Geraldine Farrar performs in the title role of the 1915 Hollywood adaptation of George Bizet's Carmen. (Bettman/Getty Images)

Opera for the Ordinary

Despite popular misconceptions and its aristocratic origins, for part of its history opera was inextricably linked with popular culture – no more so than in the 1920s. 

In contemporary Britain, both the broadsheet and tabloid press routinely stereotype opera as ‘elitist’. On the rare occasions when opera singers are interviewed on breakfast television or radio, they are invariably asked to defend their art against the dreaded ‘e-word’. The cliché evokes certain key themes: that opera is posh, expensive and removed from real life. It is routinely characterised as a pursuit for the privileged: boozy corporate sponsors who listen to fat, horn-helmeted ladies in opulent surroundings but care little for the music. The supposed tension between the ‘aloofness’ of opera and the ‘authenticity’ of everyday life provides fodder for parody but is a turn-off for potential new audiences.

The stereotypes that surround opera not only fail to represent the diverse reality of contemporary opera-going – opera in a pub, anyone? – but are also oblivious to the art form’s rich historical relationship with so-called ‘real life’. It is true that opera emerged at the turn of the 17th century as a form of private aristocratic entertainment, performed in the palaces of Italian dukes and princes as a way of displaying their wealth to political rivals. But such origins became an irrelevance within a matter of decades: by the 1630s, Venetian entrepreneurs who had staked their money on the new commercial business of opera production competed with one another to get bums on seats. Operas about ancient gods, calculated to flatter the art form’s earliest patrons, soon gave way to works that critiqued traditional power structures and aristocratic excess. By the 19th-century age of realism, operas about ordinary people had become the norm, addressing all of life’s big issues: love, death, war, poverty, politics and more.

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