Tonight in London, a live-streamed debate: "Are opera and ballet elitist?"

The Telegraph, 3/5/13

On Monday March 11th, the Royal Opera House will host the first in a series of debates to be streamed live from the ROH in collaboration with [the UK newspaper] The Telegraph. [An] eclectic group of artists and leading thinkers [are] meeting to discuss big questions that will reveal the many connections between life and art. The first Big Question will be led by Telegraph Arts Editor-in-Chief Sarah Crompton, and tackles head-on the contentious subject 'Are Opera and Ballet Elitist?'  The evening will feature a panel debate, live performance and questions from our studio audience -- streamed live at  The panelists are: composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, director Katie Mitchell,, Royal Ballet principal Gary Avis, and the thriller writer Dreda Say Mitchell. Join the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #bigquestion. [Ahead of the debate, the ROH asked the general public whether they feel that opera and ballet are for the elite. See their answers in this 2-minute video.]


The moderator: "Many still think these art forms are simply not for them"

Sarah Crompton, The Telegraph, 3/7/13

Despite the efforts of the Royal Opera, English National Opera and countless ballet companies, it is sadly still the case that many people still think these two art forms are simply not for them. This is partly the fault of history. Both ballet and opera have their origins in the royal courts, and their high-water marks as popular entertainments are long behind them. Opera was genuinely a people's theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries; in England, ballet had its popular heyday in the years immediately before and after the Second World War. It is partly a matter of economics. Permanent dance companies cost a lot to maintain. Productions with big casts and a full orchestra are expensive to mount. And, though there are cheap tickets available, the top seats are very expensive. It's possible that businesses, who use the Opera House to entertain clients, like to keep it that way; a bit of glamour is always attractive. Yet as Kasper Holten, ROH director of opera, pointed out in an interview, it is that glamour, that ability to deal with big emotion, that makes opera and ballet so very appealing.


The 'Opera Novice' columnist: "Why didn't I get to the opera sooner?"

Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph, 3/10/13

Two years ago, on a whim, I spent a night at the opera. Though I had seen some before, I hadn't been especially grabbed by the art form. On the verge of turning 30, I decided to give it another go. I ended up at Wagner's Parsifal, and, though I can't pretend to have understood what the German composer was up to, I loved the music. Since then I have been to around 40 operas -- many in the cheap seats up in the "gods" of the Royal Opera House. Why didn't I get to opera sooner? Did its elitist reputation put me off? Possibly, but I think it was more to do with having little exposure either at home or at school. I don't think I even knew where [the Royal Opera House] was. Having gone there a few times now I can say its reputation as snooty is not really deserved.  Discovering [the] community of opera fans has also been a pleasure. Congregating in the cheaper seats and abuzz on Twitter before after each performance, they are people for whom opera is a magnificent obsession: they are the beating heart of the opera house.


The opera critic: On this topic, I prefer a healthy dose of cultural pessimism

Telegraph opera critic Hugo Shirley on his personal blog "Fatal Conclusion," 3/7/13

The idea of opera as elitist is never going to go away, nor, I suppose, should it. It sets up camp regularly in comments sections beneath reviews, is a standard observation of anyone charting the cultural landscape, and seems to hover behind every press release or PR campaign to do with this extravagant art-form. One of the UK's main faces of operatic accessibility is Kasper Holten, who provides a typically passionate introduction to the debate, albeit one that only really sticks to the line, 'Opera isn't elitist because, well, it's really good'. This seems largely to equate 'elitist' and 'off-puttingly different' -- perhaps the first thing to do on Monday will be to define what exactly is meant by 'elitist', whether we're talking intellectually, socially or financially... I'm inclined to prefer the argument put forward by Marek Weiss of Opera Bałtycka in Gdańsk, which I came across this morning when researching something else. What he says -- from around [the 9'16 mark] -- is laced with a healthy dose of cultural pessimism (particularly from around 11'10). It seems such thoughts are taboo when it comes to the debate in this country -- which surely doesn't help anyone. [Here's an excerpt from Mr. Weiss' remarks:]


            Commentary: Opera is for elite, because most people are suffocated by it

Interview with Marek Weiss, YouTube video uploaded on 11/20/11

Opera is a very difficult genre of art... [it demands] a lot. Most people are suffocated by this. I was initially suffocated myself, so I know what that's like. Sitting through one's first opera is often torture. It's like total gibberish, you understand none of it, it's all too much. But then you return to it, and if you catch the bug, so to speak, as I have, then you're sucked in for life and nothing ever tastes as good. Everyone perceives opera differently. There is no such thing as 'the audience.' It's surprising how different the reactions can be, how different people are... High art is dying. That is the unfortunate truth, so not just opera is dying, but all of higher culture is. All that requires funding, education, time, institutions, facilities - all is devoured by popular culture, which is like huge road rollers which come and crush everything. They dominate television completely, where the same rules apply to everything, and any musical difficulty, any complication is rejected because of the potential audience loss. If popularity is the basic norm, then pretty soon our screen will be dominated by a giant naked bum only, because that always gets a large audience. Or perhaps it will be a dead body chopped up, that will do it. It's absolutely horrid, it's the fall of mankind. But there's been talk of the dehumanization of art for years. So now the fact that a small group of people are trying to fight it at all times, and with every generation arrive new people that support that, who don't want and are appalled by this garbage we're served, that's great. That's some sort of hope that the basic idea is right.


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UK's Ballet News also asks: "Do you think that ballet is elitist?"

Ballet News website, 3/8/13

A couple of days ago on the Ballet News Facebook page, I posed the question. The debate polarized opinion: for some, the question triggered a straightforward yes-or-no answer. Others included personal stories outlining either success or failure with regard to vocational ballet training (either for them or their children) and bemoaning the expense of the training and lack of support from government grants, etc. The expense of both training (as a hobby or vocationally: pointe shoes are expensive no matter what level of training is undertaken and other costs included travel, competition fees and costumes) was often highlighted as contributing towards an air of elitism surrounding ballet. For those who watch ballet rather than participate, the cost of performances seems to have encouraged a feel of elitism. The fact is that good quality ballet is expensive to produce and a part of the ticket price you pay covers the amount of rehearsal time that the dancers have undertaken -- [although] I have come across people who think that the dancers turn up for a show shortly before it starts and just go on. These are the comments from [our] Facebook page -- feel free to join the debate and leave your own in the comment section.

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