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September 20, 2010

New opera house in London latest attempt to bring high art to the masses

I'm of two minds (well, more like a mind and a half) when it comes to the whole let's-bring-high-art-to-the-masses thing. I'm all for breaking down barriers, especially economic ones, but I wonder sometimes if there's a price (so to speak) for altruism.

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"

to have "huge ornamental opera productions being staged" at the traditional houses at a times of such economic difficulty for so many people.

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (2)


Tim - Right you are! Many area groups are already working to bring opera to the masses. Many people may have missed yesterday's Opera in the Outfield simulcast of WNO's Masked Ball - which was free. But there still is time for people to do as I have, and snag a $25 ticket to Baltimore Concert Opera's production of the Barber of Seville this weekend. That price puts it at about the same price as the 'pub-theater' you mentioned - and likewise - I can enjoy my beer in the performance. Why should opera be popular/for the masses? Because the masses deserve it!

For those closer to home who want great opera for the masses, at a reasonable price and in a small venue, Baltimore Concert Opera is *also* presenting The Barber of Seville, this weekend at the Engineers Club in downtown Baltimore.

Performances are Friday, September 24 at 7:00 pm and Sunday, September 26 at 3:00 pm, and tickets are available for as little as $25.

And while the performances are not in a pub, there *is* a bar, and attendees are allowed and encouraged to bring their drinks into the performance.

More information can be found at

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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