Opera and Populism

I recently posted on the subject of Opera & Elitism in response to a couple of articles discussing the allegations of elitism in opera (and classical music), in comparison to other cultural traditions. In both articles, these allegations were called into question when compared to what could be seen as the elitism in professional football culture. My response was that, while the emblematic ‘elitist’ factor of ticket prices could certainly be disputed when contrasted with ticket prices for football matches, there are other indicators of cultural elitism which come more clearly to light when opera is compared to other art forms, particularly to other musical traditions such as contemporary pop music.

I want to revisit this idea as a response to an illuminating comment from Joe of Filthy Lucre, who takes issue with such comparisons to both live professional football and to pop music culture in general, instead posing other more pertinent, specific points of comparison. I think such comparisons can be useful, partially because of opera’s apparent singularity as a centralised culture which maintains a strong self-identity despite its substance as a synthesis of other artistic disciplines, and which maintains an extraordinarily potent set of cultural connotations, which are reproduced by artists, audiences and detractors alike. In this way, opera aims to resist comparison, in a manner which locks it out of progressive, critical cultural discourse.

Joe writes:

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.

You can read the whole comment on my Opera & Elitism post. Unsurprisingly, I pretty much disagree, but I was very glad for the chance to explore comparisons with both West End musicals and stadium gigs specifically, because I believe they reveal more, not only about opera’s elitism, but also about the forces of populism within opera, and the utmost importance of opera’s self-image as a guide in its future development.

Opera vs. the West End musical

I think I do consider West End musicals elitist, in the way that all cynical expressions of the capitalist exploitation of the masses are necessarily elitist (in the way that professional football has become elitist). West End musicals attract their audiences by confusing them into identifying spectacle with aesthetic value, confusing the consumption of expensive stage machinery and mass choreography with ‘culture’, and thereby effectively spending money to watch the transparent and gratuitous expenditure of money. And within this aesthetics, where people can literally watch and validate ‘their money’s worth’, the extortion of ticket prices is infinitely justifiable by an increase in spectacle. The ‘elite’ here are the cultural capitalists who engineer, without any pretence at artistry, these ridiculous scams. (i.e. the same shows could be put on at a much higher quality (according to various different systems of aesthetic value) for a fraction of the price.)

[Of course those who doubt that aesthetic value actually has any equivalence in crude monetary terms (that ‘good’ art is ‘worth more’) might say that this kind of transparent spectacle is at least honest. This is probably why such aesthetics are used in state spectacles which involve tax-payers’ money, like the recent Olympic ceremonies. The tax-payers largely want to watch a giant receipt with every penny accounted for in the transparent, material terms.]

However, the difference between this and opera is that opera isn’t just cynically fooling its audiences, it’s effectively fooling itself – from artistic directors to composers and singers. The whole culture, born into an aristocratic milieu in which an aesthetics of money and power were the universally understood, unquestioned system of aesthetics, has maintained the relationship between spectacle, money and aesthetic value, but sublimated it as part of a master discourse relating the so-called gesamtkunstwerk with a transcendental, humanist universality. The venues are the same size, the hierarchy within the audience is just as extreme, and the top tiers are just as inaccessible to any but the most criminally overpaid. But this ‘is’ opera now, its grandeur has been exempted from materialist analysis and so the elitism is entrenched deep within the culture itself – the scoring of the music, the dramaturgy – in a way that it isn’t within West End musicals, whose cynical spectacle is openly and flagrantly the whole ‘point’ of the venture, a bit like theme parks.

West End musicals aren’t pretending to represent the beating heart of a living, international art form, like the London opera houses do. They’re tourist destinations, which will stay put as long as people can be convinced to spend all their money to visit them (in the case of Les Misérables, twenty-seven years). So it’s certainly correct that they’re similar, but it’s the very fact that opera refuses to acknowledge this similarity that actually makes them crucially different.

Opera vs. the stadium gig

As for stadium pop gigs, these are the exception within pop music culture. They are the very top tier of a world that stretches all the way from the basement gig or the back room of a pub. They exist thanks to the occasional critical mass of audience members that exists for bands that have been around long enough or that have had enough money poured into them. Stadium aesthetics are not a de facto feature necessary to ‘proper’ or ‘good’ pop performances; I would argue the opposite, that they are an uncomfortable necessity for awkwardly popular groups, creating impersonal and unsatisfactory musical experiences. I would tolerate the odd spectacular opera event if it was necessitated by a real critical mass of popular support, but I would expect the rest of the culture to view them (like much of pop culture views the stadium tour) as cynical, lowest-common-denominator populism or commodity art at its most alienating, rather than the essential arena in which ‘great’ opera can be made manifest.

There is, of course, populism at work in opera culture. Any cursory glance at the programming of all opera houses in the world will reveal the extraordinary homogeneity, occasionally justified as the ‘invisible hand’ of the discerning opera consumer who intuitively understands the validity of the great 18th/19th century canon, more commonly justified as savvy pragmatism on the part of the institutions – a couple of ‘crowd-pleasers’ to counter-balance each ‘risky’ new or unknown production. These ‘risks’ are usually made out, by the artistic director, to be the actual ‘serious’ content of the programme – the proof of integrity – but in actual publicity terms they are more often glossed over, abandoned to their status as trendy gestures of authenticity amongst a sea of easy revivals, since to treat them as anything other than token risks would itself be a risk, seeing how precarious the whole business of opera production is, and how much it must rely on the ideologically-conservative whims of the ‘core audience’.

The idea of ‘critical mass’ is here inverted. In pop, the critical mass is a maximum limit which, when reached, means that the potential live revenue from a particular band or artist can no longer be practicably harvested through mere medium-venue gigs. In opera, the critical mass is a minimum limit. Without securing the support of a large enough proportion of the tiny and conservative ‘core audience’, an opera house production (or ‘real-professional-opera-as-it’s-meant-to-be’ production) cannot go ahead. Thankfully, this audience may be tiny and conservative but they are also predictable, rich and devoted. Populism remains an option, even while the populus to which the artists are in thrall hardly represent the masses. It may now be the only option for the big houses.


So, the systemic populism of West End musicals (and stadium gigs) pushes them towards spectacular aesthetics and the accompanying exploitative ticket prices. In contrast, opera’s spectacular aesthetics and exploitative ticket prices push them towards populism. The producers of musicals cannily exploit the allure of spectacle to justify huge ticket prices. In contrast, the producers of opera, believing opera to be essentially spectacular and ‘grand’, are forced into populist programming in order to bring in the necessary crowds to meet the expenses, even at the existing ticket prices.

But the spectacular aesthetics of West End musicals, in a similar manner to spectacular Hollywood movies, aren’t only driven by cynical populism and capitalist materialism. They also pivot integrally on the promise of escapism. Capitalists have come to charge great rates to allow the masses to experience escapism, or what they perceive as the great ‘escapist’ art forms. As the media spectacle enters more and more into our everyday lives, we require more and more excessively spectacular methods to feel the soothingness of escapism. The more spectacular, the more hyperreal, the more escapist – and also the more expensive. It is in this way that musicals and Hollywood movies specifically are viewed as ‘special events’ – as escapist ‘treats’ which effectively guarantee ‘vacations’ from real life. This aim is in some ways at odds with popular traditions such as television which, in the UK, actually does put some store in relating to real life (or claims to do so, even if it achieves this via its own deceitful spectacle). For this reason, people are often annoyed by what they perceive as the imperative to ‘think’, to ‘engage’ or to ‘consider’ in these art forms – by anything too ‘preachy’, or ‘talky’, or pretentiously ‘clever’ or ‘artsy’. People demand a total escape from the need to deal with real life (under capitalism), which can be very depressing and aggravating and alienating indeed. I would argue that this is what’s often demanded from stadium gigs as well, which are often too impersonal, chaotic and overloaded with stimulus for a straightforward engagement with the music or indeed the musical performance. They are to be ‘experienced’.

So the question here is, to what extent is opera an ‘escapist’ art form? Certainly the critics, composers and performers, and probably the producers and ‘learned’ devotees, would strongly deny that it was. Many would say that it requires intense intellectual as well as emotional engagement, if one is to remain attentive for its often lengthy durations. Many would blame this very ‘dumbing-down’ of culture, the ‘lazy’ desire for easy sensory ‘experiences’, for the general loss of interest in opera and classical music over recent decades. For many in fact, this would surely be the defining distinction between opera and musicals. This may be true, but I don’t think that this supposed type of intellectual/emotional attentiveness is necessarily anathema to the idea of escapism. Equally, I think quite a few enthusiastic opera fans would certainly describe opera as escapist, a word that they would use unequivocally positively.

Opera as Exception

If Joe were correct in saying that, ‘for most opera-goers, [attending the opera] represents a significant event that is more comparable to a stadium gig or West End musical’, I think we could presume that for this majority of the audience, the opera is certainly a ‘special treat’, and therefore a ‘vacation from real life’ or ‘escapist’ activity. This might help explain the state of ‘exception’ within which many experience opera – the dressing up for the occasion, the treat of a fancy meal or overpriced champagne, the knowing enjoyment of anachronistic opulence, the unquestioning tolerance of offensive or irrelevant narratives, banal staging, bizarre rituals and inexplicable regulations, not only in the audience’s comportment but in the music, the staging and the performance.

If opera is a significant event for most opera-goers, then we can conclude that most opera-goers aren’t frequent opera-goers. An event which occurs every month can hardly be a significant event. (If I went to a West End musical every month, I would quickly run out of West End musicals.) So are all opera-goers attending in a state of exception, curiously tolerating the strange rituals and endless repetition of pieces for the sake of anthropological respect for a culture which they are not ‘naturally’ part of, that they’re just visiting? In this case, perhaps all of opera culture is just a weird mass delusion, a case of mistaken identity shared by an auditorium full of overly-sensitive non-natives. Even if this were the case, it couldn’t exactly be altered, because it is this feeling of exception that permits the escapism that people crave. Being part of a culture that is of me and about me might be too hard work. More relaxing to take a trip ‘abroad’ to an artistic culture that exists in another era, and has absolutely nothing to do with anything in my life.

I think there is certainly some truth in this, reproduced to some extent by advertising and branding, and the Byronic convictions of artistic directors themselves. However, I’m not sure that all opera-goers are escapists looking for a special night out, tip-toeing around a curious caricature of a forgotten or mythical tradition. I think there are also frequent, regular opera-goers. It is this group who feel at home in the opera house, who feel ownership of the rules and regulations, and who show just enough presence to validate the prejudices of the ‘special occasion’ majority. These are also the people who can afford season tickets, or memberships. They enjoy the atmosphere of privilege because they are privileged, the feeling of separation from the real world because they are separated from the vagaries of capitalism which many officiate over. The ‘escapist’ illusion which people come to enjoy is, for this minority, a happy extension of normal circumstances. They have no need for the kind of escapism that the others crave.

I do certainly perceive an escapism in the way in which many ‘serious’ opera fans engage with the art form though. Rather than the understandable proletarian desire to escape real hardships through frictionless fantasy spectaculars, it takes the form of an impermissible bourgeois desire to escape the real intellectual truths of contemporary capitalism through the abstract intellectual ‘truths’ of the ‘universal’ musical language and the transcendental ‘humanism’ of operatic narratives. Along with classical music, it’s the one ‘high’ art form through which you can be pretty sure no-one’s going to call you out. Even with the recent resurgence of anti-capitalist politics, there’s no existing anti-capitalist tradition in opera, or classical music. As a vibrant new anti-capitalism seeps into other areas of culture, with the further crises that are undoubtedly in the pipeline, opera will become more and more important as an escapist enclave for the refined and cultivated capitalist.

The kind of opera that I would like to see would try concertedly to avoid an ‘escapist’ aesthetic, returning to Brechtian ideas certainly, but also to the developments of countless theatrical traditions which contrast sharply with the aesthetics at work in West End musicals. But I think we have a bigger question here which goes beyond my own personal aesthetic preferences, to address the way in which opera sees itself. Is opera ‘escapist’? And if so, is the music/drama itself essentially geared towards escapism, or is it merely used as escapism? Is it escapist because it cannot be anything more than a ‘significant event’, to make the most of, to cherish as a rare break in the onslaught of the everyday? And to return to the initial question, how do its escapist qualities relate to its predilection for spectacular aesthetics and the accompanying costs involved?

Most importantly though, should opera be escapist? I would certainly say no, and I think very many people would agree with me, even those who might disagree with me on all my other points. Escapism might continue to be an aspect of some opera, like some movies and albums are ‘just really good fun’ or some books are ‘compulsive page-turners’/’immersive worlds’/’roller-coaster narratives’ etc. But really, if an entire art form is reserved solely for ‘special occasions’, if – in other words – it is used for escapism, how can it ever be expected to engage critically with society?

Opera, and classical music, cannot afford to continue as ‘exceptional’ traditions. There is too much that is being compromised, not to mention co-opted. The ends must come first – relevance, true creativity, genuine freedom to experiment, social engagement. All means towards achieving these ends are justified. Nothing (or very little) is sacred. If opera and classical music are unable to achieve these ends then there really is no hope. In order to approach these, we will have to radically reinvent what these traditions ‘essentially’ entail. So the debate isn’t about ‘spectacle or no spectacle’, ‘expensive tickets or no expensive tickets’. For me, there is no question that the opera house can no longer be the ‘home’ of opera. Productions held hostage in these unwieldy spaces are automatically prevented from approaching the full potential of opera in the 21st century.

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