Three Brief Further Thoughts On Opera Outreach
I am 90% sure I’ve said some of this before, but I hope it bears repeating.
The UK opera sector mostly agrees that it wants more diverse audiences. Audiences of the traditional, heteronormative white middle/upper class are increasingly seen as a problem of principle (we want to represent society) and economics (so that more people give us money or consent to the government doing so).
There are three thoughts I have found myself having while reading various bits of operatic discourse recently, and thought I’d try to summarise them.
Opera For All (But Not The Real Ones)
Most large opera companies in the UK have some form of community outreach.
The goal is usually stated as a desire to give people access to and a sense of ownership of the form. It often also includes the idea that it is a valuable chance for personal development, such as building confidence or musical ability.
Especially for some of the Romantic repertoire, it’s written to be singable at home due to contemporary commercial models.
It gives the slight impression that either there is a belief that these supposedly immortal great works are not in fact universal, or that the masses deserve opera, but only the mediated, diluted version offered.
Opera As Evangelism
I am bored of people who write about new work, in particular, though certain operas, in general, as a tool to convert people who say they don’t like opera.
First, it is a legitimate personal preference to not like opera.
Second, it’s a rather distastefully evangelising tone. It holds that opera is some supreme good that people must be converted to, rather than something that one might like, or learn to savour.
Finally, much of that work is good in its own right.
And to quote myself previously when discussing Come Bargain With Uncanny Things:
“We’re not trying to make a nice piece of evangelism.
“We are reaching new audiences.
“But they’re my audiences.
“If you want them, you’re going to have to follow me, rather than hoping we’ll try and convert someone who’s excited by the idea of living in the music, trying to make their imagined world better, to worshipping in the unwholesome tomb of opera for a long-dead king.”
Opera As Dated
I agree, obviously, with those who object to an opera sector that is overly focused on the canon.
For a form to remain alive, it must keep a living body of repertoire in all but the most conservative of societies.
Equally, I have heard a soft but growing set of calls that vast chunks of the canon must be disbanded because they are about things we would not write today. For example, the many operas about women dying and being mistreated.
I would agree that presenting them as beautiful museum pieces raises questions. However, I would also want to defend them a little.
In their original context, many of them are mildly radical. Many are part of a programme of work that took centuries that sought to place commoners’ stories, women’s stories, and other such tales on the same level as tales of gods and kings.
There is a degree of voyeurism in some, to be sure.
Many of them express sympathy for their subjects in ways that we find patronising, distasteful, or rooted in an outdated moral framework.
But there are few that are in favour of the unpleasant things depicted. They merely come from a world where such things happen, and therefore they seek to both understand why they happen, and make their audiences sympathise with their subjects.
If these were not real things in the world, they would seem absurd. It is why there are many operas about kings having feelings, but few about kings starving.
We live in a world that still has domestic violence, inequality, and other problems.
We have seen that productions that understand the radicalism of their texts, and show a willingness to reinvent them in the way that Shakespearean companies reinvent, cut, and modify their texts, have been able to make these works feel fresh.
There are other ways to make works feel fresh too, but my partial disagreement is rooted here.
We can keep the canon alive, despite its age, if we remember what it is.