’s Orfeo as he searches in Hades for his beloved Euridice, to the debauched imaginings of a crazed widower in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, opera has it all. Whatever non-musical drama can do, musical drama can do better, with more intense emotions, more fabulous staging and more dramatic plotlines. If you want a great story told through an incredible medium, forget TV, forget novels, forget the cinema, and go to the opera.
“But wait!” I hear you cry, “Isn’t going to the opera prohibitively expensive? And anyway, it’s in a foreign language – I won’t understand a word of it!”

Going to the opera can be expensive, there’s no denying it. With tickets to the Royal Opera house in Covent Garden costing up to £780 each, and the waiting list for tickets to the Bayreuth opera festival in Germany as long as nine years, it might seem that going to the opera is pretty much impossible. But, with the cheapest seats at the Royal Opera house going for as little as a fiver, and with many touring opera companies (such as the Royal Welsh Opera) offering much cheaper prices than the big London shows for just as good a production and performance, cost should be no barrier to most of us.

As for understanding the opera, that’s easy! Firstly, almost all productions of non-English-language operas in the UK use surtitles so that the audience can easily understand what the singers are singing. Secondly, the whole point of opera is that the music carries so much emotional weight; in a great opera you can hear the emotions of the characters and the trajectory of the plot without understanding a single word.

“That sounds fine,” you say, “but will I really be interested in the story that the opera tells? Aren’t they all kind of old fashioned?”
No! There is just as much variety in opera as there is in any other medium – film, literature, drama, anything. The latest opera to premiere at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is Anna Nicole, the story of a young Playboy model and an octogenarian billionaire; what could be more modern than that?

Opera in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has struggled to shake off its elitist image. Yet the operas of Mozart and Handel were the popular entertainment of their day, freely enjoyed by the masses. In the 1920s and 30s, Bertolt Brecht (playwright) and Kurt Weill (composer), working in Germany, endeavoured to spread opera as an art form of the people, writing shorter operas to be performed in pubs and taverns, with none of the paraphernalia of the opera house. And they were successful – their most popular song, Mack the Knife (from The Threepenny Opera), is well known today and has been covered by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, The Doors, Nick Cave and Robbie Williams.

The “re-popularisation” of opera is occurring here in Oxford. Recently, I was involved in an outreach program in which student composers, singers and instrumentalists from Oxford’s Faculty of Music worked with a professional director, vocal coach and technical team from Garsington Opera (a well established professional opera company) to create an entirely new opera for primary school children.

The programme began with going to local primary schools to do opera workshops and to work with the children to devise the plot, text and music of the piece. Then there were more workshops in first week of this term. When the opera was performed it went down a storm – children, students and professionals all loving every minute of the process.
Opera is for everyone. It’s not that expensive, and it’s not difficult to access. If you want to see the greatest story ever told, go to the opera. Oh, and by the way, it’s probably still worth taking 50p for the little red binoculars.