There’s an amazing scene in the film Pretty Woman where Richard Gere’s character takes Julia Roberts to the opera. It’s no coincidence that the opera in question is Verdi’s La Traviata, the story of a courtesan (for that, read prostitute) who falls in love with a wealthy man. Sound familiar?
In one of the most memorable parts of the movie, tears roll down Roberts’ face while she listens to the ‘Sempre libera’ aria. As the lights come up, a woman in the adjoining box asks if she enjoyed the opera, to which Roberts replies, “It was so good, I almost peed my pants!”. Gere steps in with, “She said she liked it better than Pirates of Penzance.”
This might sound glib but there’s a serious point here, if you choose to see it: opera can be for everyone.
Unlike other forms of theatre, opera has long been regarded as elitist, something to be appreciated by the few, not the many. It’s not hard to see why. For a start, opera has tended to attract older audiences. According to statistics for Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, just two fifths of attendees in the 2011-12 season were aged under 45.
Then there’s opera’s image. A study for Classic FM in 2017 found that people had been put off going to the opera because it was “too posh”, “too long”, and “too full of words that are difficult to understand”. Fear of the perceived etiquette involved in a night at the opera also played a part with some saying they didn’t know what to wear, when they’d be allowed a toilet break, or when to clap.
Mean while, nearly one third of respondents to the Classic FM poll said that opera was “too expensive”. OK, this last one has some currency, so to speak. Top-price seats at premium venues are expensive, but then tickets to premium live events tend to be highly-priced. However, with music-lovers happy to shell out hundreds of pounds to see the likes of Madonna and football fans likely to do the same to see their favourite teams, opera can seem cheap by comparison (click here for the latest tickets from the ENO).
Let’s address that ticket price issue right now. Yes, seats can be expensive but that doesn’t mean they all are: discount tickets are available, as are cheaper seats the further back/up you go. And let’s not forget the myriad of opera companies working to bring opera to the masses at affordable rates. The producer Ellen Kent, for example, has been packing in audiences for years with ticket prices pegged at a fraction of the costs levied by more well known companies (click here to see what’s on).
As for a dress code, at places such as the English National Opera (www.eno.org) there isn’t one. Of course, many people put their glad rags on for opening nights and gala performances but otherwise it’s wear what you like. The same can be said of many other venues.
What about the fear of impenetrable plots and lengthy durations? Well, you won’t be in and out in five minutes when seeing an opera but perhaps that’s not bad thing. These are stories that tell of universal emotions and experiences. There might be some daft narratives and the odd woman throwing herself from the parapet but that’s just part of the spectacle. At its best, opera plumbs the human condition in all its forms, and it does so with voices that seem superhuman – think if the likes of Pavarotti or Dame Kiri te Kanawa for superlative examples. That’s before we even start to examine the extraordinary stagecraft, librettos and scores.
If you’re seeing an opera in the UK, it’s likely to be sung in a foreign language. For many opera-goers, that’s the best bit. The lyricism of languages like Italian and French are well suited for singing as any fan of La bohème will attest to. And, if you’re really stuck, lots of venues have surtitles – translated lyrics and dialogue projected above the stage. You need never miss a lover’s lament or gruesome murder again.
Cover image – Shutterstock BW Press (1145186774)