Over the course of this first term, Epigram Arts has on several occasions arranged for writers to attend and review operas. Starting with Harry Keeling’s engaging report of being an opera novice –save for one snooze-inducing trip toCarmen – and culminating in the recent coverage of the Welsh National Opera’s stint at the Bristol Hippodrome, the decision to include opera in a student publication may seem puzzling. At worst it could be seen as isolating and encouraging of elitism. At best, simple ignorance of what students want.
The intention though, was to be neither of these things. For firstly, the idea that all young people have absolutely no interest in classical music and art forms which incorporate them, such as opera and ballet, is, in my experience, incorrect. Sure, it’s nowhere near top of most students’ iPod playlists, but it also isn’t the hidden preserve of a few weird troglodytes.
A recent trip to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to see a medley of modern ballets proved just this point. As part of its ‘Student Stand-by Scheme’ the ROH releases tickets, usually at short notice, at a dramatically reduced price – as little as £3-12. On the night, the venue was packed and on the upper floors – where the cheap student tickets were placed – the vast majority of visitors were in their twenties and clearly taking advantage of the scheme. Presumably no matter how cheap something is, it cannot make someone go to something entirely outside of his or her interests; I would probably still say no to a £3 cock-fighting night. Therefore the under-30s punters were there because they actually enjoyed ballet, the theatre and orchestral music.
Secondly, I wanted to impress the idea that, even if you know nothing about the genre or have ever attended a live performance previously, going to the opera won’t necessarily turn out to be the biggest mistake of your life. Christopher Skipper’s review of Professor Sloboda’s recent lecture entitled ‘Is the Live Classical Concert Dying?’made clear that, when asked, ‘audiences felt they needed more prior knowledge of the music to enjoy it and that the target audience was far more musically informed’. Crucially, not possessing this knowledge then stopped people from attending. In short, being a novice stopped people from ever not being a novice. Good thing humanity didn’t think the same about sex.
Despite having been to the ballet several times, until my own trip to the WNO’s production of La Boheme a few weeks ago, I too was an opera virgin. I had the same idea that I would be entirely ignorant to what was going on and, like an applauding Marie Antoinette, make some hideous social faux pas that would see me cast out from polite Bristol society henceforth. Aside from the fact that we don’t live in eighteenth-century Paris and I got that vignette from Sophia Coppola’s film, if I was to be ceremoniously drowned in the Avon by the Bristol Mayor for impoliteness it would probably happen regardless of whether I farted at the opera or not.
As it was I found myself very happily satiated. It would be hard for anyone not to follow the universalising love story that makes up the centre of La Boheme. The parallel stories of the two couples keep returning to old dichotomies, in particular the differences between the two leading ladies, Mimi and Musetta. The delicate and humble Mimi who returns to her true love Rudolfo on the eve of her death should be the one to get behind, yet somehow the brash, gregarious and stunning Musetta is continuously more engaging. In this respect, as with Dostoyevsky’s The Double and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the story resonates for all those who possess an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Aside from that, La Boheme (as both opera and novel) is thequintessential student production for no other reason than helping to create the shabby chic, love-struck, avant-garde aesthetic of beat up velvet, beat up sofas and beat up faces beloved by so many in higher education.
We should not be afraid to approach classical music in the same way that we do not feel we need to be a rock star in order to like rock music. Combining old scores with modern stories and imbuing them with new ideas has produced some of the greatest works of art in the twentieth-century. Want a spoonful of proof for that highfalutin claim? Ladies and Gentleman, I give you: A Clockwork Orange and Beethoven’s 9th.