This is the second post in a series of three, discussing recent classical music articles in the national press, the ideology that they conceal and the assumptions on which they’re built. This one is probably the most hilarious.
On Thursday, the Guardian website published a Comment is Free piece called ‘It’s not elitist to dress up for the opera’ by a barrister named Rupert Myers
Now, I’ve been over this territory extensively, and all I can say in response is: ‘Yes, it is’. Here is an article by me about opera and elitism; here is an even more pertinent article about the politics of dressing up in formal wear, by another musicologist.
It is more than elitist, though. It is also classist and racist and exploitative and archaic and destructive to art. But I don’t think there’s really anything to say to this ridiculous, ad hoc argument, which immediately invalidates itself with the following quotations:
Opera may not be popular culture, but at least you know what you’re getting: people usually singing in foreign languages about love, death, power etc with accompanying surtitles and a couple of drinks at half-time.
When you watch and hear an opera you are experiencing the distillation of hundreds of thousands of hours of work, and the creative genius of a large group of people. Since childhood those boys and girls have sung, plucked strings, sketched costumes, learnt about lighting and sound, and behind it all (invariably) one man has written a work of complexity and vision.
However the provocation for this bizarre rejoinder came from a recent development at the ENO, which slipped under our radar, in which recent celeb collaborators Damon Albarn and Terry Gilliam are leading an ‘Undress for the Opera‘ campaign. For a long time, ENO have quietly reassured us that, unlike some other places, we don’t have to dress like historical characters in order to feel at home in the audience. Now they’re going all out with this message, in the apparent belief that formal dress is the major barrier between opera and a younger, cooler audience. I’m not against this sort of thing, you all know how much I hate the idea of ‘dressing up’ for the opera (something which I’ve never done and have never felt particularly pressured into doing). It’s good that it’s finally official policy, but such small cosmetic campaigns cannot be expected to have a big effect, because they do very little to alleviate the core problem.
Targeting ‘dressing up’ is like treating a symptom, and I’ve discussed the actual ’cause’ of the ‘illness’ at length. Imagine if someone was to suggest that the orchestra ‘undress for the opera’ – everyone would go crazy, crazy. But that’s not even the ’cause’ either, the cause is the music – the programming, the staging, the content, all of these things. It’s embarrassing seeing these establishments trying to overcome their fundamental irrelevance via shallow facelifts like this. I do think people should be encouraged to wear their own clothes to the opera, but this freedom should be self-evident from the music itself, from the actual ‘art work’ outwards. You shouldn’t need Damon Albarn to reassure you that it’s ok, you should be told that it’s OK by the music and the staging and all of that. And if the music is suggesting something otherwise then that’s pretty suspect.
I’m glad to have the opportunity here to mention the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment‘s new marketing campaign – ‘Not all orchestras are the same’/‘Not all audiences are the same’. The posters have pictures of the orchestra members clowning around amongst colourful performers in funny poses, ostensibly ‘audience members’. The campaign is great, it looks really good compared to so many other performer-focused campaigns, and yet it’s all an absolute lie. This is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for godssake! They only play Mozart! When you go to the concert, not only will the orchestra be exactly like all the orchestras you think you know (besides playing period instruments, which is presumably what they’re actually alluding to), but the audience will certainly be like the audiences you think you know. There will not be any mimes or boxers or ninjas, just old serious people glaring at you when you cough. (Unless you go to the wacky wacky Night Shift, the ghetto of the young.)
[So, I know that I’m now basically doing exactly what I complained that Alexandra Coghlan did in the last post, conflating stereotype with expectation in order to safeguard the hegemonic order. I can only say here that it’s a very personal ideology that I’m perpetuating, one which I’d happily own up to and which goes beyond the maintaining of the status quo. While Coghlan presumably doesn’t actively want twentieth-century music to fail as concert music, I do want old music in a traditional setting to fail in its deceiving the youth into a belief in its relevance. I think this kind of programming in this kind of context is politically reactionary and prevents the blossoming of good new art. I think the deceiving of young audiences into attending these concerts, without the concerts themselves changing fundamentally, is effectively deceiving these young people about what art ‘should’ or ‘could’ be. And I think it would be effectively stealing the potentially progressive artists of tomorrow away from their political destinies. Let the older bourgeois folks enjoy their historical ratification! Leave us the young! Or, at the very least, have the decency to change your name! There you go, that’s my ideology.]