La Travesty: Opera in the Modern Age
Addressing the Assailed Art of Opera
If you've never been to an opera, I wouldn't be surprised…I myself have only been to two, both within the past year. High-brow? Well-to-do? All but a few phrases which might come to mind. Opera has long been perched on a pedestal far beyond the common play or musical but its relevance and financial viability in this volatile climate has been thrust into the pit. The English National Opera lies at the forefront of this issue following Arts Council England’s recent 9% cut to its funding (£11.46m) after negotiating from a previous 11% (£20.8m). Dubbed an “absolute travesty”, can the moans and groans of Puccini’s Mimi mirror the cries of a population drained with the stress of getting by? I suspect not but let's not let this art form die, however operatic and on-brand it may be.
To the unforgiving reader, opera is laughable but to the cultured, it is beautiful. Perhaps both sides will never see eye to eye but I will do my best in refereeing this tug of war. Operas are embedded in the past, the greats: Mozart, Puccini, Verdi are all long dead and buried, the stories are set within the 18th and 19th centuries. Admittedly it can be hard to find interest in some Italian aristocrat classically caterwauling over her dead lover who was killed by her husband who her brother kills and whose cousin…where was I? Indeed, the characters may sometimes be dressed like your granny on her way to a funeral and make you wish you’d just stuck to watching Downton Abbey, which you’ll pick up no bother. Opera, however, has more depth than that, it is often sung in a different language and in a style that arguably only a small percentage of people can achieve. Like any other drama, it transports you but in a way that is beautifully and uniquely experienced.
Being able to understand a different language is one thing, understanding it operatically sung is another. You probably won’t understand Don Giovanni without having to look up and down at the surtitles (which are commonly provided) to find that he is a villain and not just a man with a face like a slapped ar-...But isn't that what's unique? Translation can admittedly steamroll over the language’s beauty but nevertheless to hear a piece that was performed in the same style 300 years ago, seems pretty special to me, whether or not you are fluent.
I’ll admit, they are long…incredibly long. When I saw the Scottish Opera production of Don Giovanni, I felt like shouting “You've said that already” amidst the countless “I love you”, “I love you” in Italian. While it's certainly beautiful, that does not mean it can be quite a tiring and lofty watch, after all they are just continually singing with often little movement or action. But communicating emotion through such refined and rousing vocals is undoubtedly a venerable skill.
Operas do tend to be seen with the previously mentioned period drama lens which prevents it from reaching a wider audience, though the stricken ENO prides itself in interpretation, producing operas which are sung in English and aim to seek beyond the middle-class stalemate. The company has gained an esteemed reputation over the years at The London Coliseum, an ornate chocolate box of a venue, though its centralised location and ticket prices have proved a detriment over the years. ENO has struggled to fill seats, now implementing a scheme for under 21’s to go free - useful in bringing opera to students like you and me to the theatre, futile if the same attitudes are held against going to the opera.
Stuck being deemed too posh and expensive lies at the core of why it seems to be under siege. Opera is characterised by donning your finest attire to sit for three hours which seems a tad other-wordly and out of touch with a society becoming more progressive and continually modernising. I’m afraid this still remains though companies like ENO seem to have a less strict dress code. There is no denying that opera audiences do tend to be smeared with grey hairs, after all older generations were besotted with the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti who brought the genre to households with his colourful personality and sumptuous rich voice. We still see this in the likes of Andrea Bocelli whose voice transcends any sort of resistance to ‘boring-old opera’ as some might see it. But is a couple of famous tenors enough?
Diminishing this age-old genre is an undoubted threat to the arts that cannot be left to simmer. While I would still consider myself a novice, Opera has provided relaxation and solace while studying. Amidst efforts, one cannot ignore that in a society filled with financial instability, can we throw money away to half empty productions of Mozart and Verdi? I’m sure this will be a question plaguing many in the arts but what is true is that opera remains a unique piece of art, and I think if we were to throw that away, culturally we would bleaken.
Illustration: Calum Mayor