Monday 21 January 2019

Conversation pieces

Apparently, there's a 'debate' about opera - well, there MUST be, because look at all the people on social media and in the papers going on about it. If all the folk talking about opera actually went from time to time, takings would go through the roof...

That said, one individual that I certainly wasn't expecting to weigh in on the conversation has done just that: David Mitchell, the writer-comedian, spent his column in last Sunday's Observer poking fun at the 'Is opera elitist?' issue (or non-issue, depending on your point of view). In turn, the main springboard for DM's piece was conductor Mark Wigglesworth's recent article on the Bachtrack website in support of performing opera in translation to increase audience's understanding and enjoyment.

I'm generally a huge admirer of DM's wit and wordsmithery, and ultimately his satirical aim targets the musical 'tribes': that their key trait is the need to look down on those with different views, and that the purists and the plebs are as guilty of this as each other.

But I confess I could have done without passages like this:

'...I admit I don't know much about music. Is that really such a problem though? The more I think about it, the more I reckon that's actually what might make me amazing at analysing its cultural impact...I don't have any musical taste that could skew my judgment and confuse the analysis of whether this bit of music, or type of music is "better" than that bit or type...I've never been there [English National Opera] because of my irrational fear of hours and hours of boredom...'

Those familiar with DM will be able to imagine his voice saying this out loud, clearly stretching the point for comic effect. But for once, I feel irritated rather than amused. Perhaps this is because - particularly in our current world climate - I'm having trouble finding ignorance funny. Is having zero knowledge or appreciation of music really something to be worn like a badge, trumpeted for kicks in a newspaper column? (Would I be justified, if I simply found DM unfunny, in posting a big feature generally writing off comedy as something we can all just do without?)

Isn't the whole thing rather distasteful? 'Ignorant' is rightly used as an insult or derogatory term towards the inconsiderate and thoughtless, and yet, when displayed in a broadsheet by an educated, privileged columnist, it's somehow reverse-engineered into clever-cleverness. More inverted snobbery, ironically enough - my vacuousness is funnier, and so worth more, than your expertise.

It's hard not to draw a comparison with DM's fellow comedian Chris Addison, who has become a card-carrying ambassador for opera and is 'out there' doing his best for the genre - essentially 'walking the walk'. On the other hand, the accidental poison in DM's approach could do a lot of harm. We've all encountered thugs and bullies who need no encouragement in making their belligerent closed-mindedness appear like strength. The last thing we need is intelligent commentators throwing in the towel as well - saying, 'Hey you - the wordy, arty, sensitive kids - you're better off pretending you're thick as well... at least you'll get a laugh. Forget about opera, music - all that stuff that enriches your life, and focus on honing your sarcasm.'

Which perhaps brings us to where we are today, when so many people - especially when emboldened on social media - use their talent with words to wound others, and their power of expression to banish any sense of nuance or moderation.

(London Coliseum, home of English National Opera)


Despite all this, I am actually an optimistic soul. One casualty of the over-simplified, yet over-amplified nature of the 'music discussion' is the idea of accessibility. It only ever seems to be considered from the 'elites'/'masses' angle but surely it extends into all kinds of areas:
  • Ableism: The issue of whether or not to perform operas translated into English goes deeper than purists expressing a preference for the original languages. English National Opera - the London company renowned for English performance - has an explicit remit to bring opera to the widest possible audience, which includes the sight- and hearing-impaired, the elderly, children: so, without apology, they sing in English and show surtitles above the stage, and rightly so.
  • Pricing: Opera companies face criticism because the best seats in the houses command ridiculous money. This is true, but then the affordability of the cheaper seats can balance this out. Equally, people rarely consider in the same breath that theatre, rock concerts and even cinemas and restaurants are also pricing folk out as well. (As it happens, my slips seat at the Royal Opera House's 'Hansel & Gretel' cost half the price of a ticket at my local Vue cinema.) Austerity / the economic climate - call it what you will - has meant that for many it's harder to afford everything. Add to that the 'subculture' mentality that has seeped into music in particular - that one shouldn't have to pay for records when one can simply download them: this knocked the wind out of rock music especially. It was surprising and encouraging to read a few days back that classical music sales seemed to be in good shape (despite accompanying sniffs that some of the artists concerned weren't - ahem - classical enough). But there's a much wider conversation to be had - and societal change to be wished for - than just pressuring the Royal Opera House to knock twenty quid off its seat prices.
  • Seeking the youth: There's an urgent desire to bring young audiences to classical music - I totally understand and support any effort in that direction, but mainly because it's my belief you should bring any kind of music to the young. It's not a fashionable opinion to call classical music relaxing (even though some of it is, along with plenty of folk, jazz, I could go on...) but I think one of the reasons it gets saddled with that image is because much of it is long-form, and so requires more time to listen to and appreciate than bite-sized pop songs. As a result, many people 'grow into' classical music as their 'need for speed' decreases. Also, it can help to journey through other genres of music en route to an appreciation for classical as they build you up for greater complexity and variety. So, just as today's older audiences were young once, so they will be joined by many newer, maturing listeners as a matter of course.
It's also worth noting on this last point that - as far as listening to music live or on recordings is concerned - we still press on into uncharted territory. We are only now contemporary with our first old rock stars, for example: the idea that rock = young and classical = old will only become increasingly ludicrous as time goes on. I only have to look back at some of my favourite releases of recent years to see that, in terms of new music, divides between genres are blurring and collapsing all the time - and thanks to the likes of BBC Radio 3 (especially the In Tune and Late Junction strands) and even Radio 6 Music, it's finding an audience. I was heartened to read only today that we are shortly to get a new classical music station, Scala, spearheaded by Simon Mayo, increasing the reach even further.

If the conversation about classical music in the coming few years is going to get wider and louder - as I believe it is - then let's all of us keep it going, give it room to breathe. If someone tries to shut it down to score a few points or an easy laugh - breathe yourself, count to ten. Then pick it straight back up again.

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