Opera and Elitism

I was recently referred to this very interesting post on the personal blog of many-named leftist musicologist J. P. E. Harper-Scott, discussing the allegations of ‘elitism’ in opera as compared to other cultural pastimes. Harper-Scott’s argument is a response to a dialogue, published in the Guardian, between Proms director Roger Wright and rock critic Laura Barton. He takes issue with the oft-cited, rarely-interrogated ‘expensiveness’ of opera, which Barton mentions with reference to ‘the lack of democracy’ in classical music, and which Harper-Scott sees as ‘a kind of totemic measure of “elitism”. He contests the claim via a comparison with the cost of Premier League football match tickets – rarely condemned as an elitist pastime – and follows up with a brief Marxist critique of pop music and football as commodities. The points he makes are important, but his deconstruction of the supposed economic aspects behind opera’s elitism, for me, only helps clarify how profound and various the expressions of elitism actually are within opera, even when this most obvious consideration is removed.

The original Guardian article is an all-too-familiar one, with representatives from the two ‘opposing’ musical traditions being overly diplomatic in their irresolvable exchange. Roger Wright mentions ‘great hip-hop’ and film music, Laura Barton admits that she listens to Radio 3. The general tone is, as ever, one of the everywoman rock pleb apologising for not understanding the inscrutable, autonomous classical tradition, and ends with Wright suggesting that she reads ‘the Penguin Guide to Classical Music’. In truth, Wright doesn’t actually answer any of her criticisms. He claims that ‘you can’t amplify classical music’. Barton fails to question any of his weak examples; to his claim that ‘you can’t criticise classical music simply because of the attitudes of some of the audience members’, I just wish she’d come back with the reasonable riposte that, ‘perhaps not, but you can surely criticise classical music because of the attitudes of its institutions, producers, performers and representatives’. The comments pages are full of class rage and off-the-cuff essentialism, which – as ever – totally undermines the weak suggestion from both writers (laughing together in the photograph) that any perceived dogmatism from either side must certainly have been exaggerated.

Opera vs. Commodification

Harper-Scott focuses on the ‘how much it costs to go to the opera’ issue. He argues that it is more pressing to criticise structures of economic exploitation than cultural exploitation; that, while opera may embody elitist systems (although he doesn’t admit that it does), it is the systems of capitalist production and the oppressive control exercised by consumer culture which has the far greater immediate impact on the working classes. In his view, pop music and football are more instrumental in these systems than opera is.

His arguments are valid, and it is indeed more pressing for cultural critics in general to interrogate the powerful international industries of pop music and professional sport than the increasingly obscure, culturally impotent domain of opera. So when he complains that there is more widespread media condemnation of the ‘elitism’ of opera than there is of exploitation in other cultural domains, he has a point. But it surely isn’t surprising, because the mainstream media (including the Guardian) is pro-capitalist, along with the hegemonic discourse of the entire English-speaking world. Neoliberalism – as an ideology – means the freedom for all to consume whatever they want, whenever they want it, and elitism in cultural consumption is anathema to this principle. Meanwhile, even Comment is Free is unlikely to be publishing an anti-capitalist critique of the pop music industry any time soon.

[And of course, in practicality, the marketing of something called ‘cultural prestige’, accessible to anyone with the requisite ‘aspirations’, remains an important tool to sell certain products, opera included. This is another argument, but one that doesn’t invalidate calls to deflate opera’s elitist reputation. Everything in our society is vulnerable to commodification, and we have long since learned that anything can be sold to some demographic. Just as we can’t confuse branding for truth, we also can’t risk ignoring the social prejudices and anxieties upon which brands are constructed. This is especially true for brands, like opera, that claim a genuine historical authenticity.]

Opera vs. Reality

Where contemporary western culture, and anti-capitalism, are concerned, Harper-Scott’s arguments hold true. But where opera is concerned, a few comparisons of ticket prices with extortionate football matches can hardly clear all charges of elitism and, as Barton fairly puts it, a lack of democracy. Opera shouldn’t be at the top of the list of pressing concerns for committed anti-capitalists, but for those of us (like Harper-Scott) who specialise in the art form, we cannot spare it from critique. Opera, as an art form, has a well-earned reputation for giving cultural validation to the economically ‘elite’. It can be seen, by those in the ROH stalls as much as those in the street, as an erudite expression of pure humanist beauty – a validation of our capacity, through ‘good taste’ as well as emotional empathy and integrity, to feel authentically. This confirms to people their own humanity (through personal engagement with a fiction and an aestheticised construction in organised sound), excusing any actual exploitation that they may inflict upon the messy, unbeautiful (real) outside world.

Unsustainable Opera

Much of this, I believe, is the product of what is perceived to be opera’s ‘grand’ scale. For Harper-Scott, who is a specialist in Wagner and Strauss, it is a simple fact that an operatic production involves hundreds of people, very often with a large orchestra and substantial chorus, and therefore constitutes high labour costs, as well as requiring a huge performance space with (necessarily?) a hierarchy of varying seating types. In order to produce such works, some tickets must be priced very highly (especially if, elsewhere in the hall, a number of tickets can be set a discounted ‘accessible’ price), and these premium tickets will go to those punters with the requisite expendable income.

However, this ‘operatic’ scale isn’t an essential aspect of the genre – the combination of theatre, words and music in a through-composed dramatic work – but a hangover from  opera as it was produced centuries ago, within societies that had clearer class stratifications, a large aristocracy and a considerably different concept of ‘democracy’ both in and outside of the cultural sphere. The huge scale and spectacular aesthetics of the typical opera of the 18th and 19th Centuries was intrinsic to its position at the centre of the cultural lives of the aristocracy and, increasingly, the bourgeoisie. While operatic genres went in and out of fashion, the art form retained the support of wealthy patrons and the royal courts of Europe, and has been embraced by enterprising industrialists eager to prove their refined tastes, through to today’s corporate associates who sponsor  boxes in order to prove their brand prestige.

Opera or Ethics

The level of direct association with the ruling classes – capitalist, monarch or aristocrat – is incomparable in any other artistic tradition. And this is partly because, as long as it needs hundreds of performers and ridiculous stage machinery, it has to stay in these opulent performance venues and rely on the support of wealthy patrons. In this way, to consider opera as inherently large-scale and grand is to accept that it is an expensive art form for the rich. To consider, as a core repertoire, works written under conditions of endemic class division, sponsored and celebrated by the ruling class, and to perform them ‘authentically’ (i.e. ‘as they’re supposed to be’), we have no choice but to reproduce the original conditions of their performance. If opera must always be grand opera, and must – as far as possible – avoid the mediation of new technologies, then it will always require considerable patronage from the ruling classes (above and beyond any subsidies from the state). Yet, compared to other contemporary art forms, opera cannot help but stand out. These other art forms have evolved extensively during the last hundred years, due to their embrace of new ‘democratising’ technologies, to smaller scales of production and the circumventing of centralised institutions, and to their lack of the unique ‘prestige’ which might have granted them the same kinds of patronage that opera has continued to enjoy.

Naturally enough, opera’s elitism is seen to come as much from its dogged resistance to move away from the old, grand works and production styles which necessitate its atypical audience demographic, as from the audiences themselves – with their money and their costumes – attracted by the exclusivity guaranteed by a £90 ticket, the divisive obfuscation of a foreign language and the comforting conservatism of a two-hundred-year-old piece of music. Operatic institutions have made a decision to retain these pieces, these venues, these productions and – therefore – these audiences. For traditional opera houses to wonder at charges of elitism, after having made hardly any concessions to a century of extreme political and social change, seems pretty ludicrous. These institutions don’t, as some might think, stand like pure modernist islands in a sea of consumer capitalism, even if this designation might win them their extensive state subsidies. They stand as bastions of 19th-century decadence, edifying contemporary capitalists with apolitical spectacles of archaic escapism, allowing them to feel connected to some sort more picturesque, historical ruling class, but at the same time excusing them from any personal guilt by representing social class as a kind of costume drama, now-extinct.

Opera on a New Scale

Opera doesn’t have to involve hundreds of performers. It doesn’t need to take place on massive stages with good seats and medium seats and bad seats. It is being performed in smaller venues with growing regularity, like theatre has been for centuries, and with far fewer performers. It would need a greater reliance on new writing, written specifically for this more ‘manageable’ scale, but as I have argued elsewhere, this would be a very good thing anyway. It is already occasionally being recorded and put on in cinemas and on television, although large-scale productions often look quite ridiculous close-up and cannot be expected to win many serious new acolytes.

I believe it is up to the people that produce opera to decide whether the art form needs to be as grand as it can be, whether it needs to focus on large-scale pieces from the past. I believe that this is tantamount to deciding whether opera needs to be elitist or not. Other artistic traditions (it is a fundamental concern within modern visual art, for example) have taken radical steps away from their assumed historical forms, in order to fulfil all the ‘democratic’ aspects that Barton invokes. Opera could easily choose to do this. Until it does, it has chosen to retain ossified class relations from previous centuries, and will attract those contemporary audiences who identity most with these relations.

A few other thoughts from the two articles:

  • The comparison between classical music and football is, of course, an interesting one because of the class associations of both. But the comparison between classical music and pop music is surely more prescient. Premier League matches are always shown on television, in full or as highlights. It is a lot harder to see classical music concerts and operas without buying tickets. When people chastise classical music for its elitism, it is most often (as in the Guardian article) in comparison to other forms of music, rather than sporting events. If you compare the ticket prices of opera and pop music, the average opera ticket is a lot more expensive.
  • Ticket prices aren’t the only route to democratisation. I think it is important to remember that technology can be used for good as well as evil, and that anti-capitalists would do well to embrace technology as creatively as the capitalists have. Classical music is almost uniquely allergic to technology, however, which precludes all of the potential, not just for disseminating recordings (which, yes, can easily become commodities), but also for spreading information and educating. Richard Wright’s entreaty to read the Penguin Guide to Classical Music, or listen to the radio, is totally symptomatic. Despite Barton’s statement about online music, it is actually quite hard for people to get to know classical music without paying to see it, since classical record companies and performers seem to be precious or incredulous with regards to internet streaming, unwilling to provide free recordings or accoutre their music with any kind of context.
  • Moreover, there are so many innovative websites which can help uninformed listeners find new pop music, while there is very little for the uninformed but eager classical fan. This may be because there is little concept of newness within classical music – the music is just there and you either know about it or you should know about it. Newness needn’t only be a machine of consumerism though; it was fundamental to the modernist avant-garde, in many cases an anti-capitalist movement, and will be fundamental to new ‘post-postmodern’ attempts to break through the disintegrating fabric of capitalism.

Composers, performers and opera producers have to think about what they want from their music. It is all very well to attempt to avoid the dangers of commodification, and concomitant exploitation, by refusing to engage with any contemporary methods of communication and any sort of mass production/dissemination. However, I don’t think it is defensible to attempt to do this by maintaining structures based on economic and cultural systems from within the deeply repressive, imperialistic and pre-democratic eras in which many of the ‘canonic’ operas were written. It is especially indefensible when this is proven to attract an atypically wealthy, privileged audience. Surely opera had better embrace some radical, post-capitalist mode of production than to continue to entrench these embarrassing archaisms into the 21st Century. Culture isn’t all-powerful, but it does have some power, and I’d be glad to see the privileged classes alienated from the supposed ‘soothing humanity’ of the art form. For opera’s sake, if not for the workers’.

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3 Responses to Opera and Elitism

  1. Joe Bates says:

    Interesting piece.

    Football does get criticised heavily for its ticket prices, just not on the pages of CiF. It’s under-emphasised the extent to which the dramatic rise in ticket prices is a manipulative attempt at class control. Following the concerns about football hooliganism in the late 80s, clubs decided that the best way to respond to the problem wasn’t to address the economic and social conditions that tribalised and brutalised some young, working class men but to systematically exclude them from their stadiums with raised prices. The demographic of the fans has changed dramatically as a result.

    With opera, I think that comparing it to a regular rock/pop concert isn’t quite fair. For most opera-goers, I’d suggest it represents a significant event that is more comparable to a stadium gig or West End musical. Both of these are priced similarly (although not the Royal Opera House).

    The reason for the high prices of these events is similar to opera: they are both lavish and over the top. Yet I wouldn’t say that either are intrinsically elitist (although obviously their prices do exclude the truly poor, like… well, most things, unfortunately). I’m not sure that opera, with the exception of the Royal Opera House, needs to become less lavish as a matter of urgency.

    More choice in terms of price and scale needs to be provided – and I’d like to think that it’s on its way, though people like Tete-A-Tete and you guys at Carmen Elektra. But I’d rather opera focused its effort (and money) on the multitude of other barriers (like broadcasting, as you rightly suggest) than on cutting its levels of spectacle.

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