Does opera have a place in modern society?
Online Editor Clémence Smith assesses the future of opera and how the art form might draw in younger audiences.
Opera is a word loaded with connotations that reveal are starkly contradictory. On the one hand, one might view it as a refined art form designated for the upper class and elitist in nature. On the other hand, some operas are well and truly ingrained within popular culture: you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has never heard Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria. Many have voiced concerns, however, that opera has become increasingly out of touch with the modern world. Some say that young people are quite simply not interested in opera anymore. How, then, can we keep it alive?
Opera originated in Italy during the 16th century but can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, who were fond of associating music with poetry. Furthermore, opera houses (a theatre used for opera performances) are also full of historical significance: La Scala in Milan, for example, was inaugurated in 1778.
It is not surprising, then, that people associated opera with the older generations. This apparent exclusivity traps the art form in a vicious circle: young people do not want to engage with opera because it seems to thrive off their alienation and the consequent preservation of tradition.
Admittedly, opera presents multiple barriers to the uninitiated. First and foremost, the lyrics are often in a foreign language: audiences must read subtitles to understand the libretto. Ornate set designs and distant historical settings also risk intimidating potential audiences. When one looks at the stories underpinning the most popular operas, though, they are surprisingly straightforward: the plot usually revolves around betrayal, love and death. The narrative is depicted through various media: staging, lyrics, music and acting all work together to produce an immersive experience.
Young people do not want to engage with opera because it seems to thrive off their alienation and the consequent preservation of tradition
How, then, can opera rejuvenate itself and attract younger audiences? Some producers put their own twists on classic operas, toying with stage design and casting to make them seem more relevant. Fred Plotkin, an expert on opera, argues that “we do not need to modernize opera. No one, for example, is trying to modernize the paintings in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. People love the paintings for the beauty they already have”. The comparison with a painting is interesting, as operas represent an ambiguous kind of movement within stasis: even though no two performances are ever the same, they are all shaped by the original libretto and sheet music.
Work certainly needs to be done to demystify opera. The internet is a perfect tool for this, as production companies can easily promote their work with a view to targeting a specific audience. Opera tickets at the most prestigious venues can cost hundreds of pounds; reduced prices for young people are available, but these are often in very limited supply. The first point of contact for many, then, is the internet. YouTube boasts countless recordings of full-length and individual arias, racking up millions of views.
Nonetheless, live performances are irreplaceable. The best audio quality in the world cannot rival the experience of going to an opera house. If you manage to get a ticket, here are some things I suggest you do before the show. Firstly, read a synopsis of the story online. Doing this will make you less reliant on the subtitles so that you can fully concentrate on the music. If you want to be a little more prepared, listen to a recording beforehand, so you can start to pick up on the nuances of different interpretations. Finally, remember that operas welcome applause, unlike other classical music concerts; some even show their enthusiasm by shouting “bravo” or “brava” at the end of an impressive part of the performance.
In the first instance, opera houses need to change how they advertise: on social media, for example, many artists now use #operaisopen to entice newcomers. Like any other art form, opera cannot afford to shut itself off from the modern world and assume that its success is innate. We must not discard the old in the face of the new or vice-versa: both should exist in conversation with each other to avoid becoming obsolete.