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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.


The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies – Annual Conference

Immediately after attending the RMA Research Students’ Conference (see last OBERTO blog post), I boarded a train for Oxford and the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference at St. Hugh’s College. The theme of this year’s event was ‘Pleasures and Entertainments’; the immense scope of ideas and research which the speakers contributed within this theme was astounding, including everything from the elite women athletes of the long eighteenth century to ‘spiritual alchemy’ and the pleasures which could be gained from writing and hearing sermons.  Naturally, opera was a significant form of pleasure-seeking and entertainment in the eighteenth century.  Opera, singers, celebrity, theatre design, opera-going and opera criticism in England and abroad were all topics of papers and discussion.

St Hugh's College

St. Hugh’s College, Oxford

The first panel I attended was ‘Opera, Court Cases and Scandal’.  Olga A. Baird spoke about the late eighteenth-century composer Antonio Casimir Cartellieri and his ‘mysterious patron “Count Oborsky”’ and their activities in the Habsburg territories.  A significant part of this paper concerned Count Michal Kazimierz Oginski, who was a patron of musicians in Vienna.  At his palace in Slonim, Belarus, Oginski had his own theatre, a ballet company, and singers for regular opera performances. As a youth Obarsky spent time at the palace at Slonim, and through his association with Oginski he became a ‘pseudo-count’ and patron of musicians and composers, although he remains an enigmatic figure. Oginski’s remarkable theatre at Slonim, however, is evidence of the many places of opera performance based in remote provincial centres, purely for the entertainment of particular aristocratic patrons and their households.

After this, Bruce Alan Brown’s ‘Opera in France, Italy, and on the Moon, as Viewed by a Frenchman, Financier, and Philosophe’ examined another mystery – this time the authorship of the Lettresur le Mechanisme de L’Opera Italien (1756). This Lettre makes comparisons between Italian opera buffa and French tragédie lyrique, and questions whether Parisian audiences wanted Italian opera, if they knew why they wanted it, or if perhaps they feared it.  The paper touched on the difficulties inherent in interpreting pseudonyms in opera criticism, and deducing whether this Lettre was written by an Italian or French critic. Bruce Alan Brown’s research also provides an alternative perspective on La Querelle des Bouffons, and how debates about operatic styles functioned as a substitute for more direct political debate in 1750s France.

Still in the 1750s, but moving over the Channel, Cheryl Duncan illustrated how records of court cases give us a remarkable insight into London’s musical life. The legal disputes between violinist Felice Giardini and John Cox – engraver, publisher, and perhaps also an instrument repairer – demonstrate what varied ‘portfolio’ careers musicians enjoyed or endured during this period.  The main operatic link was through Giardini’s involvement with the King’s Theatre.

On Thursday morning I took advantage of being at such a diverse interdisciplinary conference by listening to Peter Radford speak about the astounding exploits of elite women athletes during the long eighteenth century, as well as Carolyn D. Williams’s paper on ‘card games and women’s “Intellectual Capacity”’, before attending the Mason Lecture.  This year’s lecturer was Dr Jérôme Brillaud, whose ‘Parisian Pleasure Domes: Theatre Architecture and Sensory Pleasures in Eighteenth-Century France’ charted the changing design of French theatres between 1634 and 1784.  In the seventeenth century, the examples of the Hôtel du Marais and the Hôtel de Bourgogne demonstrated the rectangular arrangement of these seventeenth-century theatres: sightlines (particularly in the loggia boxes) were compromised, and made the theatrical experience confrontational rather than creating the circular flow of energy which an amphitheatre style would encourage.  Not until the late 1740s and 50s did French architects study ancient theatres, and the theorists’ fascination with Greek theatres stimulated a move towards creating theatres in France which would stimulate all the senses.  Cochin’s 1765 grand plan for an auditorium with a truncated oval shape, promoting physical comfort for audience and actors alike, was never realised, but his design proved influential.

The amphitheatre design improved acoustics and sightlines, democratising – to an extent – the experience of attending the theatre, and provoking changes in acting technique. Brillaud then showed, with a series of exquisite slides, the private theatre of Mademoiselle Guimard (1772), Victor Louis’ theatre at Bordeaux, as well as the new ComédieFrançais.  He pointed out that as the external design of theatres became important, their civic significance was consequently enhanced. As a civic monument, the theatre became more politicised, and inside the improved sightlines meant that the entire audience (almost) had a ‘unified sovereign perspective’ in the absence of a ‘royal box’.  While Brillaud’s lecture did not extend to the experience of opera audiences, he demonstrated the significance of audience experience, and this is equally relevant to studies of opera-going culture. Ideas about energy flow and communication within the auditorium, and the interaction between audience and performers are also pertinent to opera.

Later in the afternoon, after I’d presented my own paper –in a session on ‘Salons, Circles and Polite Societies’ – I had my first experience of chairing a panel: ‘Ballads, Songs and Flute Concertos’.  In this session, we were back in the world of London’s pleasure gardens and theatres. In Heike Nasritdinova’s ‘Pleasure and Art: The Vauxhall Songs from John Worgan and T. A. Arne to J.C. Bach’, we saw how the composers of the Vauxhall songs used particular techniques to ensure the popularity of their songs, and integrate pleasure with art, rationalism with entertainment. J. C. Bach also adapted re-used arias from his operas in his songs for Vauxhall. Meanwhile Patricia McCann’s ‘“A much better Ballad-maker, than Play-wright”: A study of Thomas D’Urfey’s song collections’ took us back into the world of the seventeenth-century theatre, and the rich musical world of which D’Urfey was a part. It was bad luck, to an extent, that D’Urfey was a contemporary of Purcell, and his songs have been somewhat eclipsed by Purcell’s, but this paper demonstrated that D’Urfey’s remarkable song collections had a strong following.  Heike and Patriciaare PhD students, at Universität Regensburg and Queen’s University Belfast respectively, and so this was an opportunity to form links with more graduate students.  I was also glad that I’d been to a conference which was not exclusively musicological, and I hope to attend again in 2015.  The Society also has an Annual Postgraduate Conference, which this year will be held in Venice, in association with Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice.

Royal Musical Association Research Students’ Conference 2014

This year’s RMA Research Students’ Conference took place at the University of Birmingham from 6th – 8th January. Two OBERTO PhD students, Anna Maria Barry and Corrina Connor, attended to give papers. Here they share their thoughts on the conference:


University of Birmingham


The RMA Research Students’ Conference was a great experience. With as many as five parallel sessions at a time, there was a significant number of students and lots of interesting papers on subjects as diverse as music in video games and Egyptian hip-hop.

I particularly enjoyed Monday’s session, ‘Music in 18th and 19th Century Britain’, where papers included an examination of the 1842 English production of Semiramide (Catherine Hutchinson) and a discussion of national identity as imagined in the programme notes of the Crystal Palace Concerts (Bruno Bower). These topics were particularly relevant to me, as my research focuses on opera in nineteenth-century Britain, and it was great to meet others working on similar areas. Another particularly interesting session on Monday was ‘Social Analysis – 20th Century England’ where papers included an examination of music publishing during the inter-war period (Kirstie Asmussen) and a fascinating discussion of Holst’s Indian operas (Zara Barlas).

On Tuesday I enjoyed the session on ‘Opera’, where OBERTO’s Corrina Connor gave an excellent paper on the figure of Strauss’ Prince Orlofsky and another paper offered a fascinating insight into Shostakovich’s Hamlet (Michelle Assay). My own session was ‘Performance in the 19th Century’ on Tuesday afternoon, where I gave a paper on tenor John Braham, examining how he constructed a British identity. Other papers in this session included a consideration of the politicised reception of prima donna Marie Delna (Emma Higgins) and a discussion of Brodsky’s concert career (Geoff Thomason).

My first visit to the RMA Students’ Conference was a great experience – I hope it won’t be my last!


Because our interests largely coincide, I found myself at many of the same panels that Anna also attended, and in various ways opera or opera-related papers were prominent in many other sessions. On Wednesday morning in the ‘Analysis – Baroque’ panel, Dionysios Kyropoulous (Cambridge) spoke energetically about ‘Reviving period stagecraft in Baroque opera today’, and drew attention to the fact that in many productions of Baroque operas, the musical aspects (orchestral and vocal) are ‘historically informed’ while the art and rhetorical significance of physical gesture is largely ignored.  The next session was the Jerome Roche Prize Lecture, ‘The Turn of the Screw, or: The Gothic Melodrama of Modernism’, given by Christopher Chowrimootoo (who was an OBERTO Early Career Research Fellow last year).  His lecture illustrated how Britten’s Turn of the Screw incorporated aspects of gothic melodrama and some of the purer aspects of modernism. I enjoyed especially hearing about the range of critical responses to Britten’s opera after its premiere, and the ways in which critics felt Britten had remained ‘faithful’ to James, or diverged from the source text (to good or disa­strous effect).

On Tuesday morning there was a session dedicated to opera, as Anna has described.  I was delighted that Charlotte Bentley (Nottingham) was also speaking about operetta in ‘Satire and the status quo: Offenbach’s Grande-Duchesse in Second Empire Paris’.  Charlotte emphasised the differences between satire and parody in Parisian operetta, and how the political aspect of operetta functioned as a form of substitute for more open political debate. Opera and politics were also part of Marco Pollaci’s ‘Analyzing Verdi: pedagogic traditions between innovation and politics’.  Here we learnt that the Neapolitan system of harmony and counterpoint in which Verdi was educated was so distinctive that Verdi’s use of these pedagogic formulae in his operas were an audibly recognisable political statement. After my own paper, Michelle Assay (Sheffield/Sorbonne) had some useful comments about Russian aristocracy in the early nineteenth century, and their movement throughout Europe.

In addition to hearing so many diverse and fascinating papers, another valuable aspect of attending this conference was to see the different ways in which people presented their research.  It is very tempting to cram as much into a conference paper as possible, but I found that I learned the most from those papers in which the speaker dealt with just a few points, but in greater detail.  I hope to incorporate what I observed into future presentations.

Opera Tickets for Students

Did you know that both the Royal Opera House and English National Opera offer brilliant benefits for students, with many cheap tickets available?

The Royal Opera House runs a fantastic Student scheme – free for all students to sign up to online. Once they are registered students get an advanced booking period, making it easier for them to purchase cheaper seats before they go on general public sale. In addition, 20 of the cheapest seats for every performance are now reserved for students only – these can cost as little as just £4! There are also several dedicated student performances every season, and students are offered discounts at the bar and on programmes. In addition, the ‘Student Standby’ scheme offers unsold tickets to performances for just £10. Student booking for the Spring season opened at 10 am this morning – sign up quickly to get tickets for some fantastic productions!

English National Opera has a scheme called Access All Arias for students and those aged under 30. Under this scheme, students are able to buy heavily discounted tickets for every performance – these cost as little as £10 each. Programmes are also half price and cheap, last-minute tickets are often made available.