Monday, 17 February 2014

Opera- Let's Debunk the Myths

by Julia Alsop

Portsmouth and other cities have live screenings of opera productions
My mum would never take us to the pub – she’d take us somewhere really boring like Sadler’s Wells or Glyndebourne.” A viewer of the TV comedy show Fresh Meat may have recognized this quotation as one uttered by Jack Whitehall’s character- the stereotypical posh boy, JP. As one fond with the operatic productions at Glyndebourne, this comment struck a chord- how has an art form with such comedy, yet also such dark drama become ‘boring’? Why is it that there are still so many massive misconceptions about opera and youth? Let me debunk the myths that popular culture throws at opera still.

1)    Opera is too expensive- it is just not accessible unless you can afford it.

Totally wrong. Opera is so much more accessible than most people think. Many opera houses and companies are going to great lengths to allow people to see opera for much cheaper.

* At Glyndebourne, there is a scheme for <30s, where if you are under 30 you can buy tickets to their summer festival operas for £30, a massive subsidy from their full cost, and other benefits. Tickets to the Glyndebourne tour performances in the Autumn can be bought for £10

* Grange Park Opera have a similar scheme called “Meteors” for £30 tickets to summer performances.

* The Welsh National Opera offers a select amount of £5 tickets to <30s, which really is an exceptional price.

* The Royal Opera House also has a student scheme offering £10 student standby tickets, along with dedicated student performances.

* The English National Opera have a student scheme called “Access All Arias” which offers many benefits again, including the opportunity to buy two tickets with free programmes for £26 overall.

* If you’re really strapped for cash, many opera houses such as Glyndebourne and ROH have live screenings of operas at local cinemas and even online.

So what was that about opera always being expensive? All of these opportunities are with some of the best singers/orchestra/conductors/directors/(insert other people involved here) in the world, so such reductions are simply a bargain.
2)    Opera is snobby and elitist.

Music for the masses
The ‘e-word’ was obviously going to come up. And, okay, you may be able to play a fairly active game of ‘spot-the-Tory-MP’ on occasion at certain opera venues, but we’ve already debunked the whole ‘opera-is-expensive’ myth, so there is no reason why we cannot see that it is becoming less elitist. Most people working in opera houses want to make it accessible for a reason – they want more people to have the experience to enjoy opera, regardless of background. I think the schemes shown in 1 just show how much more accessible and more inclusive opera is. What’s more, people choose to go into music and performance-related careers, not for the money (that’d be foolish) but for the love of their art, so you’ll find that often the performers are some of the most humble, intelligent and least elitist people.

 3)    Opera is simply too long, boring, and I probably won’t understand it anyway.

Hansel und Gretel
Operas vary massively in length; Wagner’s Ring Cycle is famed for its 15 hours-ish length (4 operas performed over 4 days) – around 4.5 hours per opera if you’re willing to brave it. However, most operas are around 3 hours in length – which is around the length of a long movie, plus you’ll probably have an interval (if it’s at somewhere like Glyndebourne, your interval time will include over an hour for a full picnic out in the beautiful grounds!), so you probably won’t lose focus or get too restless. Some of Mozart’s operas are around 1.5-2 hours and are quite light and so are by no means ‘too long’. As for understanding the opera, I do recommend that, should it be possible, you try and read the synopsis beforehand, be it online or in a programme. If you don’t, it isn’t a problem, though – if you opt for the English National Opera, every opera performed there is translated and performed in English. All Opera Houses will probably have English subtitles, regardless of language, at the top of the stage so you can follow what is happening as it happens. 

So if you want to make the dive and try the opera I’ll offer a hand on some good ‘beginner’ operas – Mozart operas are normally fairly light-hearted and amusing, and the famous Die Zauberflöte is only around 2 hours long, so may be a comfortable way of easing oneself in. Engelbert Humperdinck’s (No, not the Eurovision guy) Hansel und Gretel is based on the well-known fairytale so you may feel more comfortable following it, and the music is equally charming. If you fancy the great Italian opera then perhaps try Puccini’s Turandot, set in Beijing with a fairly brutal storyline, you’ll no doubt recognize “Nessun Dorma” as a famous aria from it. That said, if you get an opportunity to experience any operas – even ‘heavier’ ones, I suggest you give it a try. There’s nothing to lose.

See, also, Katherine Tobin's review of the ROH's production of 'Giselle' here.

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