Last week, I was given the opportunity to visit the opera by The Culture Vulture and Opera North. I hadn’t really thought of opera as being for people like me so I hesitated at first, but it seemed a good opportunity to challenge my assumptions and so, encouraged by my friend and ‘culture date’ for the evening, Jo, I accepted the ticket.
Otello, based on the Shakespeare play, was performed by Opera North at The Grand Theatre in Leeds. There’s plenty of room on the internet for reviews about the performance but, for us, the opera trip was a catalyst for debate about what assumptions we had about opera, what the barriers to engaging with it as an art form were, and why people might think it’s not for them.
Me: I’ve always thought opera was for posh people, who dressed in fancy clothes so they could see other posh people, who were also dressed in fancy clothes, singing in another language. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and, having sat through my first opera, I now know that my assumptions were wrong.
Me: When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to the opera, I got lots of questions about what I was going to wear. When I looked around the audience, there was a distinct lack of evening dress. Everyone was just in smart-ish clothes – just the kind of thing you’d wear for any night out in town. I’m wondering we get a lot of our perceptions about opera from seeing it on period dramas or something!
Jo: I can understand why people think there is snobbery around opera. There was a ‘shushing’ incident during Otello. I don’t think the sush-ers meant to be rude, more that people get passionately involved in the performance. Powerful music needs powerful silence to let it breathe and be fully appreciated. Most every situation has a kind of etiquette or ritual attached to it.
Me: Another thing much of the audience had in common was grey hair, but actually, because opera deals with dramatic emotion, it’s perfect fodder for younger people. I wonder if it’s because opera seems to have a feeling of being ‘classical’ – most people could name something like ‘Madame Butterfly’ but not a contemporary opera. Is there even such a thing?
Jo: Popular music is full of songs about love, jealousy, defiance and betrayal. Our greatest hits aren’t about having a nap or walking your dog. Music that grabs your heart doesn’t deal with the in-between moments of life. That’s true of all kind of music and opera is no different. ’No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.’ WH Auden.
Me: As Otello is sung in Italian, I was afraid it would be difficult to follow but the English sur-titles made it easy to understand what was going on. The language wasn’t at all complicated—the story and dialogue are stripped down to the bare bones. However, although the sur-titles were useful, they often reduced the emotional breadth of the music to just a couple of lines of dodgy dialogue.
Jo: As I got into the performance, I found the sur-titles really distracting. Next time I’d like to research ahead of time so I won’t have to read them. I think it’s like Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre—once you know the story, you can’t help but hear the instrumental characters in the piece.
Me: Although the production was impeccable, the opera itself wasn’t for me. There were some stand-out moments—the love duet between Otello and Desdemona—but for someone visiting the opera for the first time, Otello might not be the best choice. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because people know the Shakespeare play, they will find this particular opera accessible or appealing – even though the music was stunnin. They feel like two very separate entities.
Jo: I can’t fault the production, it’s just not an opera I’d choose to see again or recommend. The story didn’t satisfy me. I felt no investment in the characters: Desdemona was too wet; Otello wasn’t solid enough for his status; Iago’s strength was in the music; and Emilia just made me cross! Musically, my highlight was the love duet, ‘Gia Nella Notte Densa’.
Me: For me, the most impressive parts of Otello were when more than one character was singing at once and all their emotions and perspectives are woven together. After eight years of living in Leeds, and countless visits to the theatre and ballet, I’m so glad I’ve finally seen an opera; I’m definitely a convert and a new fan of Opera North.
Jo: It was a huge privilege to stand on that stage; I now feel a personal connection to the theatre. I’m looking forward to booking my next Opera North performance, Dido and Aeneas. It’s only an hour and it’s sung in English and the cheapest seats are going for £15—it’d be a great place for anyone tempted to try opera out for themselves.
So, opera is for me, after all. Which, I’ll admit is something of a surprise. Now, I really do think that opera is for anyone and everyone – so, if you get the chance, do try it out. And if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where you can see Opera North, then grab that opportunity. Overwhelmingly, again, it seems that the only way to decide if you like something is to try it. Otherwise you’ll never know…