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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Opera Is Aristocratic (And Not Just In The Obvious Ways)

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

The first part of the title is a claim I have made on this blog before.

A lot.

It’s a central part of my default analysis of wider structural weaknesses in opera, and I realise that while it is woven into quite a few blogs in passing, I do not currently have a single place to make the argument that the above-linked post (the most popular one on this site) is mainly aimed against.

So here are five ways in which opera is aristocratic at a baked-in level. In a full awareness that this blog is, more or less, a greatest hits of Leo’s ongoing rants about opera.

The economics of opera

First, let’s get a disclaimer out the way: of course #NotAllOpera. There will be exceptions to each of these individual points. But there are very few examples I can think of that are exceptions to all of them.

Opera starts out as an entertainment at the court of French kings. It’s designed to show off their enormous wealth, paying nearly a hundred people to play, sing, and make merveilleux.

Later on, aristocrats started to be able to club together and support to opera, as in Mozart’s Vienna and Prague.

By Puccini’s day, that was replaced by industrial barons, and by our own times, financiers and global corporate leaders (just look at the ROH board).

Even on the Fringe, there is a reliance on subsidy, donors, or just exploiting the good will of artists to get free labour time. It’s deeply tied to socially-powerful groups.

Fundamentally, opera is breathtakingly expensive as a form, and that’s baked-in. Why?

The artisanal means of operatic production

Pre-industrial modes of production emphasised the artisan, whose individual craft was supported by a team. Opera is filled with such artisan roles, from the director to the conductor to the singer to the composer.

The problem with artisan work in a modern economy is that it’s deeply inefficient. There is no way to make a human being learn to perform music beautifully or write a wonderful opera faster. While some tools (hiring an orchestrator and coaches) might slightly trim down the time, fundamentally opera has very little fat to trim.

Meanwhile, the world outside has discovered ways to ensure that the loaf of bread that required hours of manual labour to harvest, mill, knead, and bake is now made by, give or take, five people: one to drive the farm machinery, one to operate the mill, one to operate the bread factory [While factories require more than one person, we’re dividing the bread output by the number of employees], three people to transport the goods from A to B, and an automatic checkout.

The world moved on, and opera hasn’t. It’s why new opera often has smaller ensembles, and fringe opera tries to trim down its orchestras: while the rest of the world is able to make the same product with less labour cost, opera isn’t (artistic interpretation, i.e. humans being human, requires a set number of said humans), so it instead shrinks the size of the product.

It’s a relic of what’s gone before. And while it’s lovely to keep hundreds of skilled artisans in work, it’s also expensive, or they’ve got to be underpaid to compete with the machines.

These inefficiencies are the product of an older, aristocratic era. One might compare the number of people needed to make opera with film. Unfortunately, opera is not like film in one key respect.

The architecture of opera (via some more economics)

Opera is, more or less, a live form. While the Met and the ROH have done wonderful work turning cinema broadcasts into a regular feature of the operatic landscape, there are three flaws in their approach:

First, it tries to replicate the in-person experience, pitching itself as ‘the best seat in the house’. It isn’t the same thing as operatic film-as-film.

Second, it does not seem to realise that this means that their competition isn’t ENO and the Chicago Opera. It’s Netflix, Disney+, and anything else in the cinema and on the home screen. This will become important in the next section.

Third (as a tangent to the main thrust of this essay), it means that two of the biggest opera companies in the world are using their platform to snatch audiences away from local opera companies. Why pay £30 for your local live (inefficient) organisation if you could pay £10 for the best in the world? Or they’re even, as Paul Carey-Jones notes, just giving it away for free?

The economics don’t add up. This is partly due to content (of which more later), but also largely due to the single biggest expense (and occasionally asset) of an opera company after its staff: the venue.

The classic opera venue has aristocracy baked into it. In Mozart’s time, we know that the stalls and first tier were for the aristocracy, the second tier for lesser aristocracy, the third tier for officers in the army, and the upper tier for students and the servants of those below. Just to puncture the post-Wagner stereotype of silent, worshipping opera audiences, a reminder that people could also hire poker tables and eat dinner during the show.

There are the best seats in the house (very expensive, very visible from the other expensive seats). In a classic horseshoe arena, the boxes nearest the front are actually designed more for being seen by others than for getting a good view of the show; it’s why the royal box in royal theatres is right next to the stage, but angled slightly away from it.

At the top are the ‘gods’, a tongue-in-cheek name for the crowded seats with a terrible view of the stage which are, at least, cheaper than those below. It’s very clear where the hierarchy lies, especially when some directors very clearly do not care about sightlines from the cheap seats.

Leaving the gold and red plush to one side, operatic architecture has an aristocracy problem. Just compare a gilded horseshoe to the sweeping, sightlines-from-every-seat architecture of the Barbican and the National Theatre, built in a post-WWII democratising haze.

But even opera in fringe venues has an aristocracy problem. Because while the venue might be a bit more grungy, and a bit more accessible, its live experience has a tie to physical space.

Bums on seats are a source of income under capitalism. And unfortunately, when you have a finite number of bums, you have a limited amount of income to pay your required number of bums onstage.

As mentioned above, opera is deeply inefficient. It’s very difficult to scale up the number of bums, or the revenue acquired from said bums. This is a major difference between opera’s artisan tendencies and those of film; film can upscale the number of bums via streaming etc. (without wishing to pretend that Netflix, Disney+ and so on aren’t heavily subsidised by venture capitalists hoping for a monopoly at the present time).

But the impossibility of upscaling the number of bums ties opera further into an aristocratic financial model of subsidy and donations, rather than a capitalist one.

Since under purely capitalist logic, it’d just charge everyone about £1,000 a ticket. On the topic of capitalism:

The content of opera

Compare the content of big-budget films, TV series, and so on with opera repertoire and commissions.

What do you notice?

One is fun, one is not.

I’d never say that opera should ape films and make endless superhero operas. An opera’s creator should always ask “why are they singing?” and operatic adaptations of screen forms are often awful.

[While I write of superhero adaptations, I just want to keep the memory of the Beta Males’ Superopolis alive. Best sketch show I’ve ever seen.]

Nor is it to say that film is especially divorced from power and wealth; quite the opposite. But its wealth comes from mass appeal, even if that money is then siphoned into powerful pockets.

But I don’t think it’s too much to ask, occasionally, “how is this going to last in the current environment? Is it going to make money, or rely on subsidy? If it’s going to make money, how? Will it be popular, or expensive to attend? Who is the target audience, who we’ll sometimes prioritise above our art for art’s sake?”

I am consistently amazed at how opera houses adamantly do not commission work with an eye on commercial transfer, compared to the successes of (for example) the National Theatre’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and War Horse. Even opera’s ‘successes’ are generally limited to the world of other opera houses.

One of those is a subsidy-dependent organisation taking its obligations to the public seriously. Even though all three are family friendly shows that aren’t necessarily challenging, they are all very well-made bits of theatre that brought wonder into many lives, not least because a long commercial run meant that more people got to see them, and they kept coming because their friends said they’d had a good time.

As it is, opera programming tends towards a very limited idea of what is artistic, and what people will attend, because it decides to ignore or neglect large parts of its current and potential audience in favour of playing it safe. The form amputated its own sense that laughter was a part of humanity by letting light opera (the child of buffa) branch off into musical theatre, and then disowning that half of its own self after WWII.

Within the operatic canon, its subjects often betray its ties to power: before about 1900, these are stories of powerful people whose choices shape history. From 1900, we do see more of the bourgeoisie (the plotlines following the revenue streams, as well as vice-versa), and even the occasional member of the working class.

However, the basic model rarely changes; in contrast to theatre, literature, and other high art forms, the ever-expensive opera rarely criticises its current society as harshly as the (30 year old) works it is adapting.

Le Nozze di Figaro shaves off the radicalism, La Boheme tidies up Rodolfo’s treatment of Mimi, the allegedly-revolutionary Nabucco was only rebranded as such after unification made it a useful selling point.

The omnipresence of the idea that “the lives of powerful people are interesting and important; individuals without power are simply struggling; it is not a societal problem” betrays something about opera’s mindset [Brecht and Weill I’ll note as an exception].

Within new work, there is a sense that opera should be serious and artistic to be legitimate.

Even the majority of self-defined ‘comic’ operas I have seen have betrayed their true feelings in music rooted in the art music tradition (much of it rooted in a post-WWII school focused on art music as a form for specialists to appreciate), causing audiences to respond accordingly by sitting in appreciative silence, rather than the lively, reactive joy of listening to popular, friendly music.

[A quick aside: community opera, although often justified as a form of missionary work, is often the exception to all of the above, being joyful, experimental, and meeting a need. It is unfortunate that it is often defined by top-down subsidy and leadership priorities, rather than community-led goals, but I’d not want to falsely assert that that defines all community opera. I largely exclude it here because it either does not interact with the economics of the opera industry, being entirely voluntary, or it does so as a side-branch of that industry attempting to justify subsidy.]

The idea that opera is a ‘good-for-you’ form, to be eaten piously like vegetables, rather than joyously like cake, is one that is rather tied to its sense that it doesn’t have to appeal to people, because it has subsidy and donations to rely on. The people can be taught to change; opera doesn’t have to.

We can make work that is holy, but not tiresome. I’m not even saying it has to be radical. Just… fun for someone not in a cult of “if I chuckled once every ten minutes, it must be a comedy.”

After all, for an episode of an average TV comedy, that’d mean I laughed twice; a humourless failure!

The hierarchy of operatic production

Finally, there is a terrible amount of hierarchy in the operatic rehearsal room.

While some parts of the process have adapted to capitalism, especially the terrible economics of auditions and negotiating when supply so exceeds demand, and also at every stage of the training and application process for singers, as documented in the Middle Class Artist blog, the fundamental structure is top-down.

I go into this in more detail here, but I think the core point stands. The audience reverently watch the singer, who obeys the conductor and director, who serve the (usually dead) composer’s every dot, itself commissioned by someone(s) with much more money and power and often chosen by a team of people with a great deal of money to make donations.

Even in new music, the audience->singer->production team->composer hierarchy stands.

That’s not a modern hierarchy of power. That’s an almost feudal pyramid of authority, and one that very much fits into an artisan model of creation from those feudal times.

What did feudalism use to justify itself? Yes, divine right, but also a mutual obligation that the aristocracy offered defence and protection. We cannot pretend we live in such a society now.

Under capitalism, the powerful justify their existence by both social safety nets, and by our giving money and data to them in exchange for services there is demand for. That is how our current society generally ensures responsibility to one another, and opera is currently ill-equipped for it.

Let alone an imagined radical future.


The form is old.

Doesn’t mean we have to follow it.

Tomorrow: some notes on possible solutions.

A person in a red turban-like crown looks outward. Another person nearby looks at them.
King Duncan is unlikely to have seen any opera, but it's the most aristocratic shot I have.



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