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OBERTO 2014: ‘Beyond Black Tie and Bubbly: Rescuing Opera from Stereotypes’ by Dr Alexandra Wilson

On a sunny day in early September, over fifty delegates travelled to Brookes from the United States, Ireland, Germany, Italy and all over the UK for the fourth OBERTO conference. The aim of this year’s conference was to examine critically the idea of opera as a socially exclusive and intellectually forbidding genre, and to consider ways in which it might be presented in more positive, interesting and productive ways.

OBERTO 2014 1

The stereotype of opera as an ‘elitist’ pursuit for the snooty rich, who dress up to enjoy fat ladies singing loudly in opulent surroundings is not new; however, it is one that has been perpetuated much more vigorously in recent decades by a media hungry for hits and happy to fan the flames of controversy. Concerns about the squandering of public funds are never far from the surface of the debate. The premise of our conference was that the negative stereotypes surrounding opera are profoundly damaging, inhibiting potential new audiences from engaging with opera by telling people it is ‘not for them’.

We were delighted to welcome to Brookes not only academics who have approached this issue from a variety of historical and critical perspectives, but also opera house professionals, critics and singers who have to confront the negative stereotypes that are attached to opera in their daily lives. This mixture of different types of delegate led to some extremely productive discussion. A summary of the day’s papers is provided below. For a thoughtful commentary on the conference’s broader conclusions, see Michael Volpe’s blog post here.

In the first session of the day (‘Opera and Class’), David Kennerley (University of Oxford) and Paul Rodmell (University of Birmingham) challenged the notion that opera in Britain has always been for an elite. Kennerley discussed a Chartist rally in Bradford in 1841 at which operatic excerpts were performed as a revolutionary call-to-arms, while Rodmell demonstrated that the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century touring opera companies played to socially-mixed audiences up and down the country.

Our thoughts turned in the second session to the ways in which opera is marketed: Aoife Ni Drisceoil (NUI Maynooth) debated the pros and cons of opera companies’ use of social media, while Michela Ronzani (Brown University) demonstrated how savvy the Ricordi opera company was at advertising its operas as ‘products’ at the turn of the twentieth century. John Snelson (Royal Opera House) offered a critique of hyperbolic marketing materials that tell audience members how they ‘ought’ to react to opera and, in so doing, set the response bar too high.

After lunch, delegates’ thoughts turned to opera’s interactions with contemporary popular culture. Rupert Christiansen (The Telegraph) discussed the rise and institutional mechanics of the ‘crossover’ movement, concluding that the audience for crossover artists is static and that listeners are unlikely to make the leap into attending operas. Hayley Fenn (Harvard), meanwhile, analysed the ostensibly unexpected success of quasi-operatic acts on Britain’s Got Talent.

In the subsequent session on international perspectives, Tash Siddiqui (The Wagner Journal) returned to questions of class in her discussion of the Krolloper, an avant-garde opera house set up expressly for the proletariat in Weimar Germany. Turning the focus to the United States, Laurel Zeiss (Baylor University) asked why operas based on actual events (often with a strongly political focus, such as Dead Man Walking) currently make for such good box office.

The final formal session of the day was devoted to the role played by education in creating audiences for opera. Andy Doe (King’s College Cambridge) pursued a sceptical line, querying the need for plot summaries and programme notes. In contrast, Michael Volpe (Opera Holland Park) drew upon his own childhood experiences of being introduced to opera and other forms of culture ‘without fanfare’ at an unusually progressive school. Volpe stressed the importance of presenting opera, to children and to adults, as something ordinary, not as something extraordinary. His paper can be read here.

Each formal session contained a substantial period of discussion time and there was further general discussion at the end of the day. The conversation ranged widely across many topics: strategies for getting newcomers to attend their first opera; the pros and cons of striving to make opera ‘relevant’; crossover singers being sold as ‘the real deal’; and a hostility towards opera among the political classes, certain sections of the media and even some working in education. Although our conclusions were not entirely gloomy, two things were clear: that there is a great deal of work to be done in changing perceptions of opera; and that we can only do it effectively if opera professionals and academics work together.

We very much hope that a publication will result from the conference in due course. In the meantime, Barbara Eichner’s ‘Opera Stereotypes Alphabet’ from the final discussion session will appear here soon.