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Opera: Not Just for Toffs

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For about 20 years now, I have been trying to convince the world that opera isn't just for toffs. I have appeared, swearing and cursing, in football documentaries, had photographs taken that show off my tattoos, done national media interviews with my producer colleague James Clutton under the banner headline 'The Bad Boys of Opera' and generally been as much of an oik as I could whilst extolling the virtues of late 19th century giovane scuola opera.

In these efforts, I have been the consummate professional. I couldn't have tried harder to be the poster boy of the cultured commoner. And in that time, whilst I effed and blinded my way through season after season, we have been doling out thousands of free tickets and brought tens of thousands of people to the open door of this glorious art form. Opera houses everywhere have been doing something similar and from time to time the British public goes mental for a singer under Simon Cowell's wing who waves cursorily in the direction of opera (showing, yet again, the enormous natural capacity for the art form that exists in the UK).

And yet, despite all of this, every year I am asked to write a piece that sets out why opera isn't for toffs. So perhaps all my efforts have failed but I am not sure why I should have to keep flogging the horse to death. I can't be entirely sure, but posh people go to the theatre and the cinema, read books and watch costume dramas. And yes, they go to opera too. And here is an interesting stat, recent research showed that there are about 7.3 million people in the UK would like to experience opera, live, in a theatre. More than half of them are from the lower social economic groups but they say they are scared, intimidated, won't understand. It is, they say, too expensive. On that last point it would be disingenuous to say that opera isn't expensive but of course, as we all now know, there are also thousands upon thousands of cheap seats that are always available in houses up and down the land. Opera Holland Park gives 1700 free seats and about 3,000 at £12 this year. Opera can also be seen in pubs, small theatres, gardens and even at the cinema. On average, it is probably cheaper than football and certainly less expensive than a Madonna ticket or a West End musical.

Let's be honest though, price isn't really the greatest bar is it? Put simply, the real problem with opera in this country is the way it is portrayed in the media who lap up the whines and whinges of those crossover singers who tell the world that opera doesn't want them because they are not posh enough. And I suppose we in the business are partly to blame by keeping the distinctions alive in our articles (like this one) and our constant trumpeting of our schemes and outreach programmes. Like those ante-natal classes that try to convince mothers that childbirth can be tolerable and merely 'uncomfortable', we are a little in danger of protesting too much.

The problem runs deeper than price and dress codes. The problem begins with cultural education in schools and the proscriptive attitudes of youth workers and teachers who tell our teenagers what culture is best for them and panders to a one dimensional image of what kids will like. Until opera and the classical arts in general become just another part of the cultural tapestry in this country we will continue to have these debates - endlessly.

Opera is entertainment of a sort few others can match. It has updated itself, is as spectacular as any performance art and just happens to feature the greatest music ever composed; that isn't a matter of class or social standing. What qualifications does one need to understand that? I have lost count of the people I have met that found opera and culture late in life and who bitterly regretted not having done it sooner but who do we blame for that? How many millions more walk the streets of Britain restricting themselves to a narrow cultural spectrum because nobody played them a CD of Tosca when they were 10 years old? Yes, wealthy, middle class people go to opera. But so do all sorts of other people. Who cares and why should that stop you? In fact, some of this is so obvious, so mind-numbingly predictable, it's boring. So in that spirit, here is a common man's guide to opera.
  • You sit in a seat
  • Loads of people start to play instruments (lovely music).
  • People sing, have sex (opera's all about sex) and kill each other, often whilst wearing nice costumes
  • You might like it.
  • You might really like it.
  • You can often be home in time for Match of the Day
What's 'posh' about that? www.operahollandpark.com

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