Chrissie Tiller says bringing opera into everyday spaces may broaden its audience.
So Damon Albarn, Terry Gilliam and the Director of the ENO have decided not enough young people are going to opera. Something needs to be done about and they are the men to do it. Introducing the operatic equivalent of “dress-down Fridays” and cheaper tickets (£25 each) being part of their big plan.
Fine. I grew up with Monty Python. I’ve been to the ENO. And I know Blur is a band that saw my grownup son through his teenage angst. But I’m not their target audience and whilst welcoming any initiative aimed at opening up this elitist art form I wonder whether putting three white, middle-aged, middle class males forward is really going to do the job?
It’s not the first time the world of opera has tried promising to broaden their audience base in order to justify its, rather large, slice of the public funding pie. Ever since 1946, when they received their first Arts Council funding they’ve been telling us how, “desperately they are trying to widen access” . Other recent moves have included creating a “spoof reality tv show” as a marketing ploy to bring the kind of punters who, “enjoy mainstream chat shows …”
I quite like opera. Despite growing up on a Leeds council estate, it was always part of my life. As a child my immigrant, piano playing, father and his friends used to run their own opera evenings. OK. They were mainly along the line of, “Mario Lanza sings Caruso’s favourite hits”, but my Dad did used to treat my Mum to the occasional seat in the gods at Leeds Grand Theatre. And we always watched the last night of the Proms.
After his early death, music didn’t figure so much in my life. So it wasn’t until almost twelve years ago, that I decided, on reading a great review for the Silver Tassie at the ENO, to give it a second chance. I enjoyed the music. I loved the staging; although it felt we were a long, long way from the action. My problem was with the audience. Even though most of these people were probably the same age as me, it felt as if they’d been living in some kind of weird time bubble. Not only were they speaking in the kind of cut glass accents I’d only heard before in period dramas but it seemed they’d somehow missed out on the whole fashion and style scene of the last thirty years in London.
Not wanted to be defeated I kept giving it (or them) another try. But, thinking that a black South African company performing The Magic Flute at the Young Vic might be a better bet, I was dismayed to see that the audience seemed to be a “job lot” from the ROH. Asking the programme seller if the diversity of the cast was ever reflected in the audience I was told there had been, “one or two friends of the cast” in on the press night.
Since then I have spent wonderful nights at the opera. Or at least seeing opera; in found spaces, at Hackney Empire, in pubs, in Birmingham. I’ve watched it with audiences aged from 10-90, that have included young Somalian women in hijab, Congolese guys in dreads, Algerian chefs, and the bar staff from the local pub. I’ve watched lads of twelve and thirteen captivated by the sheer intensity of opera sung up close, mothers seeing their own choices reflected in Butterfly’s anguish, young couples giggling delightedly at two people so much in love they seem compelled to sing.
There are companies, like Birmingham Opera and the Wedding Collective, whose Finding Butterfly is on at Limehouse Town Hall, who are committed to “a belief that opera can speak to all people” . They have developed their richly diverse audiences not by merely giving the nod to Arts Council demands to widen participation in return for funding, but by truly engaging with their local communities. This includes working with groups like new arrivals, refugees, local elders to create their choruses (whose cousins, friends and neighbours then begin to make up the audience) and reflecting the multi-cultural communities of our cities in their casting, production teams, and crew.
But, most importantly, it involves getting opera out of those bastions of old-fashioned, elitism and privilege, that places like the Royal Opera House and the ENO have become, and bringing it to the spaces and the places where ordinary people live. Or is that just too much to hope for in a world where our whole cabinet consists of ex-public schoolboys who take afternoons off work to go to the Royal Opera House and watch matinees of the Ring Cycle?