Cher Public

Getting our canards in a row

“An opera house should never apologise for being what it is, or bend to what others may want it to be. The best way to attract younger audiences to an art form that, of necessity, appeals to a discriminating élite, is to do good work, without embarrassment. That means engaging top-class conductors and singers, and hiring directors humble enough to recognise that the composer must always come first…. Let us do away with Regietheater, and the upside-down world of ‘concepts’. From Monteverdi to Mark-Anthony Turnage there is enough work for an opera house to present without recourse to the predictability of bogus radicalism. Masterpieces are not there to subvert; they are there to explore.” [The Spectator]

  • redbear

    Why is it that some who write about opera think it is cool to sound like very, very old bag ladies who have been dipping into the cheap wine a bit much?

    • grimoaldo

      Well, this is from The Spectator, its intended audience is for people who try to think, not so much like “very, very old bag ladies who have been dipping into the cheap wine a bit much” but more along the lines of “pre WWI chatelaines who have been dipping into the sherry a bit much”.
      “The new man, appointed last month to a few raised eyebrows, is Mark Wigglesworth. Two decades ago… Wigglesworth worked regularly with the great orchestras of Europe and America. This month he can be found in the boondocks of Colorado and Utah.”
      “with an international opera house only a six-iron away at Covent Garden, what is ENO for?”
      I had to think about that, I think “only a six-iron away” is a golfing metaphor, that shows the readership of The Spectator, it is for what in the US would be the country club crowd.

      • williams

        A six iron, in the hands of a young pro, is for a a shot of about 200 yards depending on the elements. When the same club is wielded by a sherry swilling crone such as myself the ball is lucky to find itself 150 yards from its origin. Not to get defensive but golfers are not all country club crowd. There are several lovely municipal courses within New York City limits where the members of a given foursome can range from decidedly working class to wealthy captains of industry.

      • Howling in Tune

        How far, in fact, is the Coliseum from the Royal Opera house?

        • MontyNostry

          Maybe five minutes’ walk.

      • leonora

        To be honest, I don’t know what ‘six-iron away’ means either, and I am British. I go to ENO and Covent Garden.

    • Regina delle fate

      This man rarely writes about opera. He is the former cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph who loves classical music -- concerts more than opera, I’d say -- and is something of a Simon Rattle groupie. Of course he is entitled to his opinion as anyone else is, but my guess is that he hasn’t much of a clue about the leading -- and best -- practitioners of Regietheater. The recent examples by Bieto at ENO have been a “new” 13-year-old Carmen and the new Fidelio which Bieito hardly directed as he was doing a genuinely new Soldaten in Zurich at the same time. A lot of what he thinks of as Regietheater have been British theatre directors such as Rupert Goold -- who set Turandot in a Chinese restaurant -- Rufus Norris and Jonathan Kent trying to ape the style of European Regie directors and failing miserably. It will be a miracle if any of these shows are seen again. The Spectator is a tiny circulation, right-wing little rag that is currently auditioning for a new opera critic. Neither of the two most promising -- judging by what I’ve read of their work elsewhere, are likely to agree with Henderson on the subject of Regietheater.

      • MontyNostry

        But, Regina, on here the Spectator is representative of the entire British opera-going public. How do sales and perception of the New Statesman compare to the Spectator, btw?

        • Regina delle fate

          Well Henderson is a Fucking Brit and we all have the same way of thinking, like those famous Wannabe Brits Sally Billingsgate and Jimmy Levine….

      • Regina delle fate

        Two most promising candidates …

  • Chanterelle

    Funny, red bear!

    A comment or two on conductors: Wigglesworth may not have lasted at La Monnaie, but it’s hard to believe that Morlot is a major improvement.

    As for Gardner going to Bergen, perhaps he is positioning himself for a bigger move west? He’s salted his busy schedule at ENO with gigs elsewhere, including LOC and the Met…

    • Often admonished

      Gardner is positioning himself for the CBSO which Nelsons vacates just as Ed becomes free. He’s already a regular guest there.

      • Krunoslav

        Good, because his work at the Met has been pretty middling-to-meh. He did bring over a UK orchestra for a very well-led CLEMENZA , so there is clearly talent there. But Met audiences sure haven’t benefitted much from it.

      • Regina delle fate

        I think the CBSO is positioning itself to get Ed Gardner rather than the other way round. They’ve just started making records with him. A series called Mendelssohn in Birmingham! (He wrote Elijah for Birmingham and gave many concerts in the beautiful old Town Hall, now refurbished as a concert hall and one of the few architectural jewels in the city centre).

    • Regina delle fate

      lol -- if Gardner “goes West” there’ll be meltdown on this site!

      • Chanterelle

        Wiki indicates that Gardner is ~40 years old, and his initial contract in Bergen runs till 2019. There are younger conductors who are more reasonably in the running for upcoming big positions…

  • Jamie01

    “an art form that, of necessity, appeals to a discriminating elite”

    WTF does this even mean? Unless elite = niche, on what basis is a contemporary opera audience elite? Ticket prices, from the nosebleeds to the best seat in the house, are lower than, for example, a Knicks or Jets game. Some opera fans are extremely knowledgeable about the musical and dramatic aspects of the art, but no doubt many basketball fans are equally knowledgeable about strategy, etc.

    Maybe he is referring to the big-money donors who finance, or don’t, new productions? That actually makes some sense, but is a non-sequitur in a sentence that begins by referencing young audiences.

    • oedipe

      I think “elite” in the case of opera audiences refers to a certain type of taste, which differs considerably from the tastes of the masses.

    • armerjacquino

      He’s appealing to his audience. The Spectator used to be a relatively benign centre-right publication which chuntered away quietly to itself. Now it’s the natural home of frothing bunkernuts like Toby Young and James Delingpole.

  • Porgy Amor

    Oh, yes. “Humble” directors. That’s the ticket.

    I wonder if the author imagines that Zeffirelli and Ponnelle were any longer on humility than Konwitschny and Tcherniakov.

    • If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard Zeffirelli say “Io son l’umile ancella”…

      • Howling in Tune

        I thought he only said that in bed …

  • antikitschychick

    “The best way to attract younger audiences to an art form that, of necessity, appeals to a discriminating élite”

    “Masterpieces are not there to subvert; they are there to explore.”

    Since when are the two mutually exclusive???

    I rest my case.

    • jackoh

      “Masterpieces are not there to subvert; they are there to explore.”

      So let’s explore them using every means and in every way that we can. Calixto Bieito, anyone?

  • grimoaldo

    This is an article about English National Opera. Calixto Bieito has done many productions there, that and other “regie” of the kind is just what this writer is complaining about, he and his readership detest that sort of thing.
    Also Jamie01 above says “Maybe he is referring to the big-money donors who finance, or don’t, new productions?” but this is an article from England, about English National Opera, “big money donors” do not finance new productions there, they are paid for from tax revenues, they got £17.078 million in 2012-2013 (that’s about $28.42 million) from public money.
    It sounds like they are putting on some good stuff right now, I would love to see Stuart Skelton in Peter Grimes, Quinn Kelsey in Rigoletto, and Richard Jones’ production of Rodelinda.

    • laddie

      Quinn Kelsey in Rigoletto:

      • A once-in-a-generation voice. The video details say this was from Vancouver in 2011 but I don’t think that’s right. It’s likely from his Toronto Rigolettos in the fall of 2011. Why this guy isn’t singing at the Met is a mystery. He’s American and he has sung at the Met before (though only as Monterone and Shaunard) so he’s a known quantity. One would think that the Met would sign him up for multiple assignments.

    • Regina delle fate

      Grim -- the Grimes is being live in HD-ed to cinemas tomorrow at 2.30 London time!

  • Ilka Saro

    “an art form that, of necessity, appeals to a discriminating élite”

    I can’t tell what this means. What exactly is the necessity? Opera, by some inherent characteristics, can only exist by appealing to a discriminating elite? A discriminating elite defined by whom? What compels opera to need this of a necessity?

    The suggestion of the article is that the discriminating elite doesn’t care for regietheater. On the contrary, the discriminating elite seems to thrive on it. How is it that year after year, these apparently shocking directors, apparently detested by everyone, continue to be hired? Because what they do isn’t quite as shocking or as detestable as some might wish to believe. Often as not, it’s engaging. I’ve seen plenty of Zeffirelli “explorations”. I wish that I could see more Bieito.

    Do I think regietheater is the only way to go? No, I don’t. But it has its place and I want more of it than I get in NYC. In the meantime, I suppose I am not one of the discriminating elite. Just another subscriber who supplements a family circle subscription with lots of standing room tickets because it’s what I can afford. Oh how I wish I were one of the discriminating elite. NOT!

    • oedipe

      an art form that, of necessity, appeals to a discriminating élite

      Here is how I understand it:

      BY ITS NATURE, opera is not easily accessible to everybody in today’s world: not only is it a relatively expensive passtime, but also -more importantly- it requires a certain amount of initiation, preparation and familiarization with the genre that the majority of people cannot be bothered with. Opera is thus elitist OF NECESSITY, just like -say- philosophy is elitist of necessity.

      The elitism of opera is also a matter of established practices. The world of opera is a pretty closed one, in which audiences have a vested interest keeping it closed. Firstly, opera audiences feel that their knowledge of composers, singers and singing traditions differentiates them from hoi poloi. Secondly, there is a self-reinforcing social motivation to keep things this way, to preserve the distinctive distance between the “initiated” and the “masses”.

      This rarefied operatic atmosphere has led to the appearance of a conflict between two camps, a conflict which bears a striking resemblance to the 17th century French literary and philosophical “Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes”: then, the “Ancient” defended the strict imitation of antiquity, whereas the “Modern” supported innovation.

      This old conflict, which lasted for decades, became very dogmatic and self-perpetuating, each side holding on to its own ideas. Something similar is happening in opera today, with the unending debate between conservative “traditionalists” and “regie” modernists: this debate is increasingly becoming dogmatic and sterile; meanwhile the world of opera is becoming more and more isolated and elitist…

      • antikitschychick

        “meanwhile the world of opera is becoming more and more isolated and elitist…”

        Isolated (and esoteric), yes (esp in the US) but the elitism label has become passe imo. In fact I don’t think Opera has ever been as accessible as it is now thanks to Youtube, DVDs, CDs and the HD/live stream transmissions. LIVE Opera is still expensive yes, but so are sporting events and Lady Gaga concerts. It really comes down to what your conception of elitist is.

        To me the word elitist has many negative connotations that I don’t associate with Opera and the performers who champion it now a days. Elitism denotes a sort of exclusivity, as in the exclusion of certain people who do not occupy the upper echelon(s) of society. True, Opera, esp in the US is largely kept afloat through charitable donations from wealthy patrons, but that in and of itself doesn’t make it elitist. The reason being that said patrons don’t get to dictate what will be presented onstage or exactly how the funds will be used in any absolute terms, because Opera is not a commodity that they can just own. What is presented onstage is for everyone. So when Mercedes Bass or whoever donates X million dollars for a new production or work or what have you, its not something that will be commissioned specifically for her but for everyone, including the artists involved in the project. Sure she has a say in the matter but she is limited in terms of the overall outcome. Thus, Opera is not something created solely for those wealthy elite like it was centuries ago because there isn’t a domineering plutocracy (or at least not in a explicit/absolute sense) that demands to see themselves and their opulence reflected back at them on the stage. Opera is now one of several types of performance art forms that exist which is something that is currently being addressed and will continue to be as is only right. The challenge that we are now seeing is how to make it relevant and appealing to a modern (and post modern) audience as an art form without rendering it completely amorphous and watered-down.

        Moreover, there are still too many negative stereotypes associated w Opera that are pretty much ingrained in the collective consciousness of mainstream audiences and it takes a helluva lot of work and creativity to change/reverse said stereotypes, and I do think its possible, but continuing to call Opera elitist will certainly not help.

        You do make some good points oedipe, but I think its important not to use words so loosely and ambiguously in describing such an historic and multi-faceted art form which is precisely where I think the above article went wrong.

        • Ilka Saro

          Yes, antik! I would go further and say that there is a cultural legacy of snobbery about opera: people who lover opera are better than people who don’t — more intelligent, more “sensitive”, deeper.

          I agree that it’s hard to separate a word like “elite” from growing up with the experience of opera packaged as something for “better” people. As you point it out, I realize that maybe I didn’t give the piece a fair reading. Then I look at the piece again and find that I still disagree, and still find the writer smug. Another aspect of the cultural myth of the operaloving elite: a kind of groaning self-pity when they don’t get what they expect.

        • olliedawg

          Per antikitschychick, Calling opera “elitist” reinforces a tired stereotype. It is self-referential bullshit touted by lazy journalists. Opera is available EVERYWHERE now — YouTube, DVD, CD, commercials, PBS, Live in HD — and, even though it makes many parterrians squirm, through the tiny widdle voices of Bocelli and Jenkins (ok, let’s include Sarah Brightman just to make an unholy trio). If Bocelli can bring someone to a full-length opera just to see what it’s all about, so be it. It is, as they say, not for nothing that people love 2 scenes from “Moonstruck”: The “snap out of it” smack, and the “a-ha” moment at the Met during “La Boheme”. When Cher’s character gets that gob-smacked look on her face, we witness a conversion of sorts, something deeper and personal gets inside that no-nonsense soul. For those who weren’t brought up listening to Caruso or Gigli on the “Victrola”: Didn’t that happen to you at some point?

          As for deeming opera an old-fart’s art, if it truly is for fogeys and biddies, why all the young singers coming into the business, and the young/youngish faces scanned by the cameras pre-Live in HD performance? I’ve been thinking about one of my dearest college chums, a middle-class Boston lady,alas, gone from this world way too young, who put long-playing records on her phonograph (bring you back?), and blasted “Che gelida manina” through her dorm room door — at 18-19 years old. My lovely cousin, the daughter of a blue-collar guy, fell in love with a certain gentleman and opera when she was 22 — total Verdi/Puccini freak now who speaks reverently of Freni — and hasn’t forgotten those great evenings at the Met (although the certain gentleman is long gone).

          My experience is this: What turns (some) people I know off to opera is the type of shenanigans that occasionally go on here at Parterre: Snarky gossip or patently nasty personal attacks on the performers, directors, administrators, etc.; infra-dig conversations about arcane musical references, fault-finding when a great artists cannot meet a brand of nebulous perfection. We can be elitist towards the newbie, the wanna-learns, the just-gob-smacked. Per Ilka Saro, we need to use our powers more often for good ;-) (and I’ve been the recipient of heavy blowback and sublime encouragement — per La Cieca, I’m going to see “Prince Igor” next Saturday and can’t wait--merci)

          By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Sellars’ takes on Don Giovanni, Cosi, and Figaro, and other “regietheater” like those, sung by great singing actors. These productions propelled me to peer deeper into the story within and behind the story. New productions which ask us to re-evaluate our ingrained notions about the text are fine with me. But, opera directors, like all other directors in all other arts, who want to deconstruct an opera just to be shocking or clever or in-your-face wear the emperor’s clothes, and deserve to be called out for the twits they are. That they continue to obtain gigs says more about the administrators’ fears and desire to be “hip” than anything else.

        • olliedawg

          One more thing: The next time a fellow parterrian calls out Renee Fleming for being (vanilla, dull, goody-two-shoes…or something more mean-spirited), please think it possible that she is one of the best public ambassadors for this art form: A middle-class, earnest, striving, public school-educated, upstate New York-born/raised mom, in possession of a great sense of humor and humility. In many ways, her upbringing matches the profile of many of the audiences we need to reach, and her life story and message has meaning to those who might want to give opera a try because she seems “real”. Swap in Susan Graham’s or JoyceD’s or … with Renee’s, and you have a story to which LOTS of people can relate. Instead of dissing them when they try on a new “hat” (directing, administration, etc.), I want to applaud their willingness to generate positive publicity for themselves, of course, and opera as a glorious art form for all.

          • Ilka Saro

            Olliedawg, I agree with a lot of what you say. Two things:
            1. I would rather see the no-holds-barred regie of a Bieito than the watered down imitations of modern staging that we get at the Met. About a decade ago they opened a new Don Giovanni. Now, frankly, although it was very conventional and pretty, the previous Don Giovanni (Zeffirelli??) wasn’t even that old, and was perfectly serviceable. It was replaced with this quasi-hip brick and leather jacket thing which went absolutely nowhere, was hated by everyone and was taken out of the rep as fast as it had been put in. The Met wants props for “trying”, but the truth is that they didn’t even try. Some designer who was admired for being “edgy” by a bunch of people who shop too much in Tribeca comes along and dresses up everyone in second hand clothes. Brilliant. The staging was completely conventional. It was a production with nothing to say, except to make dated fashion statements, and it was replaced by a production that was even more conventional than the Zeffirelli one, and not as pretty. Oy. Here at the Met, everyone so afraid of “going too far” that they don’t go anywhere at all. So give me Bieito, and let me decide for myself what it appropriate or not.

            Separate subject!

            2. There was nothing dull or vanilla about Fleming’s Desdemona two seasons ago at the Met. Vocally impeccable, with outstanding subtlety in the singing, playing the vulnerability without being maudlin. Although I think she does some roles not-so-well, I often wonder when I read the vicious talk here if we are talking about the same singer. But honestly, that is part of why I read things here, so I can’t complain.

            • olliedawg

              I completely agree about wishy-washy, quasi-hip productions that say nothing and simply make a fashion statement. And, per your comment about being afraid of “going too far,” why is it OK when singers do that, but directors hold back?

              And, Renee as the Marschallin…beautifully nuanced, thoughtful, and gorgeously sung. I am sure there have been many, many other great portrayals, but Renee really touched my heart, whether singing solo or interacting with Octavian (of course, she and BFF SG, knowing their roles inside and out, made those moments beyond special). She gave that woman’s soul to us on a platter. That is, for me, the definition of magic.

        • Cicciabella

          The perception that opera (and classical music in general) is elitist is still pervasive among non-consumers. Unfortunately, the word “opera” followed by “elitist” has now become associated with the current banal discussion in the media about whether opera is an expensive, obsolete, arcane art form for the privileged few co-financed (in Europe) by taxpayers, most of whom wouldn’t want to be seen dead in an opera house. As AntiKC points out, opera is no longer elitist in terms of money and accessibility. If you can afford to go to a premier league soccer game you can also afford opera tickets. Most opera houses have done away with dress codes. Access to recorded opera has never been cheaper and more ubiquitous. At the same time, I would argue that opera has never been so far removed from popular culture as it is today. The average Western household has access to dozens of TV stations, hundreds of Internet radio stations and countless other internet resources. This means that any listener/viewer/surfer can consume music for a whole lifetime without hearing more than a few snippets of opera. The overwhelming choice means that you need to first seek out opera to listen to it and decide whether you like it or not. The only operatic encounters you’re likely to have via popular culture are via advertisements and films and by hearing talent show contestants heaving their way through truncated versions of Nessun Dorma and O Mio Bambino (sic) Caro. Although opera is not elitist in terms of access, it is “elitist” culturally, because unless a child is exposed to it at home or at school, it will probably not occur to them that opera also belongs to them and that they are capable of and entitled to enjoy it. I don’t have an overview of the situation in other countries, but here in the Netherlands music education has virtually disappeared from schools. Government-subsidised music schools have lost so much funding that their fees are now as high as commercial ones, and they have stopped classical singing lessons entirely. Parents need to be financially comfortable and highly motivated to support their children’s musical education. The result is: “elitism”. Only a minority of Dutch children receive a classical music education.

          There are also practical reasons why opera can never become mass entertainment. Opera houses have limited capacity. Although many performances play to half-empty houses, popular operas with stellar casts sell out in a few hours. HD broadcasts, DVDs and miked concerts by opera stars in big venues make opera more accessible, they also underline the difference between the recorded and relayed experience “for the masses” and the real, restricted experience of live, technically unenhanced opera in a theatre. Now that major opera companies no longer tour the provinces, this experience is reserved for consumers who live close to an opera house. The most popular opera stars only sing in A-list houses and concert halls. If you don’t live close to one of those and can’t afford to travel, you’re automatically excluded from the live theatre experience of stellar performances. I believe this distinction will always exist, even if, in the future, technology is able to faithfully reproduce the sound of in-house voices and hologram singers and sets to any venue in the world.

          Oedipe makes an important point about a certain cultural legacy being necessary to enjoy opera, or even to begin to imagine that you could enjoy it. Foreign language librettos, references to the literary canon, theatrical conventions, musical idiom, historical significance: all these factors can be intimidating if you have not been shown, by means of upbringing or education, that you have the right to explore and enjoy “high culture” as much as anybody else, even if you don’t understand all its references and conventions. Many first-time opera goers, even ones with tertiary education, are baffled by what they see and hear on stage. One such newbie asked me, after a Bohème performance: “So is Mimi an Asian girl?” Her frame of reference being film, and the soprano being Asian, she could only conclude that the libretto called for an Asian Mimi, and she felt stupid asking the question. We should not underestimate the hurdles to be overcome in enabling more people to enjoy opera, which is why exposure in schools and representation in popular culture are so important. Fleming singing at the Super Bowl and Netrebko at the Winter Olympics are, unfortunately, uncommon examples of the “high” and “low” culture cross-pollination necessary to ensure future opera audiences.

          • olliedawg

            The most popular opera stars only sing in A-list houses and concert halls.

            One popular opera star has this date on her calendar: March 28, 2014 Recital, Myrtle Beach, SC, First Presbyterian Church of Myrtle Beach

            and this one, too:

            April 6, 2014 Recital, Oberlin, OH, Oberlin College & Conservatory

            Last I looked, Myrtle Beach and Oberlin College are hardly major venues — and a Presbyterian church? Whoa, watch out for those gala covered dish suppers.

            Yeah, some opera stars only want to sing in the vast confines of Madison Square Garden or the Albert Hall, but not all, and not all the time. Some opera singers actually want to (literally) reach and touch someone.

            • Cicciabella

              Very glad to hear it, olliewag. And brava, Susan Graham! Unfortunately, there are numerous other examples of singers and conductors who, once they make it big, will only appear where they get the highest fees, apart from the occasional charity concert/gala.

            • Cicciabella

              *olliedawg. My apologies.

            • olliedawg

              Cicciabella — no worries about the nom de plume. But, my dog remains rather perturbed ;-)

              I’m an unabashed SG fan, and late to the party, too. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I walked away from opera after too many dreary days/nights at the Met. And, while I knew her name, it wasn’t until I watched a YouTube video of Graham singing “When I Am Laid in Earth” which made me just about fall over in awe, that I came back to the opera-going fold. Then I watched another YouTube video, an interview she did 5-6 years ago, and fell over laughing. While her particular kind of voice has always appealed to me, it’s also her joie de vivre, and her palpable happiness (with a dash of ham) in presenting her art to a variety of audiences, and in a variety of venues, that really won me over. I don’t know how many other top-of-their-game singers would shlep to Myrtle Beach, Oberlin, and Akron to sing for cognoscenti, students, and newbies alike, but, yeah, SusieG = awesome.

            • Ilka Saro

              Olliewag sounds like “scallywag”. Just the kind of man I can never resist!

  • Firstly, opera audiences feel that their knowledge of composers, singers and singing traditions differentiates them from hoi poloi.

    Well I’ve had my “wtf” moment for the weekend.

    • oedipe

      Would you reply the same thing to the millions who believe that Bocelli and Katherine Jenkins ARE opera?

      I claim no originality for what I wrote above about elitism. Does the name of the important French thinker Pierre Bourdieu ring a bell to anybody here?

      Suggested reading: Pierre Bourdieu, “La Distinction. Critique Sociale du Jugement.”

      Here is a short description of Bourdieu’s thesis on “tastes”:

      An excerpt from this encyclopedia article about Bourdieu’s book:

      l’ouvrage montre ainsi que les principes de classement à partir desquels s’opèrent les jugements de goût, dont les préférences esthétiques ne sont qu’une des manifestations les plus visibles, entretiennent un rapport d’homologie avec la structure sociale au sein de laquelle se distinguent les classes (supérieures, moyennes, populaires) et leurs fractions (bourgeoisie traditionnelle vs bourgeoisie économique ou intellectuelle, par exemple). Jugements sociaux déniés comme tels, les jugements de goûts permettent de se distinguer par rapport aux autres et prennent appui sur un système de perception du monde social qu’ils contribuent à entretenir. Plus encore, l’établissement de ces hiérarchies culturelles reproduit et légitime les hiérarchies symboliques et par là même un ordre social inégalitaire. On retrouve ici la thèse de la « violence symbolique » formulée dans La Reproduction à propos des fonctions sociales du système scolaire.

      Loin de se contenter d’une sociologie empirique du goût, La Distinction formule des propositions centrales dans la théorie du monde social de Pierre Bourdieu. Il s’agit de montrer l’ajustement complexe des structures sociales (le système des positions objectives) et des structures mentales (les principes de vision du monde) en révélant comment les premières fondent les secondes qu’elles légitiment (et donc perpétuent) en retour. Le moteur de cet ajustement entre structures sociales et mentales, c’est l’habitus, produit de l’incorporation des manières d’être et de voir ajustées à la position sociale (ce qui fait qu’un enfant d’enseignant trouvera « naturel » d’aller à la bibliothèque) et « principe générateur de pratiques » qui réalise dans les conduites effectives et les préférences la probabilité inscrite dans les conditions sociales d’existence et dessinée tout au long de la trajectoire sociale.”

      • oedipe

        It is probably worth translating the sentences above, which contain some very important notions about the “loaded” nature of art appreciation:

        “Thus, the book shows that the classification principles from which judgments of taste are derived -aesthetic preferences are only the most visible manifestations of such- have a relationship of homology with the social structure within which several classes ( upper, middle , lower) and their subclasses (traditional bourgeoisie vs economic or intellectual bourgeoisie, for example) can be distinguished. Judgments of taste -which are social judgments but which are denied as such- allow a person to distinguish oneself versus the others; they are supported by a system of perception of the social world that they help to maintain. Furthermore, the establishment of these cultural hierarchies reproduces and legitimates symbolic hierarchies and, through them, an unequal social order. We find here the thesis of “symbolic violence” contained in Reproduction, which dealt with the social functions of the school system.

        Far from being simply an empirical sociology of taste, Distinction formulates some central theses in Bourdieu’s theory of the social world. The point is to show the complex adjustments of social structures (“the system of objective positions”) and mental structures (“the principles of worldviews”) by revealing how the former are the basis of the latter, which they legitimize, and thus perpetuate. The engine of this adjustment between social and mental structures is the “habitus”, a product of the incorporation of ways of being and seeing adjusted to one’s social position (a child of teachers, for instance, will find it “natural” to go to the library). The “habitus” is “a principle that’s generative of practice, fulfilling in people’s actual conduct and in their preferences the probability which is embedded in the social conditions of existence and which is traced out throughout the social trajectory.”

      • Yes, oedipe, it was pretty clear to me (and probably others) that you were recycling Bourdieu. The problem is that you are not very good at it. I suggest a strong, severe, self-critical dose of empirical research before you attempt airy generalizations such as the one I flagged above.

        • oedipe

          Could you explain what you mean a little more substantially than “wtf”?

          • I don’t recognize myself, I don’t recognize anybody I know in your quoted sentence. I don’t see that kind of thinking in any opera house’s PR. Maybe you think like that. So much the worse for you.

            • oedipe

              It’s your right to not recognize yourself in my sentence; it doesn’t mean, as you implied, that I don’t have a good grasp of Bourdieu’s theses, nor does it mean that his conclusions (based on empirical research, BTW) are false.

              My sentence is obviously a simplification of Bourdieu; in 10-15 words, it cannot be otherwise. Nor was that sentence intended as a quote.

              I confess: although I know this is elitist, I can’t help noticing when people are ignorant about opera, I can’t help looking down upon Bocelli and Jenkins in opera, I know that the overwhelming majority of people have different tastes than mine; it’s not an indictment, it’s just a fact of life. And, considering the nature and tenure of the exchanges one regularly reads on opera blogs such as Parterre, I think I am not the only one to feel this way.

              As Bourdieu says, people are reluctant to admit that their tastes are differentiating social judgements. This is true everywhere, but Americans seem to have an especially hard time accepting it, maybe because here the myth of cultural equality for all still persists. As one would expect, the Fucking French don’t believe in the equality myth.

            • “nor does it mean that his [Bourdieu’s -- ed.] conclusions (based on empirical research, BTW) are false.”

              From Le Wikipedie: “La Distinction (1979), by Pierre Bourdieu, is a sociological report about the state of French culture, based upon the author’s empirical research, from 1963 until 1968.”

              So the research is 45-50 years old and limited to one country. Perhaps you would care to share with us more up-to-date, less geographically-restricted research before venturing such airy generalizations?

            • oedipe

              For me, having Bourdieu’s (vast) empirical research results is quite valuable and I happen to agree with many of his conclusions; till I am shown evidence that contradicts them, of course.

              Would you care to share with us the up-to-date empirical research on which YOU are basing your diverging point of view?

            • 1. I’m not the one making airy generalizations about contemporary audiences, oedipe, you are. When your airy generalizations fall laughably short of describing the attitudes of myself, people I know and people I observe, that’s enough.

              2. Relying exclusively on 50-year-old data, gathered in one country, as a guide to the sociology of present-day audiences worldwide is poor empiricism. This is one reason why I thought you were doing a terrible job of regurgitating Bourdieu -- in addition to the necessary (over)simplifications, you seem to have no distance from the material and no awareness of how the data and/or the world may have changed since the year 1979.

            • oedipe

              OK. You win, I lose.

              There is no recent empirical research but we know for a fact that the Bourdieu data is only applicable to France.

              We know from the personal experience of a few people here that: there are no elitist attitudes in the American opera world; there is equality of access to culture in general and to opera in particular for everybody, including minorities and the poor; there is no display of specialized expertise on American opera blogs, and no snide remarks against those who are not in the know; average people in America do not feel intimidated by opera, and they do not feel that opera and its regular audiences are elitist.

              Keep your convictions; with (or without) your permission I’ll keep mine.

            • Shorter oedipe: Chimère tant qu’il vous plaira, ma chimère m’est chère

              Saying that “Proposition A is not true” is not the same thing as saying “The opposite of Proposition A is true”, so don’t mischaracterize my argument. I wouldn’t dare try to sum up so neatly the attitudes of the heterogeneous group of people who make up opera’s audiences and non-audiences.

            • manou

              Chimène, qui l’eût dit ?

    • olliedawg

      m. croche: I will cop to letting my limited musical knowledge get the better of me from time to time.

      But, I can also tell you how I drive my friends and husband nuts with my willingness to evangelize about this or that singer, or doing my own deconstruct of an opera plot (to which the common retort is: “Do they die in this one?”). My office manager watched Renee sing the national anthem, all the while sshing her loud-mouth friend and husband, telling them how cool RF is…and they were slack-jawed: “How do you know so much about opera???” My job is nearly done ;-)

    • leonora

      We all STARTED from a position of knowing nothing about opera, so we were ALL at one point part of the ‘ignorant masses’. Now that I actually know quite a lot about opera, I want to SHARE it with people, not exclude them…..

  • Will

    Comparison of Elites by price in NYC:

    Cost of tickets for the New York Nicks vs the Metropolitan Opera, from Highest to lowest price:

    Most expensive seat, MET: Parterre Box Prime $460
    Closest seat, MET: Front Orchestra $300
    Furthest away seat, MET: Family Circle $45
    And there are Varis rush seats very cheaply

    Most Expensive and closest seat, Nicks: Ringside $7752
    Furthest away seat, Nicks: highest level $93

    And we won’t even get into the cost of rock concert tickets which are events “for the people.”

    • olliedawg

      Now I WILL be elitist: It is the New York KNICKS, and their season so far can truly be described as operatic ;-)

    • A. Poggia Turra

      In fairness, sitting in Courtside seats for an NBA game puts you directly in the “action” -- you are literally in the same row of sideline seats are Carmello Anthony or Kobe Bryant. At the Met, you’d have to be sitting in the prompter’s box to have similar proximity. :)

      Another reason the Courtside seats at Madison Square Garden and also at the Staples Center in Los Angeles) command their very high prices because most are purchased by either high-profile celebrities (Spike Lee, Woody Allen etc for the Knicks, Jack Nicholson et al for the Lakers) or by the major entertainment industry talent agencies, such as CAA, William Morris Endeavor, etc. Paparazzi and online media are always present at these venues and the people who CAA and WME put in those seats always get plenty of media exposure.

      • Batty Masetto

        Don’t all those high-profile celebrities, etc., pretty much embody the definition of an elite?

        And hey, wait, doesn’t the orchestra count as part of the “action” at the opera? Why, you could even thrill to the possibility of getting your eye poked out by the conductor’s baton if the action gets super-heavy.

        (Though I’d be looking forward to seeing Nadja Michael fall head first into the tuba, myself.)

        • olliedawg

          Don’t all those high-profile celebrities, etc., pretty much embody the definition of an elite?

          In a word: Yes.

  • Jamie01

    it requires a certain amount of initiation, preparation and familiarization with the genr”

    I agree that it rewards familiarization, but it hardly requires it. For many of us I suspect it was love at first listen, long before we had much if any knowledge of what we are hearing.

    “The world of opera is a pretty closed one, in which audiences have a vested interest keeping it closed.”

    We do?

    “Firstly, opera audiences feel that their knowledge of composers, singers and singing traditions differentiates them from hoi poloi. Secondly, there is a self-reinforcing social motivation to keep things this way, to preserve the distinctive distance between the “initiated” and the “masses”.

    Some surely do. And there are also pedantic NBA fans who feel that their appreciation of Tim Duncan’s low post footwork is what separates them from the hoi poloi who only want to see slam dunks, and can be just as wearisome in comparing his virtues with those of Moses Malone.

    • olliedawg

      Preach it!

      The world of opera isn’t closed — just ask any singer who tells you how seeing an opera changed their life’s ambition. Look at me, an opera-lover who grew up hearing mostly jazz and musical theater, but who fell in love with “The Final Trio” by a chance time-kill in the Met shop. I want to bring opera to those who think it’s a closed world where they only belong if they dress up, speak several languages, or grew up with Corelli on the phonograph. I suspect many of us want to do the same. It is, however, just as tiresome watching ESPN Talking Heads talk about one play for 10 minutes as it is listening to an opera snob shoot down your description of a great Met moment because you’re not sufficiently schooled in 50+ years of the art form. To them I say: STFU and let us enjoy the goosebump moments.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    BY ITS NATURE, opera is not easily accessible to everybody in today’s world: not only is it a relatively expensive pastime, but also -more importantly- it requires a certain amount of initiation, preparation and familiarization with the genre that the majority of people cannot be bothered with. Opera is thus elitist OF NECESSITY, just like -say- philosophy is elitist of necessity.

    The elitism of opera is also a matter of established practices. The world of opera is a pretty closed one, in which audiences have a vested interest keeping it closed. Firstly, opera audiences feel that their knowledge of composers, singers and singing traditions differentiates them from hoi poloi. Secondly, there is a self-reinforcing social motivation to keep things this way, to preserve the distinctive distance between the “initiated” and the “masses”.”

    I take issue with both of these statements.

    1. Opera does NOT require education beforehand to be enjoyed. Especially today, when surtitles tell us the exact words as they are spoken, it is possible for a complete novice to understand what happens on the opera stage as it occurs, down to the subtlest bits. And reaction to music and drama is visceral, not educated. It happens or it doesn’t. You can be educated to believe you ought to like opera, or to appreciate the intricacies of the music, but liking it, or loving it as in my case, is a personal thing that cannot be dictated, taught, socially pressured, etc.

    If I attended a professional football game, I would need education to understand what the hell was happening. I am aware that quite intelligent and educated people actually like football. So there must be something to it that I am missing. But it does not speak to me viscerally, so I have never bothered to investigate it beyond being bored watching the Super Bowl on TV. And how is my attitude to this sport any different from the usual non-opera person’s attitude toward opera?

    2. The elitism of opera is enforced by the non-opera listening and going public, not the other way around. It’s the people who don’t go who act as if opera is the high altar of art and culture to which they are not qualified for a visit. It’s the hoi polloi that perpetuates absurd stereotypes about opera because it reinforces their cultural comfort with other forms of entertainment or art. How many times have you seen the “Mona Lisa” held up as if it is the only and the best classic oil painting? In the same context, opera is usually represented as a fat guy singing “O Sole Mio”--and this happened BEFORE Pavarotti’s big success with that album. When people learn I like opera, their first concern is that “it’s in a foreign language, isn’t it?” which makes me wonder if being third generation immigrants, which many Americans are, typically involves rejecting any hint of foreignness. If opera’s big cultural loss actually stems from the all-Americanness of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants. Something to consider.

    • olliedawg


    • tancredipasero

      It’s worth noting that the statement “reaction to music and drama is visceral, not educated” doesn’t completely fit the facts. People with different levels of education in music (and/or early-life exposure to it, and/or innate talent for processing sounds) actually hear different things. In music education, part of that is codified and taught in what most schools call “aural skills.” And though I doubt anybody would say you need those skills at the level Pierre Boulez has them to appreciate opera, still, they do make a difference. The visceral reaction is *to the part of the music that has been perceived* -- and one of the great things about opera is that it has a lot to offer even to those who perceive only what somebody else might call the surface level of the music or its interpretation. But it’s also pretty great that it has still more to offer as the ability to hear it grows -- basically there’s no limit; the better you hear, the more there is to hear.

  • jackoh

    “I would go further and say that there is a cultural legacy of snobbery about opera: people who lover opera are better than people who don’t — more intelligent, more “sensitive”, deeper.” -- Ilka Saro

    And, yes, we certainly are!

  • tancredipasero

    This is a broad topic that won’t go away in our lifetimes, but La Cieca needs to realize that there are people who are not nostalgists, not even conservatives, not unsophisticated about theater, not closed-minded, and who nevertheless feel strongly that the shift of interpretative interest and focus to the stage-director side has been harmful to opera.

    Regietheater can’t be all bad -- there wouldn’t be so many talented people committed to it or so many perceptive people finding something worthwhile in it -- but cherry-picking flimsy attacks on it for mockery doesn’t advance the argument.

    A perfectly good case could be made for performing most operas, most of the time, in arrangements reflecting the music of today, and with pop-style voices. If somebody does that in a sufficiently convincing way, it will become a movement and find champions. Other people will disagree -- and some of the champions of the new movement will dismiss those other people as hopeless troglodytes, nostalgists, etc. etc. etc., and will be impatient with any discussion of the trade-offs. Just like now.