Monday, 2 November 2015

Opera Looks Expensive

Opera is perceived as expensive, when actually it’s not. From out outreach perspective, it’s a lose-lose situation, and something the whole culture needs to address. Several bloggers have been writing on this subject recently, mostly in response to a television interview, in which Gavin Esler posed questions to Jonas Kaufmann based on the assumption of opera’s expense. @chaconato has done sterling work in demonstrating that opera tickets are not expensive, and that in fact they are relatively cheap. 

So clearly this is an image problem. Bob Shingleton agrees. He thinks one of the culprits is online streaming, especially when offered free. Opera tickets seem expensive by comparison with free, so his argument goes. I’m inclined to disagree with this thesis, but I’ll readily admit that is because I value and enjoy webstreams of concerts and opera performances, and like to think that I don’t associate their financial cost with their artistic and cultural value. 

That, of course, is where I’m deluding myself. The capitalist impulse to quantify value in material terms is innate. It’s not the only way we judge things, but it is always in the mix somewhere. This is where opera’s image and cultural status become a problem. Opera must defend a precarious position in the world of theatre, one that is predicated on the notion of “high art”. That is what separates it from the much larger, more profitable – and more expensive – world of commercial musical theatre. 

The distinction is fundamental to the survival of opera; it’s what justifies the public subsidy that keeps it afloat. Generic distinctions do separate the two art forms, but so too do the actual experiences of seeing and hearing them. Opera maintains its “high art” appearance by looking expensive - that basic equation between financial and artistic value. Just look at the décor of the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum. Then there is the dress code, something that few opera advocates have ever made any serious efforts to defend (John Christie’s explanation that it is out of respect for the performers a rare and tenuous effort). 

The fact is that opera needs to be seen as superior and special. It must present itself with the trappings of aristocracy, whoever its target audience might actually be. It’s an integral part of what makes opera distinctive – and eligible for subsidy on artistic grounds. The irony is deep and entrenched: that opera must look expensive to qualify for the funding that keeps it cheap.