Home » Dr Alexandra Wilson » Elitism and the ‘opera snobs’: a response to Katherine Jenkins by Alexandra Wilson

Elitism and the ‘opera snobs’: a response to Katherine Jenkins by Alexandra Wilson

Last week the ‘classical crossover’ singer Katherine Jenkins held a reception at the Ritz in order to promote her new record deal. The event might have gone unnoticed by all but Jenkins’ (admittedly sizeable) fan base, had it not been for the provocative headline under which The Telegraph reported the event: ‘Katherine Jenkins: why classical music snobs are wrong’. A storm swiftly erupted in the Twittersphere.

The Ritz

The Ritz, London

Jenkins apparently stated: “There will always be a small number of critics who want to keep [opera] to themselves and an elite, but I’ve always been of the opinion that classical music is for everybody and I want to make it as accessible as possible – I’m from a normal background”.

Jenkins’ comments were, presumably, intended as a swipe at those who do not like her style of crossover music, nor the way in which she is often labelled an ‘opera singer’, nor the fact that she was recently awarded an OBE for ‘services to music’. No public figure enjoys negative press, of course, but for Jenkins to accuse those who criticise her on musical grounds of ‘want[ing] to keep opera to themselves’ is deeply disingenuous.

Who, indeed, are these so-called music ‘snobs’? The term hardly seems applicable to today’s opera critics, many of whom reflect regularly on issues of accessibility in their reviews. Opera companies, meanwhile, expend vast amounts of energy organising education and outreach projects, taking opera into such diverse settings as schools, shopping centres and prisons. And even opera scholars are, these days, to be found regularly sharing their research with the public and trying to expand the audience for opera through pre-performance talks, radio programmes, blogs and podcasts.

Just like Jenkins, all of these groups are committed to the idea of opera being ‘for everybody’. Where they differ from her, however, is in their confidence that opera can stand on its own terms without needing a helping hand from popular music. Sometimes the juxtaposition of opera with other genres produces interesting results. However, to imply that ‘ordinary people’ need opera to be packaged as pop is insulting, just as it would be insulting to imply they could only understand a classic novel if it were presented in comic-strip format.

With her faux naive comment about being ‘from a normal background’, Jenkins (who had the privilege of being educated at the Royal Academy of Music) is doing her fellow musicians a profound disservice by stoking the flames of a debate about the ‘e-word’. When opera is discussed in the British media it is, almost without fail, crudely styled as the antithesis of popular culture and all things ‘ordinary’. It’s a mischievous conceit and one that actually sets up barriers: indeed, one might argue that it is the press stereotype of opera that makes opera appear ‘elitist’ rather than the art form itself.

All of this smacks of a peculiarly British unease about opera that has long and complex historical roots. Look back to nineteenth-century discussions about opera and you will find comments aplenty that smack of xenophobia on the one hand (foreign opera singers ‘coming over here and stealing jobs’) and an inferiority complex on the other (British composers couldn’t hold a torch to the Italians or Germans). In the early nineteenth century, opera-going was undoubtedly dominated by a foppish aristocracy the middle classes had little desire to emulate. But by the end of the century, as Paul Rodmell has demonstrated in his excellent new book, more British people had access to live opera than at any time before or since, thanks to a flourishing culture of touring opera. As the twentieth century went on, however, something fundamental would change (a development I plan to investigate in my next research project), until the point where the pernicious assumption that opera is ‘elitist’ had become the default setting in the British media.

In the opera courses I teach, I make sure that I get the ‘opera and elitism’ conversation out of the way in the first week. I ask the students to list all the respects in which opera could be considered ‘elitist’ and then ask them to challenge their assumptions. We usually agree that there are certain ‘trappings’ of opera that might smack of wealth and privilege (although why should red velvet curtains and gold paint be called ‘elitist’ when super cars and high fashion are considered ‘aspirational’?). However, when asked to consider how operas themselves might be meaningfully labelled elitist, either in terms of plot or music, the students inevitably struggle. Are operas ‘elitist’ because they sometimes tell stories about kings and queens? Or because they demand a reasonably long attention span? Since the same applies to many a popular historical film, these lines of argument swiftly go nowhere.

How ironic it is then that Katherine Jenkins should have bought so wholeheartedly into the luxurious ‘trappings’ of opera with her promotional event at the Ritz, while simultaneously alluding to stereotypes that do considerable harm to the image of an art form for which she claims to speak. One can only speculate at her motive for perpetuating the myth.

Dr Alexandra Wilson, Reader in Music at Oxford Brookes University, has presented opera broadcasts for BBC Radio 3, given educational talks for ENO, the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and the Proms, and written programme essays for the Royal Opera House, Wexford Festival Opera and opera companies across Europe. Her book, Opera: A Beginner’s Guide, seeks to demystify opera and demonstrate its relevance to contemporary life.

 

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63 Comments

  1. Emily Worthington says:

    Good response, but I’d go even further. Jenkins’ stance that “There will always be a small number of critics who want to keep [opera] to themselves and to an elite” certainly contributes to the perpetuation of an elitist stereotype of opera, and by extension classical music, especially when she juxtaposes it with her own ‘normal’ background. That’s bad enough, but the real and disgusting hypocracy of it is that Jenkins was a ‘normal’ child who, as a direct result of being encouraged to study classical music to a high level, was able to win a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and go on to have a lucrative international career (the fact that it is as a crossover artist is immaterial). It has also put her in the rare position of being a musician whose comments receive attention from the national press. Yet, by her words, she is perpetuating a stereotype that discourages other ‘normal’ children from taking up classical music and thus potentially reaping the same rewards.

    Even worse, by contributing to a climate where cultural and intellectual aspiration is branded elitist, exclusive and snobbish, Jenkins’ comments make it harder for those with a genuine desire to bring classical music to a wider audience to successfully campaign for, for instance, greater subsidy for school instrumental teaching. Contrast this with another musicians from a ‘normal’ background, Nicola Benedetti, who uses constantly her media visibility to ‘bang the drum’ for widening participation through schemes such as The Big Noise. Personally I couldn’t care less about what noise comes out of Jenkins (OBE)’s mouth. But when she neglects her responsibilities as a spokesperson for the genre with which she affiliates herself, and goes so far as to inflict more unfounded reputational damage on an already vulnerable artform, I say it’s time to call her out.

    • Faye says:

      Please take a step back and compare the background of most classical performers to ordinary families. I mean those families who you probably never see, who have income below 21K a year; families who, I’m sure this is a surprise to you, but just have a look at the national statistics, actually constitute the majority of the population. Nicola Benedetti started violin lessons at 4. Ordinary people would not be able to afford the lessons, let alone the multiple violins her parents had to buy her on the way.

      • @Faye: It’s merely the cultural milieu we live in now. Both my parents attended violin lessons, because (!) their parents were poor and couldn’t afford a piano. Back then, everybody had at least basic musical education, there were church choirs etc. It’s not that today’s parents are poorer, but that they have different priorities – they rather pay for a sports club or holidays in Spain than music lessons. As a result – many people now can’t tell the difference between good music and bad (classical or otherwise).

      • K says:

        @frufru: I don’t know how old you are or how old your your parents are but neither of my parents had a basic musical education (whatever you might consider that to be). Things were decidely worse for my grandmother who worked before leaving home at 14 to become a scullery maid in mansion in Holland Park. Her enduring memory of school was being beaten on her left hand so she could no longer use it and was forced to write with her right. Neither my grand parents nor my great grandparents could afford musical instruments or lessons. Instead they prioritised food and clothes.

    • Joanne Green says:

      Jenkins is not a spokesperson for opera. She never has and never will sing in operas. She makes ludicrous excuses for why she is not hired by opera companies. First she said that nobody’s voice is ready for opera until age 30. (Please tell that to singers like Frederica von Stade, Theresa Berganza, Anna Netrebko, Jose Carreras, Joyce DiDonato, Elina Garanca, etc. who all achieved success as opera singers while still in their 20s.). Now that Jenkins is over 30, she claims that all opera singers are fat and ugly, so she is too beautiful for opera. (Please tell that to Danielle DiNiese, Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca, Frederica von Stade, Jose Carreras, Anna Moffo, Samuel Ramey, Placido Domingo, Sylvia McNair, Ailyn perez, Stephen Costello, Jonas Kaufmann, Dimitry Hvorostovsky, etc. who all are or were real opera singers who also just happened to be gorgeous.) Jenkins is either delusional about her ability so sing opera or she knows very well that she just doesn’t measure up, so she makes up ridiculous excuses for the fact that she has never sung a single role in an opera and never will. Her voice just isn’t suitable, her breathing is terrible, her vibrato uncontrolled and wobbly, her top notes screechy, and her vocal support non-existent.

  2. catatsea says:

    Thanks interesting piece and I’m no great fan of Jenkins singing but do feel like you rather over-egg the pudding here … and skating very close to reverse snobbery. I think your jibes at Jenkins might be unbalancing all your other observations! At the end of the day she’s just a performer out to make a living. And I know quite a few folk who have developed an interest in opera because they saw her on the telly! I used to read comics and think the New Seekers were really cool. Didn’t stop me growing up to enjoy Chekhov and Baroque… (and still liking the odd comic now and again).

    Perhaps the real problem with alleged elitism and opera audience demographics is a little less easy a target. Regardless of all the great initiatives you mention it would still take a great deal of nerve for an 18 year old from a poor background to walk into the ROH. I don’t think the media are responsible for the assumption in Britain that opera is elitist. Just as I don’t think Jenkins is right in saying that opera critics are protecting opera for the elite. The media won’t change audience demographics substantially one way or the other until the act of going and the audience themselves get more welcoming. The UK is a heavily divided society and there is a fair bit of navigating different strata to be done at the opera. If you are used to it you can cope but I still remember my first few times – I felt distinctly uncomfortable and though I really enjoyed the opera I was (nearly) put off by my journey from the door to my seat and back again. And that’s before we get to the fact that a lot of operas and / or opera productions are actually pretty dull. I’m an opera lover but I had to work at going, and I was already in love with the music so I was strongly motivated!

    And I’m not sure anyone accuses opera of being elitist because the houses have red curtains an gold paint – so do most theatres in the UK that were built before the 40s… Most people who don;t go to the opera don;t go because the stuff they hear on the radio puts them off (I don’t go to grunge nights for the same reason!) , or if it doesn’t, because getting cheap tickets is really hard (we all know a lot of those ‘tix for the people’ often end up in the hands of regulars), or if you do get a cheap ticke the experience of being in the house on the night can be off putting (no one helps you navigate the “audience rules” – the bar is even more expensive the a cinema chain’s pick n mix – etc etc). The issue is not Jenkins, nor is it perceived or real elitism. The issue is someone urgently needs to do a service re-design for “first time opera attendees”…. which has just given me an idea!

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      Hi, Catatsea. Thanks for this. You make some interesting points even if we don’t agree on everything!

      My post wasn’t intended as a complete rubbishing of Jenkins. There’s a place for her music and she clearly has a market. You’ll note that I said that interactions between different types of music can be interesting – and indeed, some of my own research is on historical interactions between opera and ‘popular culture’. And if people come to opera via Jenkins then that is great. I should perhaps add that I don’t come from a musical family and came to opera myself via performing in G&S at university and through hearing snippets on Classic fm!

      My complaint is not so much about Jenkins’ existence as about those specific comments that allude to elitism and about the particular slant that was put on those comments (the headline, for instance, hyping up the point about opera ‘snobs’). The media love this sort of thing. At the point when I was a young person discovering opera (the early 1990s) I really don’t remember there having been any of this “opera is elitist” talk – in fact, I was made to think at university that it was rather frivolous stuff to be interested in! Now the ‘elitism’ rhetoric is extremely pronounced, so I would stand by that argument. I think we live in an age of soundbites and easy cliches and in which many things are reduced to caricatures. It’s journalistic laziness and I just don’t think it’s very helpful.

      You’re right that tickets can be expensive and hard to come by (although the same would apply, I believe, to rock concerts or premier league football). Unfortunately, world-class opera is an expensive thing to put on. However, opera is being performed in so many different ways by different types of company now, plus we can access it on the internet, radio, TV (occasionally) and via rental DVDs for very little or no money. I also don’t think opera houses and opera audiences are necessarily unwelcoming. Each year I take a group of students to the opera for the first time (ENO), Many of them have never been to the opera before and they’re always amazed that there are lots of other young people there and that they are casually dressed and unpretentious just like them: this is not what the media has led them to expect. I’m sure there’s more that could be done, as you say, for first time audience members, but cutting the cliches would be a good place to start.

      • Nikolaus P. says:

        Let’s be clear about something:

        Sure there might be a couple operas that one can appreciate and love at first but in general opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form. Opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population. Why? Because listening to and assimilating the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving).

        Furthermore, opera is first and foremost a musical phenomenon. In other words, the ESSENTIAL argument is posed in musical language. Does anyone seriously believe that if the director were to take a backseat to the music, vocalists and conductor that this will encourage potential opera lovers to turn away from the art form? It’s incredibly silly and this is why I’ve never seen anyone answer the question. The drama and the music must always be evaluated separately. I don’t care if the libretto is of the highest quality, there is still something trivial about all of the stage business next to being delighted, stirred, overwhelmed or profoundly moved by a score. And I don’t care what style of music it is. Isn’t it the instinctive response of most sensitive people 99.9 percent of the time to turn inward and let it all transpire in their own head and imagination?

        It has always been obvious to me that contemplative listening of recordings in private (with amplification) represents the purest and deepest form of opera love. Those who recognize that one cannot truly know and love an opera unless one has devoted the many hours to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize all of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details of the score. Or the acknowledgment that one must at least make a wholehearted effort to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize most of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details. Apparently there are some in the opera world today who need to be reminded of the fact that listening to music is a major cognitive task that requires very considerable processing resources. The simpler task of reading libretti or studying dramaturgy just cannot be compared to the process of meticulous listening. Let me also stress that this type of opera lover always experiences a thrill or sees aesthetic value in passages that many others dismiss as “inferior, dull or mediocre”.

        I am hopeful that generation’s TEDIOUS insistence on the physical and material aspects of operatic production rather than the musical will, like all controversy, pass away.

      • catatsea says:

        I think we probably agree on more than we disagree on – but I still think opera audiences and houses are not as welcoming (in the main, there are exceptions) to newbies as they ought to be. There’s a difference between a Uni student going along in a group with you and a kid from a poor backgrounding turning up alone or with a mate. Growing up in small town 70s Scotland I certainly thought opera and classical music was for poshies, and to be honest it still is too often in the UK. I think the trouble is that when an educated middle class person thinks of “snobs” or elitists they think of super wealthy or the aristocracy. When a poor kid from a small town or a sink estate thinks of snobs or elitists they think of them, but also of you and I – university educated professionals who like opera… ;)

      • Ian Pace says:

        Nikolaus’s characterisation is one I hardly recognise at all (as one who has been an opera lover all my life, and teach about opera to undergraduates):

        ‘Because listening to and assimilating the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving).’

        That may be true of some Mozart (though I don’t believe it’s all that hard), Wagner, Musorgsky, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and various others, but is a million miles away from the experience of listening to/watching Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, Verdi’s Il trovatore, Bizet’s Carmen, Massenet’s Manon, Puccini’s Tosca or Léhar’s Die lustige Witwe, or countless others (none of which is to suggest that any of these are lesser works than the former category). The plots are as simple or simpler than an average film, the structures are mostly quite straightforward to follow, there is ample humour, moments of high drama, sentiment, and much else. You seem to be using a conceptual/aesthetic model more appropriate to Beethoven Late Quartets to apply to the operatic medium which – in various periods and in many regions at least since the early nineteenth century – has been seen as a cheap and populist medium compared to the supposed elevated qualities of chamber and instrumental music.

        ‘Furthermore, opera is first and foremost a musical phenomenon. In other words, the ESSENTIAL argument is posed in musical language.’

        By no means necessarily true. Even in Wagner, there is a level of integration and interdependence between text, music, narrative, and so on, so few elements are separable from the others. Opera is a mixture of many elements;singling one of these out and rendering others as less significant may work with some operas, but as a general principle it is no less problematic than that operatic writing (for example that of Catherine Clément or Siegfried Kracauer) which focuses exclusively on the narratives with little thought for the music.

        ‘It has always been obvious to me that contemplative listening of recordings in private (with amplification) represents the purest and deepest form of opera love. Those who recognize that one cannot truly know and love an opera unless one has devoted the many hours to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize all of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details of the score. ‘

        That is the view I think is *really* elitist, and it reiterates a particular strain of late nineteenth-century Germanic thought (with the addition of the dimension of recordings). Whilst I certainly spend a good deal of time indulging in ‘close listening’ of opera, I would much sooner see the works staged well than just listen to a recording.

        ‘Apparently there are some in the opera world today who need to be reminded of the fact that listening to music is a major cognitive task that requires very considerable processing resources.’

        And various people have been decrying opera audiences for a long time in similar terms (read Liszt’s article from the 1830s bemoaning how much audiences for operas of Bellini and Donizetti were seduced by the ‘Grand Cry’).

        I am afraid I read this post as one of a self-styled discerning listener who wishes to retain opera as the exclusive property of themselves and a few like-minded individuals. Not unlike some of those nineteenth-century German critics who saw Verdi as little more than a ‘hurdy-gurdy man’ on the grounds that many ordinary people took to his melodies and would sing them in the street.

      • MM says:

        “It has always been obvious to me that contemplative listening of recordings in private (with amplification) represents the purest and deepest form of opera love. Those who recognize that one cannot truly know and love an opera unless one has devoted the many hours to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize all of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details of the score. Or the acknowledgment that one must at least make a wholehearted effort to aurally unpick, assimilate and internalize most of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, coloristic and structural details.”

        and

        “Sure there might be a couple operas that one can appreciate and love at first but in general opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form. Opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population. Why?”

        Because you don’t understand history is why.

        Opera was not an ‘elite’ art form in its heyday. It was one with wide mainstream acceptance up until, probably, the 1950’s before other art forms became more popular, Verdi or not. Think Shakespeare-Opera-Broadway-Pop Music.

        You do NOT need to do ANYTHING that you suggest Nikolaus P.

        “I am afraid I read this post as one of a self-styled discerning listener who wishes to retain opera as the exclusive property of themselves and a few like-minded individuals.”

        Good luck to you and the ‘few like-minded individuals’. I’m sure the several thousand of you around the world can all chip in and fund all those brilliant productions the ‘plebs’ get to see at Covent Garden, The Met, La Scala, etc.

  3. Alexandra Wilson says:

    That’s a great response Emily! Let’s keep challenging this sort of journalism.

  4. Jinkspots says:

    The late 20th Century artist Robert Lenkiewicz is quoted as having had a similar view about Art. People believed – and perhaps he liked to have it known – that Art was not an elitist preoccupation reserved for those with wealth and status; the manner in which he presented his work largely reinforces this view. His best friend however, is known to have said that Lenkiewicz couldn’t give two hoots about the opinion of the man in the street. Are Jenkins’s actions here reminiscent of such opposing views?

    Jenkins is privileged because of her voice and her looks. The money has followed and the need to reaffirm her ‘ordinariness’ understandable, though largely unnecessary as she likely transgressed from ‘ordinary’ to ‘other’ a long time ago.

  5. PB says:

    Wow, so much malice towards someone trying to bring a wider audience to this medium often considered elitist – why the personal slants towards KJ? Just because she attended the Royal College of Music, does not for a second suggest she isn’t from a normal background – I know many colleagues who attended the RCM, Guildhall, RNCM and other UK-based conservatoires, and I can tell you the majority are from normal backgrounds.

    Sure there may be individuals out there who are attempting to make Opera more accessible to the ‘man in the street’ and applaud their efforts – there is a good reason why these efforts are being made, specifically that they are needed! Given this is the case, why not reach out to Ms Jenkins and work WITH her, instead of expending your energy in an attempt to derail her efforts, regardless of motive.

    As with many things, pulling together as a team is far more effective, accomplishing more, as opposed to bickering and petty squabbling.

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      PB: no malice intended. As noted above in my reply to catatsea, my point was more about how the press conference was reported. The journalist has put a distinctive slant on it (just as the reporter in the Mail focused entirely on the fact that Jenkins had dyed her hair!).

      Point taken that ‘normal’ people train at conservatoires – of course they do! But Jenkins sets herself up as ‘normal’ in opposition to the ‘opera snobs’, who are by implication ‘not normal’. The music journalists, music educationalists and music academics I know are from normal backgrounds too – they are certainly not champagne swilling snobs, as Jenkins’ comment would suggest! I think Emily Worthington, in the first comment makes a lot of good points about why Jenkins’ comments weren’t particularly helpful in the cause of promoting opera.

      You make the point that reaching out to ‘the man in the street’ is needed, implying that opera does have an image problem. But this is in large part due to the modern media. Opera has meant different things at different times and it really was “popular culture” at the turn of the twentieth century.

      As for reaching out to Katherine Jenkins, I’m up for working with anyone who is genuinely interested in promoting opera. She’s very welcome to give me a call!

      • W G Hughes says:

        An opera fan for 70 years and a complete Puccinian ! AW says
        ” I’m up for working with anyone ………..” Regrettably not true !
        AW is quite capable of putting up barriers and coming across as elitist! Unfortunately she is quite unaware of the harm she causes to others. I wish it was not true.

    • Joanne Green says:

      Opera fans do not want to “reach out” to Ms. Jenkins because of her arrogance and her pretensions to being an opera singer. She has to know that she has not the voice nor the technique nor the training to sing in operas. I know that she went to the R.A., but all she was able to achieve was a teaching credential. I don’t know why she even attended the R.A. when she has stated that she always knew that her looks would be her advantage and she never bothered to learn to sing with decent technique. She has made disparaging remarks about opera, saying that the opera world slates her because she is blonde, beautiful, and wears pretty dresses. She should face up to the fact that the reason the opera world doesn’t like her is because she sings so poorly and because she makes such nasty and pompous remarks.

  6. houndentenor says:

    The problem with Ms Jenkins is simple: she’s a terrible singer. There’s a better soprano at every music school or conservatory on the planet. She did a fine job a couple of years ago dancing on Dancing with the Stars. Perhaps she should consider that as a career, but her singing is simply not good enough to warrant a recording contract in any genre. I guess that makes me a snob since I can tell that she’s not very good and her “fans” cannot. So be it.

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      It’s the exposure given to a small number of individuals that is so problematic (and I’m sure this applies to many walks of life). Why does the media have to focus so incessantly on a few “celebrities”? There are so many great up-and-coming and indeed established opera singers in this country who would never get that sort of media attention but who really deserve it!

      • Joanne Green says:

        The singer who should be getting all of the media attention is brilliant operatic mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton, who in my humble opinion is the best young opera singer to come along in decades.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes that is precisely it. I love opera, pop, rock and jazz etc – I don’t even mind so called cross over acts, each genre is as good potentially as the other. The problem with Katherine Jenkins is that her voice is rather bland and she sings with no character or depth. It is hard for people not used to opera (like many I know) but who like say Freddie Mercury, to understand the appeal of opera when they hear her and I can only agree – except that Jenkins is not an opera singer. She has never been in and opera and never will be. It’s like in pop on the one hand we have the Spice Girls and the other, Blondie. I don’t really get Katherine Jenkins but I have grown up with opera. But if your only experience of music is Cheryl Cole then I can see the appeal of Katherine. Hopefully it will lead people to then listen to other singers. I always think it is such a shame that so many people almost have a fear of opera in this country that doesn’t happen on the continent. And that there are beautiful singers sat on the checkout at a supermarket.

  7. John Ingram says:

    I remember some years ago when Jenkins was interviewed, that she stated that her ambition was to sing in opera, but she didn’t think that she was ready vocally to do so at that time, but hoped to be singing roles like Carmen from her late twenties. What has happened? Has she found crossover more lucrative? Has she found it easier? Does she still have opera ambitions? She can dance but can she act? There are many questions I would love her to answer.

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      With her new record deal she talked of returning to her musical roots, so we shall see. But I have no doubt whatsoever that crossover is more lucrative!

  8. operacat says:

    I think that when people use ‘elitist’ as a pejorative term, they are using it incorrectly. It’s not the audience who are the ‘elite’, it is the PERFORMERS – at least, I hope so, that’s why I go to the opera! (and to recitals and concerts – and the theatre!) I became an opera-lover at the age of 13 – er – 50 years ago!! And my love of opera started with Wagner – the first opera I ever listened to was DIE WALKUERE. There was no-one around to tell me that I ‘ought not to like that’, because it ‘isn’t for working-class teenagers’, so I’ve NEVER thought it’s an ‘elitist’ interest. I suppose I can’t deny that it is a MINORITY interest, but I have never come across anyone who wants to restrict it to a small band of specialists – indeed, most of us want to share the joy of opera with as many people as possible.

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      Absolutely: here’s to sharing it with as many people as possible! I agree re “elites” – elite singers are a good thing, just as elite athletes are a good thing, etc etc. But “elitist” means something different – and I think it’s a rhetoric that’s fairly recent. I wasn’t aware of it when I was first getting into opera c. 20 years ago. I love the thought of you listening to Wagner at age 13!

    • Absolutely. Nobody’s going to encounter problems by purchasing a ticket and watching an opera, the same with a film or concert. I suspect Katherine was talking more about barriers to becoming a performer. There may be financial barriers to tickets in some cases, but as one reader reported, it would appear that the price difference isn’t that much. And reduced price tickets are more readily available nowadays. But there is an element of bullying that goes on in all circles when it comes to admitting one’s preference in musical listening. People should be free and not judged for their tastes. This judgment occurs from both ends of the spectrum.

      • Alexandra Wilson says:

        I wasn’t judging people who like Katherine Jenkins’ music. I just remarked that there are people who don’t. And I didn’t say anything in the post about my own feelings on the matter! The main point of the post was to use Jenkins’ comments as an example of a widespread rhetoric about opera that I think is unhelpful.

  9. ronnythefiddle says:

    Can we just get one thing clear?:
    Katherine Jenkins only got a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music because of a clerical error.
    When auditioned she was mixed up with a cellist (who’s now a jobbing pro on the London scene) who has almost the same name (Katherine Jenkinson). It was the cellist that was supposed to get the scholarship. I doubt KJ the singer would even have been offered a place.
    That said, I’d love to see her perform in an opera (as a real opera singer would). It would be hilarious!

  10. Nikolaus P. says:

    Ian,

    The basis of an opera is musical, not visual. That’s why we can revelatory experiences in records or concert performances. It is dramaturgy, but primarily conveyed in the music. Yes, the libretto will determine the structure of the music, but it’s the music that makes the story what it is, not the text, and certainly not the staging.

    • Ian Pace says:

      I don’t think Wagner would have agreed with you on that:

      ‘Thus has Music of herself fulfilled what neither of the other severed arts had skill to do. Each of these arts but eked out her own self-centred emptiness by taking, and egoistic borrowing; neither, therefore, had the skill to be herself, and of herself to weave the girdle wherewith to link the whole. But Tone, in that she was herself completely, and moved amid her own unsullied element, attained the force of the most heroic, most loveworthy self-sacrifice,—of mastering, nay of renouncing ‘her own self; to reach out to her sisters the hand of rescue. She thus has kept herself as heart that binds both head and limbs in one; and it is not without significance, that it is precisely the art of Tone which has gained so wide extension through all the branches of our modern public life.’

      (From Wagner, ‘Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft’ (The Art-Work of the Future) (1849))

      • Nikolaus says:

        I don’t care what Wagner thought of his own creations….. I listen to most of his masterpieces as pure music and always have and derive intense aesthetic pleasure from the ceaseless glow and richness of the instrumental and vocal fabric.

        I am a fierce defender of the primacy of music in the operatic art form. No, it is NOT the only valid aspect but it is the PRINCIPAL part…. There are many trendy folks in the opera world today who say that unless we focus on ‘updating’ the visuals/drama we will lose a lot newcomers. This is utter nonsense.

        Here is a basic truth:

        ”Music succeeds or fails on purely musical terms, and this is true even in opera, where extramusical associations necessarily play a part. No opera has ever remained in the repertory because it has a great libretto. It remains because the music is great”

        Indeed.

        If one isn’t drawn into opera first and foremost by the musical architecture of a piece (instrumental and vocal and all the intricacies), then almost certainly opera is not for that person… The best staging and direction is really in our mind and imagination… Modern stagings and directions are at best “interesting” and can be thought-provoking BUT nothing really beats our own brains when we actually listen to the music and let it does its job.

      • theodor says:

        IP,

        Wagner as an example. Needless to say his music is far deeper and more profound than the literary, political and philosophical ideas he was trying to express. Yes he does express his views and ideas, and he does tell his stories, and he does use myths interestingly, but the music always far surpasses these stories, plots and and ideas. As a literary artist he would have sunk out of sight long ago. I am grateful to his literary imagination for stimulating the musical ideas of the operas. There is ample evidence he could not write great music without literary ideas to fuel it. But I would no more highly honor the finished literary aspects of these works than I would eat the frying pan along with the omelette.

    • MM says:

      Once again you fail History of Music 101 Nicholas P.

      Opera is a STAGE form. It has ALWAYS been a stage form. It is music and staging. Characters and characterisations. Dance and costumes.. Without it it would be lied/chanson/art song/etc. and Choral Music. Without a libretto you have NO opera.

      According to the OED opera is a “composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined” and has been used in that sense since 1639!

      For all your superficially pseudo-learned babble you seem to be digging yourself further and further into your self-constructed pit of irrelevance.

      Let us know when you’re going to actually understand opera rather than make it into your own personally defined art form for the exclusive property of yourself and those few like-minded individuals you mentioned earlier.

      • Lepnani says:

        MM,

        If I may, I think you are being a little unfair to Nicholas.

        Opera is a hybrid art form, made up of somewhat strange bedfellows. Music, words, and theatrical production will often cohere to create something memorable and moving. But these separate elements, these distinct art forms, nonetheless exist in an inherent tension, always threatening to MILITATE against one another.

        Opera’s greatest innovators–people Gluck and Wagner–have typically sought to redress and reform what they saw as a dangerous imbalance (the most common complaint being that purely musical display had swamped any real dramatic impulse).

        We continually have these conversations; they are as old as the art form itself. We always end up playing parts in our own reenactment of Capriccio.

        For that reason, it seems only fitting to be tolerant of one another’s differing views.

      • MM says:

        While the tension has certainly been there Lepnani, I’m calling Nicholas P. out on his belief that we have to be some sort of boffin of the highest order to understand opera.

        “It has always been obvious to me that contemplative listening of recordings in private (with amplification) represents the purest and deepest form of opera love.”

        It’s pretty obvious to ME that Nicholas has been locked up in an acoustically secure room far too long listening to recordings of ‘Pagliacci’ because he’s more interested in the ‘essence’ (my quotations) rather than the ACTUAL opera since all that OTHER stuff is soooo unnecessary. I guess the composers just went out and scored the music without ANY thought about all the other things going on on stage at the time!

        “Because listening to and assimilating the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give.”

        If Nicholas got out of his stuffy little room he might realise that the ATTENDANCE of a patron to a production of the opera is “the purest and deepest form of opera love” and not the switching on of his CD player.

      • Nikolaus says:

        MM,

        You are MISCONSTRUING much of what I’ve said.

        My main point is this: it was only through patient, careful and repeated listening to recordings that I have come to profoundly love most of my favorite operas. This has nothing to do with elitism and boffins or whatever. It is simply the fact that it takes some time to fully absorb the great masterpieces.

        I also know many people who do not enjoy sitting through an opera, or any musical production without listening to at least a few of the pieces first. I can’t speak for others but, REALLY how many people can watch a piece being sung or played, hearing it for the first time, and fully take pleasure in all its beauty and other qualities? Sure, there are a few pieces that grab your ears and take them on a ride at first exposure, but that usually isn’t the case.

        Also, I DO love attending live opera, but my preferred method of experiencing opera most of the time is privately and through audio recordings.

      • Nikolaus says:

        MM,

        One more thing.

        You wrote: “It’s pretty obvious to ME that Nicholas has been locked up in an acoustically secure room far too long listening to recordings of ‘Pagliacci’”

        ——-

        Just for the record: I was never a huge fan of operas like ‘Pagliacci’.

        Here are some of my very favorite operas. This list is in NO WAY exhaustive, but it does represent my first batch of essential works.

        1) Pelleas et Melisande

        2) Falstaff

        3) Capriccio

        4) Doktor Faust

        5) The Return of Ulysses To His Homeland

        6) De Temporum Fine Comoedia

        7) Siegfried (always an indication of the most genuine Wagner lover)

        8) Moses and Aron

        9) The Love For Three Oranges

        10) Mathis der Maler

        11) Palestrina

        12) The Mask of Orpheus

      • Nikolaus says:

        MM,

        Are you going to respond to my last two posts from last Friday and Saturday or are you going to keep hiding?

  11. Tim Delaney says:

    I suspect that Katherine Jenkins, a crossover artist who chooses to court a wider public, is pandering to the wider audience with the “opera is elitist” jibe.

    I go to opera and I have also been to two Katherine Jenkins shows. I would regard €180 spent on a ticket in the orchestra stalls at Covent Garden to see Carmen as far better value for money that the €85 spent on similar seats for Katherine Jenkins at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Jenkins is quite precious on stage. She sang only eight numbers all evening, and much of the time was taken up with filler acts while she went through several frock changes. Carmen, on the other hand, was absolutely terrific entertainment from start to finish.

    I love Covent Garden and go as often as time, money and competing commitments permit. I don’t find the audiences there to be the stereotypical snobs that opera is accused of attracting. In fact you get music lovers from all walks of life and from all over the world.

    Opera does not need to be dumbed down to be enjoyable by a larger audience. It just needs to be made more accessible – and in the UK great efforts are made to achieve this. It also needs more people to suspend their prejudices and just go along and try it out. I remember as a child, how in comic books opera singers and opera buffs were always portrayed as faintly ridiculous or as snobs. There is a lot of negative indoctrination that must be overcome.

    Meanwhile I don’t really get upset about labels. I have on several occasions been to a football match at Chelsea and gone on to Covent Garden the same evening. In the first venue I might be stereotyped by outsiders as a hooligan, in the second as a snob. Neither, I hope, would be accurate. I

    The best thing is to make up your own mind about what you iike and dislike in the arts or indeed in life. Everything else is just other people’s opinions.

    • Joanne Green says:

      Why on earth did you go to a second Jenkins show? Of course there are two ways to look at the fact that she only sang eight numbers the whole evening. 1. I spent all that money and she only sang eight numbers??? I feel cheated. 2. Thank God, I only had to sit through eight numbers from this mediocre singer. The filler acts were better than she was. :-)

  12. Sarah says:

    “How ironic it is then that Katherine Jenkins should have bought so wholeheartedly into the luxurious ‘trappings’ of opera with her promotional event at the Ritz, while simultaneously alluding to stereotypes that do considerable harm to the image of an art form for which she claims to speak. One can only speculate at her motive for perpetuating the myth.” – perhaps she’s just a bit thick?

  13. Tree Willow says:

    Sorry Ms Wilson but I beg to differ. The economic and age and body-type barriers to making it in opera seem phenomenal to me as a singer, and insurmountable. I cannot afford coaching and no one in the business would coach me for free, I could not afford to travel to or pay for an audition fee, I am pretty sure there are those among my former teachers (before I became a Mum) who look down on me for letting my voice go, and well, I could go on here. I have had some amazing opera coaching. But I have also encountered teachers who made me feel small and scarred my confidence. This happened higher up in the profession, ie at the opera level. What I am saying, here, is that those who teach and coach and conduct in the opera industry may be providing a barrier. A barrier that only the wealthy middle to upper class can confidently surmount. Of course working class people make it. But it takes a lot more confidence and graft, and a well-oiled back for the criticisms to roll off.

    I agree that outreach and projecting a hip, down to earth image is much better in the classical industry than it was. It is getting with the vibe of social networking and appearing far less stuffy, more compassionate, less overly critical. But work still needs to be done :) Eric Whitacre is my role model here, absolutely phenomenal work that he does just by proudly being himself :)

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      Tree Willow, I’m sorry to hear about your experiences. The question of training and what that costs is a slightly different matter and I’m sure that is tough for lots of aspiring singers. As for the barriers of “body image”, that’s the subject I plan to tackle next!

  14. […] Alexandra Wilson makes quite a few points about Katherine Jenkins‘ recent (umpteenth) tirade about «opera snobs». […]

  15. Chris Woodham says:

    How can you be ‘PRIVELEGED’ to attend the RAM? Last time I looked you had to do an audition…and it’s quite hard. For someone who lectures (and writes articles) you dont seem to use language very well. With that one line trying to illustrate a point about someones background – You do an enormous disservice to all the undergraduates who have achieved their dreams by working hard enough to get a place at a conservatoire.

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      I didn’t mean you have to be privileged to get into a conservatoire. I meant that once there she had the privilege of a unique and wonderful experience, beyond the wildest dreams of most ‘normal’ people. And I think that perpetuating the stereotype about opera and elitism isn’t very helpful to her RAM peers who are jobbing singers and doubtless finding life rather harder.

      • Chris says:

        But the word privilege means having ‘special rights or advantages that most people don’t have’ – you are using the word in relation to the RAM to try and make a point about her background – this is just not valid in my opinion. Also surely when people talk about their background they are talking about their childhood up to age 18. I would imagine the point KJ is trying to make is to draw out a comparison to the vast majority of people who do make it into the RAM – those trained at Chets or similar – eg not normal and privileged.

        Anyway this is turning into semantics which is pointless. Have a nice weekend.

  16. Huntleycat says:

    In Opera, as in all performance arts, surely at the most basic level, the ultimate judgement of a particular genre, performance or indeed individual performer, is its success. This probably means fundamentally, whether society will either collectively or individually support its existence. The unfortunate truth is that Katherine Jenkins is successful in her own field. If nobody went to her concerts or paid for her recordings she wouldn’t be successful and then nobody would listen to what she said.
    Frankly, I think she has to some extent achieved a sort of aim by generating the response she has, shown in this discussion, interesting as all the comments are! Best thing to completely ignore her and the newspapers that report her!

  17. simone belcampo says:

    I frequently talk to the Head of the Publications at the Royal Opera House. In answer to the question ‘Who is your audience?’ he says: “We just don’t know”. I think he is right. Opera audiences are the most motley group I sit with – more than theatre audiences, say. What does unite many of those I talk to is a passionate interest in the singers – more than in works even. All this has changed in my lifetime, largely due to the efforts of Opera Houses and the greater flow of information. Nor are opera tickets much cheaper than some West End theatres or football clubs – not to mention the price of tea at the Ritz or Savoy.

  18. Isn’t it simply that Katherine Jenkins’ label decided that because she has absolutely no talent they needed a return of investment for booking such an expensive venue and so gave her something contentious to say? The oldest PR trick in the book when you are peddling rubbish. I don’t doubt they probably pre briefed the media that she would say something controversial to ensure attendance. They got column inches and no doubt sales as a result.

    • Alexandra Wilson says:

      I’m beginning to get a sense from singer friends of the insidious power of the PR agent (for a select band of celebrity singers only)…

  19. […] A blog post I wrote speculating about who these supposed “snobs” might be generated over 12,000 hits in 24 hours and started a lively debate on Twitter and Facebook. Those who joined in were diverse in background and in age (so much for the cliché about opera audiences dying out). In the words of one commenter, “opera audiences are the most motley group I sit with”. […]

  20. […] A blog post I wrote speculating about who these supposed “snobs” might be generated over 12,000 hits in 24 hours and started a lively debate on Twitter and Facebook. Those who joined in were diverse in background and in age (so much for the cliché about opera audiences dying out). In the words of one commenter, “opera audiences are the most motley group I sit with”. […]

  21. […] Katherine Jenkins at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. Photograph: Matt Kent/WireImage A blog post I wrote speculating about who these supposed "snobs" might be generated over 12,000 hits in 24 hours and started a lively debate on Twitter and Facebook. Those […]

  22. […] A blog post I wrote speculating about who these supposed “snobs” might be generated over 12,000 hits in 24 hours and started a lively debate on Twitter and Facebook. Those who joined in were diverse in background and in age (so much for the cliché about opera audiences dying out). In the words of one commenter, “opera audiences are the most motley group I sit with”. […]

  23. […] A blog post I wrote speculating about who these supposed “snobs” might be generated over 12,000 hits in 24 hours and started a lively debate on Twitter and Facebook. Those who joined in were diverse in background and in age (so much for the cliché about opera audiences dying out). In the words of one commenter, “opera audiences are the most motley group I sit with”. […]

  24. […] If you have the time and want to get in on the discussion look at Alexandra’s blog as well OBERTO, OXFORD BROOKES: EXPLORING RESEARCH TRENDS IN OPERA  […]

  25. best zeolite says:

    Excellent article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site.
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  26. […] course, you can be proactive in engaging with wider audiences via social media. 1 A light-hearted blog post about operatic stereotypes that I dashed off one Sunday morning garnered over 17,000 hits in a week and led to a commission to […]

  27. W G Hughes says:

    I could say that Alexandra Wilson irritates me but that is not a punishable offence. Elitism and “opera snobs” is a thing of the past.Almost all opera fans today can afford the price of a ticket.That is not how it was a few years ago.Things have changed for the better.Today there is no need to write and talk of these past problems.It is history! Today opera houses go out of their way to welcome every body.
    Do Katherine Jenkins’ fans take her seriously when she speaks of elitism and snobs? I doubt it very much.When Alexandra Wilson goes to print on this topic everyone takes it very, very seriously.There is much toing and froing but no one demands action which goes to prove that this is not an issue that gives rise to protest as it did in magazines and news papers say fifty years ago.Those who attend a Katherine Jenkins concert could afford a seat at the ROH!
    My love of opera started when I was seven.The film ” The Legend of the Glass Mountain “, 1949, with Tito Gobbi and Elena Rizzieri and music by Nino Rota had a profound effect on me and it remains to this day.Every week I listened to opera programmes presented by Stephen Williams, author of “Come to the Opera”,Philip Hope Wallace,Harold Rosenthal,Charles Osborne, the Earl of Harewood and Edward Greenfield, author of “Puccini, Keeper of the Seal”.Those days were amongst the happiest! No one has taken over their role .I would like to nominate Alexandra Wilson to have a go on the BBC radio.She would be very popular.
    My most recent buys were operas by Renzo Rossellini, “Il Vortice”
    and “Ildebrando Pizzetti’s ‘ Cagliostro”

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