Professor Alexandra Wilson
Think opera is highbrow? Think again. In my new book, Opera in the Jazz Age: Cultural Politics in 1920s Britain (Oxford University Press), I investigate the place of opera in the 1920s ‘battle of the brows’, a heated debate about whether various forms of art should be categorised as highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow. It was a debate prompted, in essence, by the threat posed to traditional forms of culture and audience patterns by an explosion in popular culture and a shift in class structures after the First World War. In the course of my research, I discovered that opera’s place within discussions about the brows – which still have implications for how we think about the arts today – was far from straightforward.
I found that opera interacted in fluid ways with many forms of popular culture during the interwar period, including film and jazz. Opera singers were bona fide celebrities whom audiences camped out overnight to hear, their every move documented in the pages of the popular press. Opera was performed in many types of venue in the 1920s – music halls, cinemas, and restaurants as well as theatres – and popular with many different types of listener. Touring opera companies performed to socially mixed audiences in the industrial cities of the north and there was a particularly keen following for opera in the East End of London.
For all of these reasons and more, opera proved extremely difficult to pigeonhole. For some commentators of the time, it was too highbrow; for others, it was not highbrow enough. Opera proved in some ways uncategorisable, although interacted with the emerging middlebrow culture in intriguing ways.
There are many similarities between the operatic culture of the 1920s and that of today, but there are also important differences. Undercurrents of snobbery from above and suspicion from below swirled around opera in 1920s Britain, and yet it is equally important to recognise that there were also many sincere grassroots attempts to get more people listening to it and to educate people about it. There was, without doubt, more of a sense that opera was something that anyone could enjoy and could access, if they chose to take an interest. The term ‘elitism’ is one I never came across during my research into 1920s attitudes. Thus, my next project, funded by a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, will investigate how attitudes towards opera have changed over the period from the end of the 1920s to the present, pinning down exactly when the ‘elitism’ tag began to be used. If we want to combat unhelpful stereotypes it is necessary, first, to understand their roots.
Opera in the Jazz Age can be found here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/opera-in-the-jazz-age-9780190912666?cc=gb&lang=en&
You can listen to me talking about the book on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters in an episode first broadcast on 12 January: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0001zph (from around 21 minutes in).
And a documentary I made for BBC Radio 3 about operatic culture in 1920s London can be accessed here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b099vsvw