‘Opera’s future must be determined, and created, by those who make it and love it’ | Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor
Monday, June 26, 2023

A new column from Andrew Mellor, celebrating opera and prompting important discussions about the industry

Andrew Mellor
Andrew Mellor

As an Opera Now reader, you probably remember your first time. I certainly remember mine. It was weeks in the planning. I had special permission to step beyond the heavy iron gates of my boarding school and walk 15 minutes down the hill to the Bristol Hippodrome, where I watched Giles Havergal’s production of The Marriage of Figaro courtesy of Welsh National Opera. My mum dropped me back at school 10 minutes after curtain-down, and then drove the two hours back to Plymouth.

That was 1995. After the game-changing round of decisions made by Arts Council England last November, it’s fair to say Britain’s operatic landscape has been transformed more in the last six months than in the entire 28 years before them. WNO’s ability to tour to England has been crippled. Glyndebourne no longer sends shows to my hometown, Plymouth, where WNO’s visits have been reduced from two a year to one. English National Opera will soon cease to exist in its current form. And that’s just in Britain.

We blame the mainstream media for misunderstanding and misrepresenting opera, but we do the art form no favours in the way we discuss it ourselves

I’m not such a fan of looking backwards, and I sometimes think the opera world does so too much. But we have to make sense of the present by looking at the past. What really lies behind the dramatic shrinking of the UK’s metropolitan opera scene? Is it true, as Arts Council England claims, that there’s a lower appetite for live, large-scale opera in the regions of England than when I was a schoolboy? In the 2000s, I saw attendance drop off from the Glyndebourne Tour in Plymouth with my own eyes. It was alarming.

We all have our own ideas why that is. Outside London, have new summer opera festivals moved the operatic centre of gravity away from cities? Arguably. Is that a bad thing? Discuss. Have cinema broadcasts of high-profile productions dampened the appetite for live opera in local theatres? The providers say not (they would), but it’s easy to hear otherwise anecdotally. Has the huge reduction in opera broadcast on terrestrial television alienated the art form from the wider populace? Certainly. Is the erosion of arts education contributing to the alienation of classical music, in particular? You bet.

Easy to blame other people, isn’t it? Sure, opera throughout the world could do with more general support as it continues to stagger bleary-eyed out of the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic. But opera’s future must be determined, and created, by those who make it and love it – and those who are yet to. There is plenty about the opera world that seems wondrously enlightened compared to the dark days of the 1990s. It is far better directed, managed and marketed and in the last few years has embraced a long overdue diversity that is making it look and sound better. If opera really is changing so rapidly, this seems like the perfect time to seize the day.

So here’s an idea. Let’s have a think about how we actually talk about opera – as enthusiasts and practitioners. We blame the mainstream media for misunderstanding and misrepresenting opera, but we do the art form no favours in the way we discuss it ourselves. So often we come across as protectionist, patronising and pedantic – terrified our cherished art form won’t be taken seriously, insisting it be uncompromisingly adored, desperate to establish our expertise. We never seem prepared to admit that opera is counterintuitive, ridiculous, rebellious, ambiguous, confusing, grubby and humbling. Perhaps we should obsess a little less about the operatic tradition and a little more about the real world in which it exists – the very world about which operas from Monteverdi to Mazzoli have so much to say. In most countries on earth, opera can still come across so terribly socially awkward.

Even after the confusion of Brexit, I see a British opera scene that remains closely intertwined with that of Europe and the world, despite its unique operational model

For the last eight years, I’ve been watching and writing from within Europe as the broader opera community has tried to find its place in the modern world. Even after the confusion of Brexit, I see a British opera scene that remains closely intertwined with that of Europe and the world, despite its unique operational model. And if opera has regressed, it has also advanced. It has far more imagination, breadth, vibrancy and (yes) relevance than it had 25 years ago – even as it seems, in some areas, to feel even more esoteric and to have even less reach.

When I was a schoolboy in Bristol, I would read Opera Now down at the Central Library (I barely understood a word, though I do remember its sophisticated matt-finish covers). So I take the responsibility of initiating this new column seriously, while also trying to remind myself that the operatic community will not be furthered by my own nostalgic reminiscences of the past. Who cares, in fact, about my first opera, or yours? Isn’t our next opera far more important?

As someone who writes a lot about opera, I still find operatic terminology obtuse and difficult, especially when it reaches for an unfamiliar language. So the plain-speaking title Prompter seemed like a good fit for this column. Prompters are (thankfully) disappearing from many opera houses. But there’s plenty about the period of flux in which opera finds itself that requires the prompting of honest conversations in a more open, realist manner. Most of us love opera, though, because of the overwhelming emotional effect it can have on us as individuals and citizens. I hope this column will find room to explore the place of opera in our lives – and everyone else’s.


Follow Andrew Mellor on Twitter: @operalastnight

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