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Britain seems to be losing its taste for opera

If so, this is bad news for all of us

By on Friday, 10 June 2011

Placido Domingo performs in a production of Simon Boccanegra at the Staatsoper in Berlin (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Placido Domingo performs in a production of Simon Boccanegra at the Staatsoper in Berlin (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Newspapers are ephemeral things, and it is now getting on for more than two decades ago, but I seem to remember that once upon a time the press would regularly trot out stories about how the British were an arts-loving nation, and how London was a world centre of the performing arts, and how opera in particular was getting more and more popular especially among young people. These articles (which perhaps only exist in my faulty memory) would be accompanied by pictures of the said young people queuing round the block to get tickets at the Royal Albert Hall or the Royal Opera, bathed in glorious sunshine, everyone blonde, everyone happy. That was in the 1980s. It was a different world then.

I have been going to the English National Opera at the Coliseum for over 20 years, and I wonder where all the people have gone, let alone all the young people. For the opening night of Simon Boccanegra there were acres of empty seats up in the balcony, seats all with excellent views and acoustics, which were to be had on the day for a mere £10. Moreover, with allowances for the one or two bits of silliness that distinguish the company, it was an excellent production, with a stellar cast, and an orchestra and conductor, not to mention the chorus, who are world class.

One of the glories of Boccanegra, which is set in Genoa and tells the story of a retired pirate, is the way it evokes the sea; the libretto constantly mentions the sea, and several scenes are set by the sea. Naturally, the ENO production sets are all indoors, evoking the exact opposite to the freedom of the sea – claustrophobia. Oh well. I suppose they know what they are doing.

It is true that Boccanegra is not one of Verdi’s most popular operas. It is quite dark, for a start, but it contains some wonderful music and though the plot is complicated, it has a theme that we can all understand and have all experienced, namely the complex intersection between the private and the public sphere. It seems to be inexplicable that a production of Boccanegra does not sell out. But neither does a production of any other opera I have seen at the ENO recently.

This makes me sad. The ENO balcony has always been the place where those who really love music congregate; I do not want to cast aspersions, but the crowd at certain other venues often looks as though it were there to display itself rather than to appreciate a performance by others.

If the British are losing their taste for opera, this is not just bad news for the ENO, but for all of us. A life without music is a life less happy. Moreover, the decline of serious music is a sign of cultural impoverishment, and I suspect that religious practice tends not to flourish in times of cultural impoverishment. The correlation between opera-going and Mass-going may not be immediately obvious but both do require knowledge and dedication, and both bring immense rewards. Incidentally, opera as an art form sprang from oratorio, which sprang in turn from the Mass. If we are losing our interest in Verdi, one of the greatest and most popular composers of all time, what are we going to be interested in? Without Verdi, what’s left?

  • James

    Very true, Father, sadly. I used to sit in the Balcony for about 50p or less (I couldn’t afford more!) and have now moved, because of age and disability, to the Stalls. How on earth does a young person get to know the core repertoire and hear good and not so good singers?

  • Mikecat10421

    Give me Handel & Bach rather than Verdi every time.  For those of us north of the Watford Gap – wherever that may be – attending cultural events in the Great Wen is not really an option. Most people in the UK have to get by without living in London.

    There’s Wagner – horrid man, but a great musician. And Lully, Saint-Saens, Elgar, Prokoviev, Vivaldi, Beethoven, a clan of Bachs, Ravel, Sibelius, & a host of others. One might as well ask, “Without St. Thomas, what is left ?” How about Augustine, Origen, Arnobius, Gregory of Nyssa & and several centuries more of Fathers ? 

    Even without opera, there are always books.

  • Brian A Cook

    I believe that the weakened economy has led people to not spend on expensive tickets for these organizations. 

  • Una Barry

    Did Britain ever have a taste for opera, I wonder?   Not compared to Germany and New York!    I am a singer myself but it never ceases to amaze me that opera is still considered elitist and that to go to a football match is far preferable and often more expensive than the opera.  I am going to Britten’s Peter Grimes tomorrow night at Covent Gardent, albeit a standing ticket as the whole thing is sold out, and I only paid £8 – the price of a bottle of good supermarket wine on special offer.  And then we have those who will only to go opera in the original language – as if they are fluent in all the basic languages of singing.  Verdi audiences heard their opera in the original language, which was in fact their mother tongue, so I can never quite understand why those who don’t have a word of Italian, except pizza and vino, won’t go.   A PhD thesis for someone!

  • Mark Selway

    what a great souvenir of days gone past – i remember being blonde and regularly going to the opera with Alexander! A great observation with worrying implications. Stick it back on the curriculum.