Friday 10 December 2010

Class and Opera Audiences

By Sister C

All my life I have gone to see live music. When I was very young my parents took me to concerts and as I got older I spent years exploring the local music scene, spending most of my spare time and money in
The Sugarmill, The Underground, The Glebe and hanging out on the pre-Tesco waste land with my friends. Once I hit 16 I travelled to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, often sleeping in train stations afterwards to get the first train home.

I was always struck by how friendly people were at these events, how everyone in the room was there to enjoy the band. I almost always left with 15 more myspace friends and a phone full of new numbers. In the station I would sit and talk to others that had saved to go to concerts but couldn’t afford a hotel for the night as we would all try to find a warm room or some cardboard to curl up on.

Last Saturday I decided that it was time for a change. I thought I'd have a go at broadening my horizons. So I took the opportunity to see Glyndebournes Don Giovanni. It was amazing - but my whole experience of the evening was less than comfortable.

This was nothing like I had been to before. The ticket price for one night was as much as a full weekend ticket for the
Give It A Name Festival. But most striking was the class difference.

As we turned up slightly late, but a full five minutes before the performance started I tried to make my way to my seat, apologising for disturbing people only to be told rudely that "I shouldn’t have turned up late". Once I got to my seat, surrounded by older middle and upper class couples I was then asked "are you sure you're in the right seat?" - as if I couldn’t afford good seats. At this point I knew that I was a million miles away from the convivial atmosphere of my usual haunts.

When the interval came I went to the ladies only to be told I was very under-dressed for an opera and should have worn something more appropriate. Not having been to an opera before I knew nothing about the (unspoken) dress code. But it was as if the lady concerned enjoyed lording it over me.

There was no talking in the queue: no laughing, no smiling, nothing.

When the Labour Party introduced its policy for free/cheap tickets to under 27s, it was meant to encourage people to go to the theatre more often. If Saturday's audience are typical I can't say this policy will do much to build a bigger, less elitist opera following. Once bitten, twice shy as they say.

I guess this leads to one question. Is the opera really something just for cultured elites? Because the disdain that greeted me suggests this wonderful experience isn't for the lower orders.


Epictetus said...

I don't think that you should generalise from one experience. I regularly attend Opera North in Leeds and while one still gets the elderly remnants of the West Riding bourguoisie dressed in furs one also gets a wide range of others dressed in all manner of things. And turning up late is almost de rigeur. I did once see a fight nearly start over some sweet wrappers though.

On my only trip to Stoke to see Scottish Opera I did however see the most posily dressed person: he had on a white linen pyjama suit, had a flower in his hair and looked a complete knob.

Possibly one explanation could be that the Grand in Leeds is Opera North's home base and there are plenty of opportunities to see operas there, whereas a touring production only visits briefly and all those there for the occasion rather than the music have to all go at the same time.

Nick said...

Maybe Glyndebourne wasn't the best place to start? It's got a bit of a reputation for snobbishness, even amongst other Opera goers.

When my partner and I first met, she was a regular attender at the ENO. She took me a long a few times, and I have to say I loved it. I'd never have considered going to Opera - it was so far outside of my comfort zone, and I didn't know what was supposed to happen. The atmosphere wasn't exactly Trowbridge Festival friendly, but neither did my failure to wear a tie or a dinner jacket cause any comments, and nor did Kate's outfit.

I've also been lucky enough to see the Donmar Warehouse production of The Threepenny Opera, one of the most awesome theatrical experiences I've ever had. That was a crowd from all corners of London and beyond, and there was nothing of the bourgeois snob atmosphere that is the 'classical' archetype of Opera in England.

And, of course, at the root of it all is the peculiar transformation that took Opera from being a populist entertainment form in its native Italy to the most exclusive of art forms here in the UK. Don't give up on Opera until you've seen it in Italy, I guess.

Don't let the toffs put you off: after the revolution we'll have the Opera all to ourselves.

Phil said...

This reminds me of something Justin Horton wrote a few years ago -

Curiously enough, 10p is the amount of change one receives from a tenner when buying the smallest possible glass of the cheapest available champagne from the Champagne Bar in the Royal Opera House: an experience I underwent on Friday night prior to watching a performance of Rigoletto ... It occurred to me later on in the evening that if I had purchased a dozen glasses of champagne, it would have provided me with enough change to pay for the bus fare home.

It sounds as if you got a more personal and direct version of the same message - you're Not Quite Our Sort. Well, sod 'em. I hope you enjoyed the opera!

Anonymous said...

Even on the terraces at White Hart Lane, I never came across such rude and selfish people as Opera goers.

At the football, if some beanpole arrived just before kick-off and stood in front of you, no one ever commented.

Even though you were jam-packed together, you just tried to ease your way around him during the match.

But when I went to see Pavarotti singing in Covent Garden, the Opera-buffs regarded their line of sight to the stage as their own private property.
Dare to stand anywhere near and some snotty character would complain loudly.


skidmarx said...

I'm sure Phil above would be able to confirm that the PCI used to block book tickets at La Scala.
Personally I have a hard time caring as the only musical I've ever really liked was South Park.
I'm not so sure about arriving late though. I have a friend who has been an actor and musician for the last twenty years: the one time I've felt uncomfortable about arriving late for one of his shows was when he was doing a sufi-based play. Perhaps the point might be stronger if compared to the acceptance by cinema-goers of late arrivals, but if you've had Peter Crouch blocking your view you haven't really been missing much.

Phil said...

As a Gramscian I believe there's nothing too (culturally) good for the working class - but opera ain't my thing.

Anonymous said...

Yes - don't judge it all by Glyndebourne. It's slightly unique - and iirc unsubsidised unlike the rest.

I've never been, but I shared a house with Hampstead Socialists (delightful - artistic, swims in the ponds every morning, rooms and rooms and rooms of books) and they used to do Glyndebourne once every couple of years as a treat rather than a w/e away.

There's very much a social ritual.

Hope you find something you enjoy more.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely not generalise from the Glyndebourne experience to all operatic performances. Glyndebourne is something that has a particular thing about being a big and special occasion.

I consider myself lucky to have had grandparents who would take family outings to Glyndebourne (I went on two - one was their Don Giovanni, the other was English language opera "Flight"). It was a BIG event and day out, which it wouldn't be if I'd gone to a performance at the local theatre or somewhere.

And to be honest, when I saw people who hadn't bothered to dress up for the occasion, it bothered me a little. It was a little like going to a fetish club and finding they let someone in who hadn't been bothered to make an effort to look kinky.

I'm not excusing the rudeness of the people there (I certainly wouldn't have commented to anyone's face about their choice of dress when I went, for example!), but I do understand why they might have felt put off.

Opera in general, though, is not as exclusive or snobbish as Glyndebourne, and the price is a lot cheaper usually. The "Matchbox Opera" in Tunbridge Wells would be my most local, and their recent performances of Don Giovanni had a ticket price of £12.50. From the looks of their photo album, casual wear seems to be perfectly acceptable for audience members there.

Phil said...

Re: Skidders, I quite like the idea of block-booking tickets - if only to put the snooties' noses out of joint. The local Labour party is always looking for social opportunities ...

bread-sandwich said...

I love opera, and I'm basically scum.

Well, I love some opera. The only one I've seen is the Ring Saga, three times, on DVD. It has dragons, and gods, and dwarves, and pretty much everything ever. I take issue with the sexism and implied racism, but I also think that it is beautiful, enlightening and in a way timeless.

Thing is, I don't understand wanting to see it live unless you understand German. You won't be able to follow it.

I think there's a lot of pretentious people in things like this. When I studied Wagner, I was doing it with a friend who is classic upper class Tory. He knew and loved the music inside and out, but was shocked to discover that I had actually bothered to discover what the words mean.