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.



  1. […] 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 […]

  2. 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.

  3. […] 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”. […]

  4. […] 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”. […]

  5. […] 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  […]

  6. best zeolite says:

    Excellent article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site.
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  7. […] 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 […]

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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. 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.

  13. 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”

  14. Katy Huntley says:

    Such a wonderful and important discussion here.
    I certainly am saddened to hear of the way Katherine Jenkins is stereotyping opera more and more in order to promote herself. It is worth asking why her comments such as “most opera singers are large” are becoming more frequent in her dialogues. “Most” come on, really?
    Whilst sitting in a masterclass with soprano Joan Rodgers I heard her give a piece of advice to a young singer friend of mine, he was only 20. She told him that even though he produced a good and well rounded sound now there were tiny issues he would need to begin to address otherwise, as his voice matured, they would get in the way of his music making. A good and common place piece of advice for any young musician. It is upon this topic where I believe Katherine Jenkins is coming up against more criticism and self doubt.
    The flaws or lack of thorough technique simply will not stand her in good stead any more. The public fell in love with Katherine several years ago, and yes, her recording of Time To Say Goodbye was nothing less than beautiful. But as any singer could tell you the maturing of the voice is a gradual process and, even though Katherine’s voice could be described as heavenly at the age of 23/24 unfortunately her rise to fame must have had a huge impact upon her potential training time. Therefore she simply stopped where she was. This is not at all to say she stopped having lessons or progressing with repertoire but the advancement of her technique (if she ever had much) stopped. Her raw voice, which is potentially large, is not enough any more, especially for the arias from Bizet’s Carmen which I have seen online.
    It is obvious that Katherine is no less than a wonderfully sweet and kind person but her place in the spot light and the expectation of her continued success is putting her under a lot of pressure. Once in this position it is all to easy and logical for her to frequently make comments about ‘snobs’ and ‘elitism’ which, as many people here have discussed, is total rubbish. Once you start the explore the genre one can find many different new ways of bringing opera to the ‘normal’ people of Britain. Maybe Katherine should go along to Tete a Tete Opera Festival and experience the widely diverse, often short and utterly thrilling new and contemporary works brought together by young and fresh (and I promise not fat) musicians and singers.

  15. Kantele Maki says:

    Ms. Jenkins claimed in her 20s that her voice wouldn’t be ready for opera until age 30. Well, she reached age 30, and no offers to sing roles in operas materialized. The reason for this is that Jenkins does not have the voice or the vocal technique to sing in operas. She also can’t sing without a microphone…and opera singers are never amplified, but rather must project their voices out over a large orchestra in a large theater. Recently, at a performance, Jenkins’s microphone failed, and the audience got to hear her “naked” voice. She could hardly be heard. Now that she is over 30 and has had no offers to sing in operas, Jenkins claims that all opera singers are fat and ugly, so it is her beauty that prevents her from being hired by opera companies. This is just another ridiculous excuse from Ms. Jenkins. Either she is delusional or she really does know that in actuality her poor vocal technique and artificially over-darkened sound (She probably over darkens her sound and forces out the low notes in an effort to sound more like the mezzo-soprano she claims to be than the soprano with no top notes that she really is.) are the real reasons the opera companies haven’t come calling. She keeps saying that it is her goal to sing Carmen one day. She has a better chance of being hired to portray the bull.

  16. Kantele Maki says:

    The reason Jenkins has encountered barriers to being hired to sing in operas is that her voice and vocal technique are not up to opera standards.

  17. I’ve heard worse on the opera stage.

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