Best known for his various television series, How to Look Good Naked, Gok's Fashion Fix, and more recently, Gok Cooks Chinese, fashion consultant Gok Wan hardly fits the cliché of the standard opera-lover. Born in 1974 in Leicestershire, where he worked in his family's Chinese takeaway, Gok studied at London's Central School of Speech and Drama but was drawn to hair and makeup. He entered fashion as a stylist and consultant, leading to his wildly successful television career. But his experience at Central also provided an introduction to the world of opera, a love which has stayed with him ever since. This wasn't an uncommon addiction at Central, but for Gok it was less a case of following the crowd than a "contrariness", he says.
Despite evidence to the contrary (see his 2011 rendition of 'Razzle Dazzle' from Chicago for Children in Need), Gok claims his musical talent extends no further than a spot of recorder playing in his childhood. "I was thrown out of the school choir when I was seven, but I've got a Jean Valjean hidden inside of me", he laughs. He describes his musical taste as being varied and trend-led: "It's like the seasons," he explains, "Puccini goes on and that's what happens in spring." But he is no purist - his favourite piece is 'Vide cor meum', written by Patrick Cassidy for the film Hannibal, a reminder that for many their only contact with such music is through movies. "Opera sends me to a different place of calm," he explains. "You can take from it whatever you want." If that's a 10-minute nap, then so be it: Gok happily admits to an occasional snooze while listening to opera. "Opera is also mood music, and the pressure to understand is often so great that audiences lose the pleasure of simply listening," he says. There is a stark contrast with the "brain-numbing" side of commercial pop music. The only real difference between popular music and classical music may be cultural perception, but "until they have experienced opera, people are often intimidated by it".
It is a common misperception that opera is available only to the rich, and OHP's Inspire project has provided thousands of free tickets for young people. Gok describes the popular West End show Les Misérables as an "opera barometer" for those who have not experienced traditional opera: the musical theatre style allows audiences to enjoy something they might feel uncomfortable about in an actual opera house. And popular crossover artists show that people have "an innate capacity to love opera".
So why do we still struggle to bring younger and less affluent audiences through the doors? Enjoyment of the music does not always translate to bums on seats, are the barriers real or perceived? "People are undoubtedly intimidated by the culture that surrounds opera," says Gok. "And a stereotype exists that typical opera- goers are rich, middle-class and white, and the language barrier compounds the difficulty. Opera is elitist in the sense that it is complex and challenging, but it's only intimidating until you go," he says.
"We need tradition, but tradition doesn't own the artform. The social aspect of opera is important, but this culture is now under scrutiny as audiences change and the artform takes on a different role in our society. There is something to making opera an occasion, but it's an occasion for everyone."
As an OHP regular, Gok is familiar with the unique atmosphere of the theatre but also aware of the difference. "There is always the question of what to wear, or how to behave, or how to approach the performance, but at OHP at least there are no rules, and for the most part the pressure to understand is minimal. But for some people an evening at the opera is a rare opportunity to enjoy a night out and so it is important to preserve a sense of occasion."
Gok takes issue with the ITV reality show Popstar to Operastar, saying it maintains the myth that opera is distant and "untouchable" by constantly distinguishing between "normal" culture and opera. "It's easy to make the shift from normal to unacceptable," he says. "Clearly there remains a chasm between popular culture and opera, but the same could be said for other forms of classical art." He believes that everything needs to merge together, and suggests that opera directors should take something from musical theatre: "The power of musical theatre is that is creates an experience for the audience", he says, whereas in opera "you pay for being performed to."
Opera will always be perceived by some as an impenetrable art form, but Gok is as good an example as any that it doesn't exist only for those who can afford expensive tickets or understand the language. Opera is by no means a dying art form, but "it could do with a hand," he says. A Gok makeover? "It's on my bucket list!" he laughs.
Written by Leanora Volpe. A version of this article appears in the February edition of Opera Holland Park's "Scenario" magazine.