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Champagne, picnics and dinner suits are ‘a pretentious charade’

Andrew Mellor

Britain’s changing operatic landscape

8:00, 14th September 2017

‘Glyndebourne’s supremacy is no more’ blethered the Daily Mail in an article at the start of the summer that heralded a new age of country house opera. The rag may have put a bizarre spin on the story with its ‘Operas are no longer just for the posh’ headline and raised eyebrows with the introduction of an all-new summer opera festival in ‘Carsington’, but it got the first bit right. If you want to watch live, staged opera in a non-urban environment in the summer months and dress up for it, 2017 was the year that opened the floodgates of opportunity.

Is this a good thing? Of course it is. If you like opera and believe in its power, then the more opera there is, the better the world becomes. None of these companies takes a public subsidy except for Glyndebourne, which does so simply to visit places like Plymouth and Woking in the autumn with none of the frippery associated with the summer festival (the Glyndebourne Tour happens, also, to be sponsored by the Daily Mail).

But as we transition from the summer to the autumn, our eyes and ears must be open to the real effect that the explosion of country house opera is having on the UK’s established, legacy opera companies – those which present their work in cities accessible by public transport, which employ orchestras and choruses the year round, and which do not give two hoots if you turn up in a tuxedo or a Torquay United shirt.

Glyndebourne is among the companies struggling to maintain footfall © Leigh Simpson
Glyndebourne is among the companies struggling to maintain footfall
© Leigh Simpson

It is no secret that some of our metropolitan and touring companies (Glyndebourne included) are struggling to maintain footfall. When Welsh National Opera’s season opened last September with Verdi’s Macbeth, it was ‘to a worrying number of empty seats’, according to the Daily Telegraph. Were the good folk of the west of England looking forward to an opera-free autumn having filled their boots throughout the summer? Graham Vick described the British opera scene as ‘in crisis’ in an interview with the BBC, implying that country house festivals were squeezing regional outfits like WNO. And that was in 2015.

We can hardly blame the plucky new companies themselves. They do what they do (you’d hope) because they believe in opera and relish its power. Maybe, just maybe, they are introducing more newbies to the art form than their metropolitan counterparts are. But from the distance of the internet (I attended zero country house opera performances in the UK this year), it looks rather different. Perhaps I’m jealous, but after the thousandth social media photo of people posing on manicured lawns somewhere in the home counties clinking glasses of expensive champagne, it was hard not to wonder what the UK’s opera scene must look like to the uninitiated.

For me, opera is about having your heart ripped out and your brain exploded inside a theatre. But to millennials feeding off social media imagery, it will look very different indeed – a formal, Royal Ascot-like affair (nobody’s interested in the horse racing) an awfully long way from the creative passion and power of festivals like Glastonbury. It must bewilder our colleagues in other theatrical art forms. It must incense those who have worked so hard to change opera’s troubled image in recent years. And if we’re not careful, it will undermine the public subsidies on which our full-time companies rely.

Those of us who believe picnics and dinner suits are a pretentious charade with little connection to the uncomfortable realities of art probably just have to get over it. And we can: nobody bats an eyelid if you crack open a can of Fosters during half time at Opera Holland Park (do so just outside the grounds and the stewards might even pop over for a chat). For many years there was a little pub in the grounds of Glyndebourne where you could chomp on Walker’s smoky bacon during the dinner interval while reflecting on what you’d seen.

But that doesn’t negate the responsibility the industry has to take a good look at its external reputation and to maintain checks on such a rapidly evolving landscape. Are singers too tired? Do private companies provide arguments against public subsidy? And, most importantly, how do we want the opera world to look and feel – in the wider context of theatrical relevance, public funding and our marvellous legacy companies – in 2030?

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