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Michael Volpe

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Cultural Variety Is the Spice of Life

Posted: 17/01/2013 00:00

There is a worryingly persistent theory that people who work in, or are audiences of, a particular field of the arts have a very narrow cultural spectrum. We know, for example, that some people feel that areas of culture are out of bounds to them and continue to see their entertainment options in very restricted terms. True to say this is less of an issue these days; with mass social media, growing numbers of TV channels and a perception at least of a less class driven society, more people are comfortable with swapping cinema seat for opera stall (commonly the same thing these days), Eastenders for Hedda Gabler, ELP for Handel.

In the pub for our Christmas drinks recently, I had a bewildering number of non-shop conversations with people who are associated with opera; with the singer Grant Doyle I chatted in the geekiest terms about old synthesisers and how to use them in making music today. We touched on Led Zeppelin and John Paul Jones' style of playing compared to that of Cecil McBee, the best bass synth for dance music (getting out my iPad to peruse the synths in Garageband) and discussed my funk led mash up of Gorecki's 3rd symphony (yes, really).

OK, true to say that with conductor Stuart Stratford I chatted at length about Mascagni operas, agreeing that Iris contains some of the greatest Italian music composed in the last 150 years, singers who would be good in various roles, about the recent New York revival of Montemezzi's La nave, about Will Todd's composition of our forthcoming Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the workshop for which Stuart conducted. But we then had a chat about XTC, joined by an eavesdropping Kiwi who loves them but who found the discovery of our profession hard to reconcile with my passion for "The man who murdered love". An opera singer of my acquaintance has just announced gleefully on Facebook that he has finally got the sheet music for Firth of Fifth by Genesis. And so on.

And here is the thing; overwhelmingly I find that cultural silos exist more outside of the classical or operatic field. The charge of cultural elitism against people who love the classical arts is deeply ironic when I think of the many I speak to who partake of little more than Robbie Williams and X Factor. We, apparently, are the "snobs", despite knowing the difference between the middle and late periods of both Verdi and the Beatles.

Well I don't suppose you can call someone who sneers at the lyric arts in favour of the boom clickety click of Beyonce a snob, per se but maybe a reverse snob? Wilfully ignorant? Whatever it is, there is certainly an idea afoot that says we in the lyric arts must - can only - be single minded in our cultural pastimes. "Classical music is not for me, ergo, classical musicians can't possibly like anything else."

It isn't a new theory. I recall a scene in Stephen Herek's film Mr Holland's Opus in which music teacher Richard Dreyfus demonstrates the plagiarism from the classical repertoire of people like Fats Domino. He was trying to engage a bored and cynical classroom of teenagers who felt it had no relevance whatsoever to them, an age old problem we still haven't nailed. A similar scene is included in Dustin Hoffman's Quartet when Tom Courtenay tries to enthuse a bunch of hiphopsters with Verdi. And then there is the vexed, often toxic debate about musical theatre versus opera, reignited by the release of the film Les Miserables.

Many a Twitter flame war have I seen with Les Mis devotees calling opera fans elitist and in return opera lovers pointing out the plagiarism and "dumbing down" that musicals represent to them. Many have referenced the well known examples of brazen thievery from opera to be found in some musicals. It is all very passionate but ultimately pointless. It is no secret that I am less than enamoured with musical theatre (although I understand its appeal) but it is usually the musical theatre fan, in my experience at least, who is chucking barbs at opera (we can all recall countless such missives from the likes of Alfie Boe).

If I want to annoy a Les Mis fan who is accusing all and sundry of snobbery, I merely point out that if they can find it in themselves to enjoy a pastiche of opera, imagine how they might enjoy the real thing? But that is only if I am being mischievous because most of the time I couldn't care less. Yet it is another form of a cultural pigeonholing, mainly egged on by a strange inferiority complex.

Amusingly, I know countless opera fans who also love musical theatre, who never diminish it, who go and see it and know word for word the songs of Jesus Christ Superstar. I don't, however, know many musical theatre fans, who restrict themselves to that alone, who can't be found issuing vituperative speeches on the snobbery of opera. Just saying, like.

We will only imbue the nation with cultural adventure and exploration when we stop locking ourselves into perfectly defined, hermetically sealed boxes. Neither does it help much when we try to redefine an art form in order that a particular audience can "understand" it. We really do try too hard in the opera world when it comes to such things. Opera is what it is and the best we can do is just enable people to see it in its unfettered, unhindered glory.

 

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