Gimmicks & tactics: discouraging the new Photo:

Gimmicks & tactics: discouraging the new

Jenna Simeonov

Rupert Christiansen, opera critic to the Daily Telegraph, wrote a predictably scathing review of the Royal Opera House’s current Lucia di Lammermoor, followed up today by his curmudgeonly opinion piece, “Opera must bring down the curtain on gimmickry and gore”. We want to respond to the latter.

Following the freak-out that came after ROH’s violent William Tell, Katie Mitchell’s bloody production of Lucia, full of new scenes and “sensationalism”, seems to be the straw that broke Christiansen’s back. He writes, “all sorts of tactics have been pursued in the vain effort to reverse this trend and ‘refresh the brand’.”

“Tactics” with which Christiansen has a problem:

  1. Educational and outreach programs in schools, curated by opera companies, “with a mission to persuade impressionable children that opera is fun, fun, fun and nothing to be scared of.”
  2. Television talent shows where amateur singers try their hand at hits like “Nessun dorma” and “O mio babbino caro”.
  3. Reducing ticket prices and including drinks with admission, “as opera is marketed as either super-glamorous or accessible to all.”
  4. Present-day, “cutting edge” themes (“I currently await, with trepidation, something set in the lavatories of a gay night club.”)

Jeez. In order:

  1. Ironically, Christiansen also writes, “We need to stop telling children that they ought to like opera and let them find their own way there, in their own time.” It begs the question of how that will happen without some exposure, as lame as this critic may find it, to opera at all. Classical music and opera are not on the front lines of accessible entertainment for young people today; frankly, if it’s not available on Netflix or their “recommended” section on YouTube, or even on cable TV, kids will not stumble across opera on their own. Also, what on earth is wrong with opera companies’ taking the initiative and bringing the art form to schools? Christiansen writes as if they’re cult missionaries, brainwashing “impressional children” with the horrors of singing and live theatre.

  2. Shows like The Voice or whatever are not feeders for the pool of opera singers being put on stages, and Christiansen knows this. In operatic Venn diagram, there’s very little overlap between people who watch these shows and swoon over 9-year olds mimic sopranos, or the likes of Paul Potts or Susan Boyle, and people who go to hear a real-deal opera. But if there’s any overlap at all, again, what’s the harm? If the TV audience is expecting the swooping camera angles and flashy lights, and they’re disappointed by their first foray into a live opera, they’ve at least seen one opera more than they would if they hadn’t watched The Voice. Is a mainstream-media reference to opera only worthwhile if it represents precisely what opera-goers would see at Covent Garden or the Met?

  3. High ticket prices are a factual, tangible deterrent for many would-be opera-goers. That’s why cinema broadcasts are a thing, and it’s why YouTube is littered with full-length operas. The cheap seats are always full when we attend the opera. That means people want to go, but often can’t afford the hundreds of dollars/pounds for the great seats up close. And when it comes to “free drinks proffered”, why in the world not? Most people agree that booze and entertainment go hand in hand; if it makes even a whiff of financial sense for a company to open their bar, what’s wrong with providing a full night out? Shall we remind Christiansen of the operatic experience of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries? People ate pork sausage during the premiere of Don Giovanni, for goodness’ sake.

Number 4 on his list of objections is the real crux of this argument, and it’s an argument so old that it’s hopelessly on the wrong side of history. He points to the shrinking number of elderly listeners who “only want to hear nice tunes sung by people in polite period costume,” and puts this demographic up against the “hip-hopping Twittering young” who don’t find opera in its non-gimmicky guise to be relevant or interesting. If you search on Twitter for the hashtag, #ROHlucia, you can find precisely what art is meant to do: people are talking about what they see onstage. For this one production alone, people are talking about how they hate it, love it, or fall somewhere in between.

What Christiansen calls gimmicks and tactics, we call creativity. In the case of ROH’s Lucia, we clearly loved it, so on this particular point, we simply differ in opinion. There are “concept” productions that have fallen flat for us, too, so we’re not out to blindly promote the wild, anything-goes ideas of today’s directors. But to condemn creativity and attempts at novelty as Christiansen does is shameful.

He writes, “managements need to stop reaching for trivial gimmicks and think more about keeping their regular audience happy and less about following the mirage of a young proletarian tattooed audience elsewhere.”

We ask, who is this “regular audience”, if the elderly are doomed to unhappiness, and the “tattooed” have wants and curiosities that are deemed frivolous?

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