New opera house in London latest attempt to bring high art to the masses
In an ideal world, everyone would be able to afford a good seat to any first-class presentation of an opera, orchestra concert or play. Not too likely, though, is it? What is possible is setting aside low-cost tickets, which many organizations do, from our own Baltimore Symphony to the mighty Metropolitan Opera. There ought to be more and more of this sort of thing -- underwriting by the wealthiest patrons and corporations that opens doors to more people.
The other side of this coin has to do with smaller venues and smaller budgets -- being able to put on performances at a fraction of production and ticket costs associated with big venues. There's a reach-the-masses element to this as well.
In London, a new "opera house" is set to open next month with an updated version of "The Barber of Seville" in a combo pub-theater called The Kings Head. Top price for performances will be about $24. After "Barber" will come a "Madame Butterfly" set in Thailand instead of Japan, with the heroine a "Ladyboy" (whatever that is -- I live such a sheltered life) and Pinkerton as an American Airlines pilot. For the masses, indeed.
A very impressive roster of backers for the venture includes director Jonathan Miller, playwright Tom Stoppard and actress Joanna Lumley (sorry, but I'm envisioning Pats, of "Ab Fab" fame, getting down with the common folk at an opera).
This is another earnest attempt to reach people who, it is presumed, would otherwise never attend an opera, certainly not at Covent Garden. In a Guardian article, Miller goes so far as to say it's positively "immoral"
So the Little Opera House, as it apparently will be called, will provide affordable performances in a setting that promises intimate, vivid experiences for audiences -- audiences who aren't, in Miller's words, all about "luxuriating in displays of their wealth" (Miller, who has made a good living directing in opera houses where rich people are known to congregate, is obviously capable of singing very different tunes).
You can find other, mostly predictable comments in the article from those involved in launching this opera house -- how social barriers will be erased, how young singers will gain valuable experience, that sort of thing. All perfectly reasonable. But if you scroll through the comments posted, you'll find a very lively debate. Seems like some people aren't buying the concept. "It is okay for some areas of entertainment to have a niche appeal," writes one reader. Others are supportive: "To all those refined souls who can't bear the thought of Puccini in a pub I say, go and boil your stupid heads." My favorite comment is the most succinct: "Oh, dear."
I think it's worth asking if opera can ever appeal to the masses? Should it? Why? How much is lost when the original size and scope of an opera is substantially reduced in the name of accessibility, or just plain budget limitations? Given stiff entry fees for so many sports and pop music events, why is it that opera is the one still stuck with the only-for-the-rich tag?
Here in our fair city, several groups now present opera, staged or in concert form, at reasonable prices in small venues (no pubs, yet, as far as I know). Whether the "masses" check out the action is another story, but at least the opera-tunities are there. We can debate their merits all season long.
PHOTO COURTESY OF KINGSHEADTHEATRE.ORG