When one hears the word Opera the mind can immediately jump to images of men in jet black tuxedos and women in ball gowns that cost a small fortune, sipping champagne and talking in upper classes voices about upper class matters with other upper class people. In a nutshell when one mentions Opera, one mentions snobbery.
Opera, as we know it today, seems to be defined by its audience; a “superior” entertainment for the cultural and economic elite. In contrast to its older and well known brother The Theatre and its younger, flamboyant brother The Musical; the Opera is the selective sibling- the one who chooses his friends based on background, upbringing and social status. At least, this is a common misconception of Opera. True, the very first performance of what we would deem Opera – Jacopo Peri’s Dafne in 1598 – was performed for only the very elite of Italy but in the hundreds of years since this performance there has been a deliberate change within the art form to open up its magic to a much wider audience than simply those born into power and wealth.
Around the start of the 18th century, changes were made in opera to create a new genre – the Opera buffa. This style of opera differed from its predecessor the Opera seria by shifting its focus from serious content of ancient heroes and their tales of endurance to comedic situations with stock characters. Opera buffa was created to appeal to the everyday man and the language altered itself from eloquent poetry to local dialect to make it more comprehensible to its new audience. The creation of this new genre was a direct attempt to bring Opera to the working classes. Those involved knew the secret to attracting a wider range of audience members; the secret was to enhance understanding. For with understanding came interest and with interest came attendance.
But this understanding appears to have been lost on modern society. Although many young people would choose to go and see a show such as Wicked on an evening out in Central London, few would choose the Opera. Given the fact that the average ticket price for a West End Musical and a performance at the Royal Opera House are around the same amount it is not economic factors that are discouraging audience members.
The problem lies within the common belief that Opera is for the upper classes alone and can offer nothing to those who are not familiar with it other than an outdated tale three hours long, more often than not in a foreign tongue. The stigma of snobbery remains firmly attached to Opera. Attempts are being made to change this perception however. Opera has recently branched out into online viewing with productions such as La Traviata and Le Nozze de Figaro available to watch online at websites such as DigitalTheatre.com. Opera is trying to shift its image of being privately selective to being open to all and this presumably can only bring positive effects. Opera really is for all to enjoy. Students, lawyers, dentists, builders and hairdressers alike can all enjoy a heart wrenching performance of ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ by a strikingly emotive soprano on stage. After all, we all have a capacity to be moved by music and this is exactly the purpose of opera; to relay a tale through music and to have the audience engage with the emotion purely through what they see on stage. The ability to enjoy opera lies within our basic human instincts; to listen, to see and to feel. No one can say these abilities lie solely in the upper classes.
Once Opera loses the stigma of snobbery maybe we will see a wider variety of audience members attending productions such as La bohème. After all, once the lights are dimmed a spectator is just a spectator with no class boundaries to intervene.
- Painting by Ricard Urgell (1874 – 1924) -