opera

opera
   During the 1980s and 1990s, opera became popular with a much wider public, probably due to both the activities of organizations promoting opera and the increasing use of operatic themes for films, advertising and sporting events. There remains, however, a dichotomy between the ideas of availability of opera for all by such means as cheap tickets, rehearsal passes and community/ education programmes, and the idea that by its very expensive nature opera is only for the few who can afford it. The latter is cited as an argument against the subsidy of opera by the public purse, as opera is not cheap and only a limited number of people can be accommodated at any one performance. In June 1995, the Royal Opera House (ROH) was successful in its bid for £55m from the Arts Council’s National Lottery board towards its controversial £213m redevelopment scheme. The ROH made efforts to reach a wider public, including relays to screens in Covent Garden’s piazza, which deflected attention away from its need for large sums of money. Along with most arts organizations, it had suffered real-terms cuts in government funding during the 1980s and 1990s.
   The ROH was the subject of the BBC2 documentary The House, screened in February 1996. The programme generated much interest: ‘…critics thought it extraordinary that the ROH had let the camera crews in…by the end of the series, Jeremy Isaacs was thought of as shrewd for doing so’ (Guardian, 22 June 1996). Doubtless many viewers were surprised by the amount of work behind opera and ballet productions and the complexity of the ROH.
   Debate continues as to whether opera should be performed in its original language or translated for reasons of immediacy to its audience. The ROH performs in original languages, using subtitles in English. However, the English National Opera (ENO) (which grew from the English Opera Group begun by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’s circle in 1947 to encourage the development of a repertory of English operas) performs in English, and mounts many contemporary British operas. ENO has along with other companies run advertising campaigns selling opera on its bloodthirsty and seductive elements: one such campaign in 1990 featured suggestive and evocative photographs of percussionist John Harrod and soprano Lesley Garrett. Along with other opera singers, Garrett has brought more widespread publicity to opera through her solo career and media appearances, including a television programme of her own.
   Away from London, regional opera companies similarly fought for their survival along with the new breed of smaller companies. Anthony Freud, general director of Welsh National Opera (WNO), commented that, ‘Trimming is no longer an option, we’ve trimmed as much as we can…. What we can’t provide is the ultimate miracle: to exist without the means to exist’ (Classical Music, 6 July 1996). WNO also goes on tour away from its home in Cardiff: ‘We are the provider, and in many cases the sole provider, of opera in the cities we visit’ (Classical Music, 13 April 1996). The opera began most of its 1990s productions in Cardiff’s New Theatre, a venue viewed by musical director Carlo Rizzi as ‘terrible’. Much comment was made in the press about plans to build the new Cardiff Bay Opera House, and a controversial design by Zaha Hadid, original winner of the international competition. Competition for Millennium Commission funding was perceived from the proposed National Stadium development at Cardiff Arms Park, though eventually a lottery award was made in summer 1996 to Cardiff Bay Development Corporation to fund a feasibility study for a ‘millennium centre for the arts’ to include a new opera house. Perceived tensions between opera and sport brought about by the various announcements of plans highlighted the differing attitudes towards them amongst commentators and public. Once again, the argument arose that opera is ‘elitist’. Other important opera organizations include Leeds based Opera North, Scottish Opera, Glyndebourne, the D’Oyly Carte (specializing in Gilbert and Sullivan and aspiring to be the nation’s light opera company) and Garsington Opera, in addition to the many smaller companies, both professional and amateur.
   A movement away from the ‘elitist’ tag has been made by the now numerous small companies presenting productions in imaginative ways, often in ‘miniature’, such as those of Travelling Opera, begun by baritone Peter Knapp in 1986. As Knapp said, ‘I…felt that there were many things about the way opera was presented that conspired to keep people away, including the language issue, the scale and the cost, so I wanted to find a way of making it more attractive to a new audience’ (Classical Music, 6 January 1996). Travelling Opera manages without public subsidy: ‘It remains incredibly difficult for us to mount opera at the level we achieve without public money, and revolves around me calling on peoples’ goodwill for every show.’ For touring performances, special orchestrations are used which only employ a dozen players, and singers double up for choruses. Besides performing in Travelling Opera shows, Knapp has done everything from driving the company van and building the sets to rehearsing the cast: ‘If I had been told twenty years ago that within the space of a week I would attend festival performances of two of Mozart’s greatest operas, one in an Oxfordshire manor house garden and the other in a Lancashire village church I should have suspected a hoax…. The growth of enterprising small summer festivals in Britain has been remarkable’ (M.Kennedy, ‘Opera Reviews’, Sunday Telegraph, 7 July 1996).
   See also: opera singers
   Further reading
    Adam, N. (ed.) (1993) Who’s Who in British Opera, Aldershot: Scolar Press.
    Boyden, M. (1997) The Rough Guide to Opera, London: Rough Guides Ltd.
    Milnes, R. (ed.) Opera, Wickford: DSB (fortnightly publication).
    Sutcliffe, T. (1996) Believing in Opera, London: Faber & Faber.
   ANDREA MARTIN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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