Here’s another piece I started cobbling together ten years ago. I’m not sure why – it wasn’t for a specific publication – and I never finished it, but in the light of ENO’s newest UNDRESS campaign to get more young people through its doors, it seemed particularly pertinent to post it now. Don’t get me wrong; I love it when young people “get” opera but every young person I have ever known understands all too well when they’re being patronised. And besides, I was at ENO a couple of nights and the audience was peppered with young people who are passionate about the medium. The fact is that box office takings are down and any old publicity stunt will do in a storm, which I would think is the main engine under the UNDRESS campaign.
Oh, and yes, I see I make yet another analogy with food…—————–

Sometimes I find it difficult to distinguish between people who are trying to lure us back into church and those who want us to fall in love with opera.
“If only people could see how much enjoyment and fulfilment they could get if they just came through the doors; if they simply sat down and listened. Hmm, they must be put off by the stuffy reputation, the illusion that it’s hard, the formality of it all, that it’s not for them because it’s too, well, middle-class. Alright then, let’s rip up the seats, jazz up the songs, get the youth involved, break down the barriers, get on the telly! What we need are some hip, coooooool preachers who talk the language of today, and not some stuffy old stuff! People who can show us how relevant it can be today. We don’t want to alienate the regulars but they’ll have to learn to move with the groove, to step into the happening 21st century or they’re gonna get left waaaaaaaay behind!”

I made that up, of course, but without wishing to labour the parallel between the church and the opera house, for over a decade now we have been bombarded with popera proselytisation. Lesley Garrett, the high priestess of the medium has been made commander of the Holy Order, and her acolytes, lead by Watson and Church, continue to spread the gospel of St Classic of Effem, that classical music can be “just so much fun and, like, so incredibly moooooving.”
No-one seems much to care that there is a body of people silently weeping for an art-form they practise and love, as they watch it being systematically defaced; as if they were watching a Vermeer being systematically and carelessly over-painted in felt tip.

Fat Liver Pool

Let’s compare opera or serious music, for a moment, to foie gras. It’s expensive, it’s rich, not everyone likes it, but those who do, adore it. In more civilised countries than our own, it isn’t the sole preserve of the very rich, but is sold in country markets by dedicated producers and enjoyed by gourmands both rich and poor. This liver metaphor is useful for two reasons.

First, what is now happening in the classical music business is that the innocent public is being sold what they are told is foie gras, but what they are actually getting is meat paste. Meat paste is cheap, it’s innocuous and it appeals to a lot of people. But the problem is that the real foie gras producers are panicking that the meat paste business is the place to be and are starting to mix funny things in to their product to make it go further, to make it appeal to all those people who have had their taste buds mauled by meat paste.

Second, there is an obsession that opera and classical music has to be made “more accessible to young people”. Why? Why do the young have to have it all their own way? Why can’t there be a few sophisticated pleasures that appeal more directly to middle-aged people? Oh sure – picking up the liver metaphor again – if you smother foie gras with a huge dollop of tomato ketchup and serve it in a lightly toasted sesame seed bun you might just persuade a few youths to swallow it, but I bet it wouldn’t leave them with a taste for foie gras; just for more ketchup. However leave them to their own devices and they may well come to like it of their own accord. No-one stuffed foie gras down my face as a child and I love it now. There must be hordes of serious music lovers who spent hours of their misspent youth listening to Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. They’ve just grown up to love something else. Equally there are many who still only want to listen to rock music, but that’s alright. No-one ever said that serious music had to be popular. It never has been, so why should it start now?

Comments (1)

  1. Liam Warner


    Mr. Gillett,
    I am 15 years old and I have been an opera fan since I found my mother’s copy of “Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits” about a year and a half ago. I saw Joseph Calleja and Anna Netrebko in La Boheme in Chicago last year, and I thought it was marvelous. It was a school field trip, and many of my classmates were less than thrilled to go, but after hearing the music and my telling them that opera is totally unamplified, they were rather impressed and at least appreciative. There are always phillistines and rubes, of course, and they don’t like things for the sake of not liking them, and then there are people who don’t like opera and that’s fine. I don’t like rap. There is no need to try to sell opera to young people by a) singing in English, which Callas was right in saying is not taken seriously by anyone, or b) telling people to come dressed as they are, which probably is not that great. These ENO people will find that most people my age do like getting dressed up once in a while, and elegance certainly is an attractive part of the opera which one doesn’t experience in day-to-day life. No one forced opera down my throat, and I came to like it, and I also like much of the music of the Romantic period. If one simply educates young people about opera as it is, rather than treating it as some mysterious, esoteric caterwauling exhibition, then they might come to like it themselves. Furthermore, dressing nicely is a way of showing respect to one’s fellow patrons and the performers. Dressing like a slob shows that one doesn’t care, and this is just as much an affront as snoring loudly.

    For all the people at ENO, I like to patronize the opera; I’d prefer that the opera not patronize me.

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