Unfortunately I start 2014 with a cold, which prevents me from doing anything too productive due to concentration issues, and also offers an abundance of sleepless free time in which to ponder things. So be warned: I am about to loosely ponder the phenomenon of opera. It's not constructive, or revelatory, but it might inspire you to do something, like maybe go to the opera and take a friend.
The past month has seen my first ever trip to that most hallowed theatre: The Royal Opera House. I went to see Parsifal, but I'm not going to write about the show itself, but rather about the thoughts that were going through my head in the show's two long intervals as well as the long bus ride home. You see, I'd gone to the opera alone, which was a first for me, and being alone I had no one to talk to, but a lot of people around me to observe.
In my sight-seeing walks around the theatre I got to see opera in a slightly new light. Even from the booking process of my day ticket I knew this was going to be weird, when the incredibly well-spoken box office salesperson on the phone offered me tickets ranging from £10 for a standing place with restricted view (not ideal for 5.5 hours of Wagner) to a whopping £260... I settled for a seat in the gods, over 100m from the stage I'd guess, and invested in a pair of binoculars to help me follow the action. I'm glad I did, because from that distance, all I could get from the acting singers on stage was the singing and a sense of stage presence (or lack thereof)... No acting subtelty travels that far unfortunately.
People do go however! They sit miles away from the action for a fraction of the money the fortunate gentry downstairs pay. They eat sandwiches in stairwells or sitting on the floor in the maze of corridors. A gentleman behind me said it was his third outing to see Parsifal (once in the stalls to see it, and in the Gods thereafter, because it sounds better up there).
In what other art form will you get an audience as diverse? From the people in top-price seats sipping champagne at the bar in the interval, or tucking into a fancy meal in the restaurant, to those who came prepared to stand for 5 hours and only see half the stage, bringing their own food. I should add that the night I saw the performance it was going out live to cinemas worldwide, so to our various types of audience we must add those who chose to see it that way (and pay only slightly more than those standing in the theatre).
There is obviously an audience for opera out there, and there are cheap ways of getting to see it. I appreciate it's difficult, because opera is such an expensive beast. Going to see an opera, you watch 60-100 highly-trained musicians performing (orchestra, chorus, soloists), backed up by a backstage army of stage managers, costumiers, admin staff, music staff, technicians, etc. Add to that the huge sets, costumes, rehearsal time and space, running costs of the theater... Yes, tickets costing over £100 sell very well and yet all companies need additional funding or else run at a loss. It's a huge machine, bigger than most people imagine. The people you see and hear in performance are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of people who work incredibly hard to bring you the show you're watching.
I was glad to see a healthier mix of ages among the audience than I was expecting. I am painfully aware that in my own generation, apart from those who work in 'the business', hardly any of my friends ever go to operas. Despite me trying to convince them it's worth at least going once. It is the only spectacle of its kind, powered primarily by human talent rather than technical gimmicks, with that theatrical power of touching each and every person in the audience with its stories, and yet existing in such a grand scale... Ok, so do musicals, but opera is much more human in so many ways (more people performing live and unamplified for one thing).
Yes, opera sometimes difficult (musically, plot-wise, language-wise, etc), but then again not as difficult as most people think, and even when it's challenging it can still be enjoyable. Some things will elude us, but at the same time some will touch or intrigue us. And despite training for years to be an opera singer, when I'm in the audience it's the same for me.
I find it worrying that people my age almost never consider going to the opera. I often wonder if I'll have an audience in 20 years time. I am at times frustrated that opera companies don't seem to have any good ideas to bring new audiences in (not that I do... It's obviously not just about cheaper tickets, it's a matter of brand identity). Sometimes I hate how exclusive an opera audience can feel even to me.
But then I see the people in the stairwells eating their sandwiches before going to stand through another 2 hours of Parsifal because they love it, I hear about fantastic outreach projects in schools, I hear about the successes of community operas and pieces written for children, I hear that despite being unfairly expensive (a ticket to a Met broadcast in a cinema in London costs only slightly more than a normal film, whereas in Krakow it is 4x more) the cinema relays from ROH and the Met sell out in my home town.
I just hope there is enough of the good stuff happening to get people interested. If you're an opera lover and you read this, why not make a New Year's resolution to find someone who's never been to the opera before and convince them to try? I've done it before and it stuck quite well! Just don't take them to a bad show...