Mention the word “Opera” and the vast majority of the population in both the USA and the UK run and hide.
People actually look for ways to avoid talking about it, like it’s a sleazy secondhand car salesman or embarrassing bodily discharge.
According to a few surveys and studies* it seems as though the reasons people avoid the Opera (and Classical Music in general) have nothing to do with Opera itself, but what we imagine it is like.
That seems a bit odd to me.
Why do we choose to like or dislike something based on what we don’t know?
Here are seven possible reasons:
1. I don’t understand what they’re singing.
Most excuses along these lines are related to the language used, such as Italian, German or French (usually). Another excuse is that the style of singing makes the lyrics incomprehensible, and there is some validity to this when sub-par performers do not sing very clearly. But then I feel the same way about Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam, and How to Save a Life by the Fray. Unintelligible stuff indeed! Yet so very, very popular.
Plus, if you have ever actually been to the Opera, you know you don’t actually need to understand what they are singing – you can figure out the story through the mood of the music, and possibly the action on stage. The best portrayal of this is Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) in Pretty Woman. OK, fiction in its entirety, but like all fiction it tells a story about how we deal with real life.
2. Opera is for society’s Elite
Maybe that’s what they would like you to think! And perhaps for a time in the 1900s it was true. Not anymore. I say “codswallop” in a very Hagrid sort of way and if I want to go see an Opera, I will. And I won’t go dressed to impress, either. I’m there for the music – not to be seen by anyone I think I need to be seen by, nor to cater to my insecurities through perceived cultural philanthropy. I’m there just for the music. And staging. And scenery. And costumes. And the story.
If you avoid Opera because it’s “out of your social circle” then shame on you – that must be one of the lamest excuses evuh. Just watch Amadeus and see the audiences Mozart wrote Operas for – both the served and the servers.
Leather-clad, dusty, boozing bikers have a certain reputation for aggressive behavior (thinking of the “Rawhide” scene in the Blues Brothers), but Christian bikers don’t care. They clad up anyway, can always find somewhere to park, and still enjoy the thrill of riding through the countryside with their mates and the wind blowing flies into their open mouths. Don’t be fooled by labels: if you want to try something new, go ahead and try it. Ask questions. Seek help. If someone turns their nose up at you because of your unbuttoned plaid shirt and open-toe sandals with socks, that’s their problem not yours.
3. It’s too expensive.
A Dolly Parton concert (yup – they still happen) currently costs between $99 and $225 per seat with VIP packages from $1,950. Paul McCartney charges $60 to $235 per seat with $2,100 VIP packages. One Beatles fan wrote** “these seats were significantly cheaper (42 percent less, to be specific) than what I paid per ticket for a February Bruce Springsteen [concert] at the same venue.”
The average cost of a ticket to a recent football game between two colleges (not even professionals!) was $2,200. Seats at Kobe Bryant’s last basketball game were $20,000 each. Yet an Opera presented by a professional company in your local theater probably ranges from $45 to $170, with some venues adding restricted view (very high up, usually) at $15 or $20 per person. As a student I often stood at the very top of the building for $5 in the USA and £1 in the UK, which is an awesome experience especially if you enjoy watching the orchestra – the view is almost straight down.
Too expensive? Not compared to other forms of live entertainment.
4. It’s boring.
This reason is actually hiding a deeper, more worrying excuse: we can’t be bothered, a.k.a. it’s too much effort. A sign of the times, I’m afraid. We expend way too much energy on surface issues (mostly “image” and eating) and we often feel like we don’t have any mental capacity left to focus on thinking: observing, interpreting, discovering, imagining. Movies and TV do all that for us, and yes, we have become lazy as a result. This is no secret or surprising revelation. Disney and Pixar even forecast the direction humans are headed in in Wall-E as a not-so-subtle subliminal warning!
5. What’s it got to do with real life?
- Nixon in China. Yes, it’s an Opera.
- Someone dresses up as someone else in order to spend time with their loved ones. Mrs. Doubtfire or Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro?
- Ever had a nightmare and woke up scared? Takes a while to realize what’s real and what was in the dream, right? You should watch The Tales of Hoffmann by Offenbach!
- What about that voice in our head that tells us we shouldn’t really be doing something? Some call it a gut feeling, others swear it is dead relatives offering guidance. Sounds a lot like a chap in Don Giovanni.
- Someone is acquitted of murder, but folk blame them anyway. So which version of that story came first: OJ Simpson or Peter Grimes?
- A number of Operas have been written about historical characters, including Anna Nicole Smith, Anne Frank, Francesca da Rimini (multiple operas), Francis Bacon, Galileo, Harvey Milk, Jackie O, JFK, Klinghoffer, Lord Byron, Malcolm X, Marilyn, Nebuchadnezzar, Nelson, William Tell, and hundreds of others.
- Military Officer falls in love with a cheerleader and gives up his soldiering career at her bidding, but she jilts him. I’m sure you already know some of the music from Bizet’s Carmen.
6. It’s not my style
First, how do you know if you have never been to see a real live Opera?
Second, who says? Opera audiences are full of people from all walks of life, some with “style” and some not… which actually means they have their own individual style. Musicals like Les Miserables are a modern form of Opera, as is Hamilton, in fact.
I have mentioned before about a listening experiment George Marriner Maull of the Discovery Orchestra did with inner city kids in Newark, New Jersey. Before they even heard some 300-year old “Classical Music” by Vivaldi, one group had already decided they did not like it. Another group, however, were not told what the music was until after they had listened to the same piece and expressed their enthusiasm for it – the style was not quite what they were used to or what their parents listened to, but they loved it!
Opera is a gamble. You might find it compelling, or you might not. It really does depend on how you approach a live Opera, your attitude throughout, and your mood. Go and see a really bad Opera and, much like any form of entertainment, you’ll be put off for life.
Experience Opera music in a concert setting and kinda sorta like it, you just might be inspired to try the real thing.
7. It’s not cool.
Ah – this is my favorite. Despite decades of Burger King telling us “Have it your way” we still seem to behave like sheep and run at full pace in the middle of the flock, wherever it’s headed and without asking where it is going. People generally follow trends rather than make their own decisions. Authors and presenters like Michael Hyatt, Chris Guillebeau, John Acuff, Gary Vaynerchek, Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar (deceased, I know), Oprah, Dr. Phil, Ellen, every politician that ever lived, and so many thousands of others (many of whom I respect) love the sheep mentality – otherwise they would not be able to sell their self-help books, their conferences, advertising and product placement, or garner enough votes.
When we perceive something as being not cool, or not trendy, we tend to actively avoid it.
Pity. There are so many things that would help us enjoy life and deal with each other much better than we do now if we took a moment to buck the trend and genuinely make an effort to try something for real. Like Opera.
Be the change
Cliches exist because before they were demoted to cliches, they worked.
“Be the change you wish to see” is a common cliche, usually attributed to Gandhi.
Right now, you may be wondering why you may have subscribed to an anti-Opera social trend for much of your life, and perhaps have been chasing multiple ways to deal with your emotions that are still unsatisfying.
You can change that.
Give Opera a try.
If you want to dive right in full blast, look for a performance of La Boheme by Puccini, or if you would like to test the waters, find a concert of Opera Highlights.
And I don’t mean on Netflix or iTunes – I’m talking live, in-person, at a local theater or concert hall. GO to a performance! You can make it a big deal by dressing up, going for dinner and maybe even renting a limo, or you can just turn up in jeans. Either way works.
Helpful tips when trying Opera
- Notice any bad feelings about what you are doing and tell them to be quiet for a few hours.
- Every few minutes, listen to the music and imagine what mood it is trying to create.
- Watch the singers’ faces and figure out what mood they are in.
- Admire the costumes, dresses and scenery.
- Pick one character or performer and follow just their story. Make up a story, if you want!
- When you get goosebumps or a tear in your eye, tell yourself it’s OK.
- When it’s all over, tell someone else (or even write to me!) at what point you got goosebumps or teared up. You can laugh at yourself if you wish, or you can acknowledge that you were actually touched by it.
Only after you have been to an Opera or opera concert and have made a genuine effort to engage in all 7 tips should you feel justified in having an opinion about Opera.
And it won’t be based on the Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli, a movie, Il Volo or Il Divo or whatever marketing crossover boy band is in vogue, a yawn-inspiring documentary, or your great aunt’s odd glittery friends who over-spray themselves with perfume.
It will be YOUR opinion.
My bet is that you won’t have one, though.
You’ll probably need to try it some more just to figure out how you feel about it.
And then you’ll definitely know why you may never want to avoid Opera ever again!
* Orchestra X: The Results/ The National Opera Center America/ A decade of arts engagement/ How an opera company found new audience members among women ages 35 to 60/ Opera Audiences and Cultural Value/ How Bugs Bunny Inspired a Generation of Opera Stars