Is opera still relevant to society today?

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Classical Piano By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Piano » Classical Piano
Last updated: 24/03/2015
Tags: classical music, cultural studies, music, opera, theatre

Examine the current popular perceptions of opera. Can opera continue to be relevant to contemporary society?

‘The word ‘opera’ itself...harbours too many built-in prejudices and begs too many questions’  Orrey (1987, p.7) 

Preconceptions and prejudices of opera prevent people from attending them – a tragic fact given the many vibrant stories within the canon which audiences would surely be able to relate to.  In actual fact, opera is beginning to change, with new companies such as OperaUpClose ignoring irrelevant or outdated conventions and creating new versions of works which are truly appreciated by contemporary audiences. In this essay I will study the current perceptions of opera and how opera is currently being staged, with close reference to the following productions: Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House (2011), La Boheme at the Soho Theatre (2011), Pagliacci at the Kings Head Theatre (2011).

The 2011 Olivier award for ‘Best New Opera’ went to a production of La Boheme at the Soho Theatre by OperaUpClose, a fringe opera company who typically  set their productions not at grand opera houses but on small stages and at bars, in London theatres and pubs away from the West End. The production was against nominees from the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera, and its enduring popularity (shows have sold out throughout 2010 and 2011) as well as critical acclaim suggest a shift in the opera world and a changing of attitudes towards opera.

In an informal survey of a group of 19-24 year olds who visit the theatre regularly, words such as ‘traditional’ ‘glamorous’ ‘extravagant’ and ‘elite’ were used to describe their immediate thoughts on opera. Size was mentioned, and there was a distinct emphasis on the audience, who were thought to be upper class, older, well-educated and well-dressed. It is obvious from this brief questioning that there are strong preconceptions of what opera is.

The 2010 survey for the Society of London Theatre by Ipsos MORI states that:

  • The average age of a theatregoer attending an opera performance is 56, with 61% of those attending aged 55 and over (p.14)
  • Opera and plays are the genres that attract the highest earners with the average income of a member of these audiences earning £38,800 and £38,000 respectively (p.20)
  • Those attending an opera performance have made on average 14 visits in the past twelve months. This is perhaps explained by the type of theatregoer who attends this type of performance (older, higher income, etc). (p.44)

 

This confirms the general assumption of opera-goers being older and more affluent, and it is interesting to note that those who do attend the opera do so frequently.

The genre of opera is intrinsically wrapped up in the opera house, its traditional venue of performance. Historically, opera is directly connected to the upper classes as they were commissioned by the courts. Orrey (1987, p.67) writes of the 18th Century opera style,

The setting was in reality the entire theatre; emperor, prince, king of duke, with their courtiers, apparelled as richly as the actors on stage, were an essential part of the show.

This shows how opera’s audience were an intrinsic part of the performance, and idea which has continued into today. The influence of the nobility affected an opera’s subject matter, performance style, and even success. But beyond this, the opera house was a social meeting place for the elite, a place to be seen. This links to the architecture of the opera house, where much of the audience would have a restricted view of the stage itself. Audiences would gossip amongst themselves stopping only to pay attention at their favourite scenes. So from the outset there appears to be a focus on the idea of going to the opera house as a social event rather than for the performance itself. Opera has given cause to some of the most beautiful music every composed, but that the opportunity for music appreciation is limited according to societal roles and classes is clear.

The stereotypes of what opera should be scenographically also seem very strong, as evidenced in my informal survey. Brooke (1968, p.13), writing as far back as the 1960s about preconceptions of what theatre is, writes:

'I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged. Yet when we talk about theatre this is not quite what we mean. Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness...'

This I feel summarises perfectly the attitude towards opera even now, forty years later: that it is traditional, and that the staging is generally the same. He continues (p.20),

'...the traditional bits of business that made Verdi laugh or Puccini slap his thighs seem neither funny nor illuminating today....Everything in opera must change, but in opera change is blocked.'

In actual fact, opera is responding to current scenographic movements, with many operas using edgy sets with undeniable contemporary appeal; including imaginative and creative costumes; exploiting the use of projections (such as ENO’s 2011 production of Lucrezia Borgia, directed by a film director); and re-writing librettos with contemporary references  – a far cry from the archaic two-dimensional painted flats and gilded decor one might imagine. 

The thought of the size and scale of traditional opera productions is always huge: from the cast and chorus, scenery and costumes, orchestra, audience, and venue. I believe that this grandeur is what contributes to the feel of formality also associated with opera. The scale may indeed work scenographically and conceptually – amongst the entrants of the 2011 exhibition of the Society of British Theatre Designers, designs for opera were undoubtedly some of the most lavish, beautiful and creative entrants there. However though this lavishness seems to be part of opera’s appeal, it is also very much what puts people off, and contributes to the common opinion that opera is only for the elite: only 4% of those surveyed for the Society of London Theatre viewed opera (Ipsos MORI, 2010, p.26).

Despite opera stage design being more innovative than the common assumption, the way in which operas are actually staged is on the whole the same: in an opera house or theatre with a proscenium arch, the audience sitting in front of a large stage with the orchestra in front. This is the same way as it was when the music itself was written – often one or two hundred years ago.

The argument for continuing to use the same venue (the opera house) is often that a large stage space is needed in order to accommodate all the singers and musicians, and do justice to the story. Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer of the recent controversial opera Anna Nicole, says in Opera’s Fallen Women (2011, 3.58)

There are things that happen in Anna Nicole’s life that are so dramatic that cry out, I think, for a grand opera, in a sense: big gestures and a big orchestra. It can’t be confined by a little pit band and singers who sing in a musical style. I mean, her son dying next to her when she’s just given birth to her daughter; that’s really shocking, and it’s terrible because it happened in real life, but it’s something that I feel opera deals with very effectively: these grand and big emotions.

I disagree with Turnage’s thoughts regarding ‘grand and big emotions’ being ‘confined’ by smaller venues. In a setting such as the Royal Opera House, audience members are very far away from the stage and singers are thus very small. It is impossible to really see the singers’ facial expressions and any subtle gestures are lost, purely due to the distance. Anna Nicole Smith’s life was not ordinary, and indeed the set design only heightened this sense of imbalance and distortion. Perhaps for many audience members, the scenes of wild parties and reckless nights are a far cry from their normal existence. If we are to consider characters in opera as out-of-the-norm, then the sense of distance forced upon us by the use of a traditional opera house as a venue is totally appropriate. However I do not think that this is the case. Anna Nicole was produced to give us a different take on the life of the protagonist – a glamour model turned public figure famous for her wild parties and drug addiction. It portrays her as a victim of her society, pointing out the dark side of the American Dream and the greedy voyeurism of our celebrity-obsessed culture. We are taken through her life, and shown her roots as a small-town girl working in a fast food restaurant. We are surely meant to empathise with her life, the story of which, though humorous at times, is nothing but a tragedy.

With such a grand spectacle, the physical distance of the stage from the audience in the opera house can distance us from the players mentally. It might be difficult to connect with the message when in fact the elements in the story itself are human emotions: ones that many people may have experienced. It is easy to put opera’s protagonists on a pedestal, glorifying them as characters in a story rather than seeing them as people, and avoiding the messages that the piece tells. Antonio Pappano says in Opera’s fallen women (2011, 0.56) ‘...in opera we embrace these women [who are shunned by society]...we are inextricably drawn to these characters.’ I feel that staging an opera in a smaller venue where the audience are closer to the singers would only enhance this.

OperaUpClose are a fringe opera company who put on productions in small venues, often in rooms at the back of pubs. Since October 2010, they have converted the King’s Head theatre pub in Islington, North London, to being “London’s Little Opera House”.

The productions offered are stripped down and bare in more than one way: simple costumes, functional sets, tiny groups of musicians, and a small chorus only occasionally present. Additionally, the company uses many staging methods borrowed from drama which directly engage the audience: sometimes communicating with an individual audience member or taking the audience as a whole to different locations around the venue, almost in promenade style.

Aronson (2005, p.73) writes,

'As theatre loses its place of cultural centrality in modern societies – at least those of the industrialised world – and with that its audiences and financial support, theatrical producers try ever harder to make this ancient art form relevant and popular....But while commercial mainstream theatre may be in the midst of a modern era of spectacle, there is scant evidence that it is contributing in any tangible way to the development of the drama.'

OperaUpClose prove indeed that the ‘spectacle’ isn’t necessarily needed to create a production whereby an audience can truly connect with the drama. In many ways they are old-fashioned in the simplicity of their staging methods, taking the use of space and narrative to engage the audience, rather than grand digital projections or extremely lavish sets. Though this style of drama has been prevalent in theatre since the 1960s, in the genre of opera it seems innovative. In their version of Pagliacci (2011), the performance starts with a couple in the audience arguing. As they grow progressively louder, audience members begin to become irritated – but as their argument breaks into song it transpires that they are chorus members acting the part of an audience waiting to see the show. This simple idea is extremely effective in engaging the audience with the drama, and is one of the most humorous parts in the show. OperaUpClose’s use of these staging methods may not always contribute to the ‘development of the drama’ but they engage audiences and make the show more interesting and relevant. Humour is almost always involved, and it is extremely effective.

Many of opera’s plots may reference situations and character types which are foreign to a modern audience. For instance, many 18th Century operas were written to flatter the current ruler, or to stress their ideals (Orrey, 1987, p.67), and so elements of their plots could seem archaic and irrelevant if staged today. OperaUpClose re-write the libretti, updating them to be more relatable in the dialogue or characters’ behaviour, and adapting settings to be relevant to their audiences. Their version of La Boheme (2011) at the Soho Theatre transcribed the dying Mimi into a cleaner from Ukraine, set the garret in Soho, and gave the four men roles, attitudes and indeed job descriptions which again directly corresponded to those of today.

The survey 2010 conducted by Ipsos MORI (p.8) confirms that

  • The perception that visiting the theatre is expensive is the key reason which puts theatregoers off visiting the theatre more often, followed by not having enough time.

 

OperaUpClose’s productions generally last around an hour and a half – unlike the three-hour long productions at the Royal Opera House. Ticket prices are also far more affordable, costing £15 to sit on the front row at the King’s Head Theatre. The privilege would cost £178.70 at the Royal Opera House. They have made going to see one of their operas convenient for their audience members: an informal venue, affordable, enjoyable and desirable to go to see. Some of their shows start as late as 10pm, which would be suitable for audience members who finish work late. Overall the company produce opera suited for a modern lifestyle, practically and conceptually. I truly believe that they will introduce opera to many who would simply never have considered going before, let alone enjoying. In many ways, they are also taking the genre of opera forwards, stopping it from being rooted in the past.

Audience responses have been extremely positive: at performances of La Boheme and Pagliacci I attended, all audience members I spoke to expressed enjoyment and pleasure; were very receptive to the staging of the operas, and overall there was an appreciative and positive atmosphere. Critical responses have been similarly encouraging, The Guardian writing of La Boheme at the  Cock Tavern Theatre ‘there's no avoiding the visceral impact of Puccini's emotion-laden score in this intimate space’  (Hall, 2010) – confirming the idea of the company making opera emotionally relatable in a small venue – and the same production at the Soho Theatre winning the 2011 Olivier award for Best New Opera Production.

The appearance of OperaUpClose, and their popularity and success, could have much to do with the current economic climate. Their timing of their appearance is very fortunate: with the economic downturn many people are looking for escapism. Their shows offer a brilliant and enjoyable evening, and the frugality of their stage designs may resonate more with audiences today than the glamour of the Royal Opera House.

To conclude, although there are still many operas being staged in a traditional manner, companies are responding to current trends in stage design. Moreover, with the appearance of companies such as OperaUpClose, it is clear that the experience of opera is changing, and audiences are responding to this very positively.  Removing the barrier of the opera house and the high price, as well as re-writing the operas’ libretti to relate to contemporary audiences, prevents it from becoming an antiquated form, and opens up the genre to many more people who may not have expected to enjoy it. Gammond (1980, p.6) writes

'[opera’s] music reflects the fashions and tastes of its audiences throughout its history perhaps more clearly than any other musical activity, for opera, by its nature, was always written for public appreciation and acclaim.' 

This reinforces the concept of much in opera being irrelevant to audiences out of the original production’s own time, and indeed the importance of making opera relevant to contemporary audiences. Opera may still be being staged for public acclaim - hence the current popularity of OperaUpClose – and new operas are being written which resonate with themes in contemporary society. Opera can be staged very successfully in smaller venues – perhaps more so than in larger ones. If opera as a genre is to survive it is important that it keeps changing, rather than keeping to the traditional set ways. This has clearly started recently, and it will be very interesting to observe how it continues to develop.

Bibliography

Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House. (2011). UK. BBC4. 25 March. [Television].

Aronson, A. (2005). Looking into the abyss. Essays on scenography. USA: University of Michigan Press.

Brook, P. (1968). The Empty Space. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Dido and Aeneas from the Royal Opera House. (2009). UK. BBC4. 15 May. [Television].

Donizetti, G. (2010). Directed by Jonathon Miller. ENO, London Coliseum. [5 March 2010].

Gammond, P. (1980). An illustrated guide to composers of opera. London: Salamander Books Ltd.

Hall, G. (2010). Opera review. La Boheme. Cock Tavern. The Guardian. 8 January. P.36.

Ipsos MORI. (2010). The West End theatre audience. A research study for the Society of London Theatre by Ipsos MORI. London: Society of London Theatre.

Jones, R. (1941). The Dramatic Imagination: reflections and speculations on the art of the theatre. New York: Routledge.

Leoncavallo, R. (2011). Pagliacci. Directed by Anna Gregory. OperaUpClose. The King’s Head Theatre, London. [13 March 2011]

McRobbie, A. (1999). In the culture society. Art, fashion and popular music. London: Routledge.

OperaUpClose. (n.d.) Opera Up Close. [Online]. Available from: http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/operaupclose.html [Accessed 20 April 2011]

Picard, A. (2009). La Bohème, Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn, London
Jansons / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Barbican, London.
The Independent. 20 December. P.57

Puccini, G. (2010). La Boheme. Directed by Robin Norton-Hale. OperaUpClose. Soho Theatre, London. [23 January 2011]

Opera’s fallen women. (2011). UK. BBC4. 25 March. [Television]

Orrey, L. and Milnes, R. (1987). Opera: a concise history. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson.

Woods, T. (1999). Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.





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