Oh look, it's the "elitist" argument again...

Oh look, it's the "elitist" argument again...

Greg Finney

English National Opera has been following the suit of several American companies and introduced Broadway musicals into their seasons as a way to reach out to potential new audiences. The ire of the British opera world was raised almost immediately after its most recent announcement. Loud were the cries of ENO’s losing its integrity in an attempt to get “butts in the seats”.

After presenting successful runs of Sunset Boulevard and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the company has branched out and added Carousel as well as Meatloaf’s Bad out of Hell musical as a way to rent out the venue and flesh out their bottom line.

As Cressida Pollock, CEO of ENO points out, their production of Sweeney brought an audience of 57% newcomers to the venue (and 8% of those went on to become further buyers). From a performer’s or an executive/board member’s perspective, this is not a number to be scoffed at. While companies depend heartily on the value of a subscription, they make far more money on a single ticket purchase than a subscription package. And there’s the rub; you want better productions with the highest calibre of singers, but you can’t do that on dwindling box office revenues. So, how do you get new audiences?

Easy: you do new shows.

For it latest infusion of “new”, ENO will present Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, in April and May 2017. And not surprisingly, the opera community and its audiences were not happy about it.

The crux of the issue seems to be the casting of classical crossover singer Katherine Jenkins as Julie Jordan. While she tours the world doing concerts, she has been plagued by a number of cancellations that seem to be too much of a coincidence; but without speaking to Ms. Jenkins, I can’t and won’t say for certain. That being said, Ms. Jenkins is a draw, if not just her fans, but for the people who will come to see if she fails.

Katherine Jenkins.

And this is what leads me back to a discussion we’ve had before. Are we elitist? Is this part of the problem opera has in branching out to new audiences?

“I love musicals but…” is a common phrase I hear at break in rehearsals. But what? You don’t like the fact that on average, musicals employ a far greater number of artists and technicians per production? Or is it that you wish you could get out on stage and belt “The Ladies Who Lunch” but you’re scared of damaging your “technique”? (Psst: singing technique is singing technique, and someone who sings this stuff for eight shows a week definitely has it.) Or, is it really that in your perceptions of the two genres, and one is of a “higher rank”?

I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

Opera companies need to branch out and start looking at adding more music to the standard canon, if we’re going to finally stop seeing articles with the lead, “Is Opera Dead?” I agree that this should be done with new composers, women composers, and composers of colour, but we also can’t discount that the early American musicals of the 20th century are also very good candidates.

Singers like Julie Andrews, Audra MacDonald, John McMartin, and countless others have lent their classically-trained chops to these pieces, and it’s a large part of what makes them perennial favourites. These shows shouldn’t be sung by the same voices that sing Rent, Hamilton, and Spring Awakening. Those voices are awesome, and I’m a huge fan, but let’s face it: The Sound of Music would sound way different if it were Idina Menzel in the original cast and not Mary Martin.

But here’s the kicker in my eyes: no one bats an eye when someone says, “Oh, she’s a Susanna, not an Ariadne,” but thinking that this Susanna would also sound great as Lucy in The Secret Garden garners a completely different response.

I think my real question is, why? Why is it an affront to a company’s integrity to perform a musical? Why do shows like West Side Story and Sweeney Todd get a pass, and others in that don’t? Most opera singers I know in the “biz” started out singing Adelaide, not Adele.

Carousel runs at English National Opera’s London Coliseum from April 7 to May 13. For details and ticket info, click here.

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