What You Always Suspected About Opera Is True

The Arts

When it comes to sung classics I’m relentlessly middlebrow. Give me Offenbach or Donizetti over Wagner any day, or Gilbert & Sullivan, although I have a soft spot for most Verdi except ‘Aida’. Despite all efforts to democratise it, opera remains relentlessly upper class, and therefore periodically deserves to be mocked.

There are past pieces on this site about the British love of fooling around with classical music – I’ve always like Victor Borge’s versions of classics, especially the one where he starts off in the wrong key, Hoffnung’s legendary concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and Barry Humphries’ delightful overturning of Peter and the Wolf – but I’d not come across this before.

The English National Opera faces an existential dilemma; it’s no longer needed. All opera houses have surtitles, so we don’t need opera sung in English, and the ENO seems unable to open out its brief. Why not a night of classical comedy?

Here the soprano has no idea that her song is being translated as heard behind her back by comedian/musicologist Rainer Hersch, here conducting.

19 comments on “What You Always Suspected About Opera Is True”

  1. snowy says:

    I have never been able to get my head around why people think opera is ‘Opera’.

    They are just ‘through-sung’ musicals. Based either on Folk Tales or Domestic dramas.

    It’s only because the toffs got in first and imported them into English speaking countries that they had/have any sort of status.

    [Generally only the rich would have been taught foreign languages, not the bulk of the population. So it remained their select little club for decades and this false ‘glamour’, “it is only for the Upper Classes” was created.

    Back in their original context, these pieces were about as exotic as Coronation Street.]

  2. Helen Martin says:

    It doesn’t really feel like a class difference, except economic. Opera tickets are pretty darn expensive. I’ve been given tickets a couple of times by friends unable to use theirs so saw Lucia once. We had the Metropolitan New York on radio all the time I was growing up – “And now the great gold curtain rises on…” That and classical jazz will always mean Saturday afternoon to me. In the second act intermission someone wondered if there were people in the listening audience who didn’t get to see performances and if so, why would they listen. Imagination, that’s why. We could just listen to the music or we could pay attention to the commentary and fit the music to the action.

  3. snowy says:

    *”Paging Brooke, it’s economics time again”* 😉

    The ludicrous price of opera tickets becomes a self sustaining circle. [In my humble opinion.]

    * licks chalk *

    A) Posh nobs won’t go anywhere downmarket, they expect, nay demand luxury.

    B) It is expensive to provide such an environment – therefore tickets are expensive.

    C) Because tickets are expensive – people expect to get their money’s worth.

    D) It is expensive to satisfy customers expectations – therefore tickets are expensive.

    One becomes trapped running endlessly around and around: C → D → C → D → C → D → C → D…..

    Once those conditions exist, only the rich can afford to access/enjoy it. That then pushes you back to A

    [Probably looks better as a diagram, but what can you do with naught but a keyboard!]

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Opera – that thing where beautiful music is ruined by fat people shrieking over the top of it, and then steadfastly refusing to die when killed. Enjoyed by people called ‘Gervaise’, ‘Peregrine’, and Peregrine’s sister, ‘Pappiloma’. All of whom have not the faintest clue what is going on. I’m not a fan – could you guess?

  5. Brooke says:

    Brooke, here. Tickets to live opera performances with exceptional talent are expensive in high-priced cities like London, New York, etc. In such places any productions involving large halls, a full orchestra, a cast of singers, designed stage sets, and union stage, lighting, and costume staff are costly…well that’s the economics. Thanks to corporate sponsorship, we who love opera can attend.

    Snowy, your logic breaks down with A…unless you have a reserved box–audience seats are not luxury (try sitting with your knees to your chin). Depending on the opera and how it’s staged, the production can be extravagant–but so are many mass entertainments, films, plays and Cirque du Soleil.

    Opera–I am a fan. Can’t believe I spent another morning writing comments on this blog.

  6. snowy says:

    Brooke, I would not normally cross swords with you, [mostly for fear of stabbing myself in my own backside.] But I will risk it on this occasion, but only after I have secured a Champagne cork securely to my foil, so that there is no risk of injury* and we may fence in a safe and friendly manner just for the sport and exercise of doing so.

    A is the initiating condition, it is probably a circle outside of the C-D loop but hard to explain or even draw!

    Olaf the theatre owner wants to make money. [I don’t know why he is called Olaf, we will just have to run with it.] He wants to make lots of money. The people that have lots of money are the rich. To get money from the rich, he has to put on an entertainment that they like. He knows they like simple stories sung in foreign languages because it makes them feel special and better than all the people the regard as less important than them.

    Therefore he has to invest lots of money to import performers and make his theatre the sort of place rich people will visit, upholstered seats, nice decor, fine wines, fancy food etc. He now owes or have placed at risk a large amount of his own money. And needs to recoup it fast, but it is OK, the rich have lots of money, they will pay to access this exclusive entertainment as it will keep them separate and above the lower classes, reinforcing their position as some how special. Thus it begins.

    But the rich are a fickle lot, they demand bigger and better entertainment at every turn, to keep them coming the experience must be more exciting, more eye-popping, more louder** at each new show or they will become bored and drift away. Olaf, [again why Olaf? No idea?], is on a constant treadmill of spending more and more on every show, never quite recovering his initial costs, constantly spending more and never able to reduce ticket prices.

    {Blimey that’s a lot of words!]

    [ * I feel sure you are too smart, switched-on and have your ‘you-know-what’ fully together to be bothered by any points of disagreement I might raise, I just want to reassure casual readers that we are just playing, [and I don’t want a bum-full of Toledo’s finest.]]

    [ ** “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?”

    “Eleven. Exactly! One louder!”]

  7. Ken Mann says:

    If you’ve watched enough thrillers you can always enliven a dull opera by speculating which box contains the assassin with a concealed sniper rifle.

  8. snowy says:

    Just remembered I didn’t mention there was a predisposing condition that triggered the fashion for opera, rich young men would be sent on a Grand Tour of Europe to round out their education. It is there that they would have discovered these local commonplace musical entertainments and decided to bring such things back to Britain.

    A question to SteveB, [our Frankfurt correspondent], if I might? Is opera regarded as fit only for the wealthy in Germany or is it more democratised there?

  9. Brian Evans says:


    You don’t know you’re born. I loath opera, but my partner is an opera queen. Fortunately we don’t live in open plan so I can at least shut it off. Thanks for the best definition of opera I have ever heard.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Snowy – Nigel Tufnel’s ‘One Louder/These go to eleven’ gag has become part of popular consciousness now. The volume control on the BBC i-player – goes to 11. It even appeared on the children’s show ‘Blaze And The Monster Machines’. A power gauge shown on screen was clearly marked as going to 11, which amused my brother greatly, to the point of him sending me a screen grab to prove the point. Still waiting for a Hagiography show that features Saint Hubbins – The patron Saint of quality footwear, though.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and given the choice of an evening of opera, or three hours of a dog stropping it’s claws on a bit of slate – I’d go for the dog/slate combo every time. I could close my eyes and tell myself after a while that it was something by Stockhausen.

  12. snowy says:

    To make recompense for making this place take a turn toward the nerdy, may I offer some podcasts that might satisfy those that really enjoy the Classical/Crime crossover. Possibly a very select band, [but I’m working with shreds here!]

    It was the British Podcast Awards on Monday and among the winners was a series from a station specialising in light classical pieces and they won a gong for ‘Case Notes’, a title that slightly tortures the English language, [but it’s a free country.]

    The blurb goes as follows:

    “Case Notes is a brand-new crime podcast, investigating some of the darkest mysteries from the history of music. From the murderous composer Carlo Gesualdo to the intriguing story of Haydn’s missing head – this is true crime like you’ve never heard it before. Join us as we delve into long-forgotten archives to unearth rich new evidence from decades and even centuries ago.”


    My name should take you to the index page, listing all the episodes.

    Clicking on an episode link will take you to the individual episode, but the page layout is a bit strange.

    The player bar appears at the top of the page, completely black with strange symbols on it. Doesn’t work in my browser, possibly because I’ve disabled some stuff for… er.. reasons.

    To download the episode there is a tiny button on the right hand end marked with a letter ‘J’ click that and it will download to your computer/tablet/phone.

    [Because it comes from a commercial station, you should expect – ‘unexpected ads’ occasionally during the podcast but they are not that annoying, quite short.]

    [Those that use iTunes can grab them from there if they prefer.]

    [Any one who is a bit squeamish, should probably not start with the Hayden one, it goes into some very grisly details.]

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Talking of operas, I cannot help but notice that Game Of Thrones has finished. Am I possibly the only person who could not see the attraction of it? I watched several episodes, which I either: (a): Fell asleep part way through, or (b): watched all the way through, and then thought to myself: ‘That was shit, actually.’ A friend of mine downloaded the first seven seasons for me to watch. No, I didn’t. My friend said: “You’ll love it – there’s mindless violence and tits!” He was wrong. I can sit in the back garden, and watch ‘mindless violence and tits’ for hours – the black ants having a pagga with the red ants, and the noisy, funny little birds in the Rowan tree.

    (Didn’t really like ‘Breaking Bad’ either.)

  14. Helen Martin says:

    I do enjoy opera, the easy stuff (Carmen and Cav/Pag) but also those like the above mentioned Lucia di Lamourmoor (sp?) which feature convinced sopranos singing at the top of their range, often an unfortunate sound. In order to get up there singers have to drop consonants and go with just vowel sounds so that you need surtitles even if you know the language. There are a few overweight opera singers but I suspect a lot of it has to do with working weird hours and being very hungry at midnight.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Our municipal theatre is where Vancouver Opera performs so Olaf doesn’t enter into it, merely the need to cover the operating expenses and maintenance. The Association exists to facilitate opera performance so profit isn’t a large factor there and I was left with the assumption that expenses are incredibly large. Whenever a play with a large cast is performed that is always the reason given for high prices – that and the expense of “name” performers. In the early 1960s I took my Grandmother to a performance of Orpheus in the Underworld and she was disappointed that there were people in the audience wearing jeans. She felt it was respect for the performers to wear your “good” clothes. [Does anyone have or call them “good clothes” any more?]

  16. snowy says:

    I suspect that when opera was exported out to other parts of the Anglophone world, like the Dominion, [or former Colonies with an incomplete understanding of the finer points of tea-making*]. It would go over as a complete, whole and entire ‘commodity’, utterly free of any class connotations, [these countries not having such a rigid class structure dating back centuries.]. Just as another very particular form of musical entertainment.

    I don’t dislike opera, [I’ve even appeared in one, much to my own surprise, named role and everthing], but I only enjoy those bits I like as a pleasing sound and make no pretense of understanding the finer points.

    [* Always, always add freshly boiled water to the tea in a pre-warmed pot. Adding tea to a cold harbour is unlikely to produce a pleasing beverage.]

  17. Trace Turner says:

    I too, prefer operetta to opera mostly, because I prefer humor over drama. The Anna Russell song, The Ring of the Nibelungs, explaining Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is great fun.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, I never thought about it that way but I think you may very well be right. “Here it is, fresh from London’s Covent Garden!” “Oh, John, imagine, just as if we were going to a real theatre!”
    And I, too have laughed till I had to change my small pants (I do love that phrase) at Anna Russell. “You do realise that this is the first person Siegfried has met who isn’t his aunt.” and Erda the green faced torso (which probably refers to a specific production.)

  19. Wayne Mook says:

    I’ve never come across Anna Russell before, so I’ve just listened to her Ring Cycle, thank you and I my wife really enjoyed it as well.

    One of the things I always think of with the Ring Cycle is the Bugs Bunny version, I can now hear, ‘I killed the Wabbit….’


Comments are closed.