The State of Opera Here and Abroad

Tickets for Scottish Opera’s landmark staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle sold out months before the Edinburgh Festival got underway in late August. However, concerned about the high average age of buyers (around 50), the company decided to open its doors free of charge on one particular day to anyone under the age of 27. The result was an embarrassing fiasco—of the 2,000 seats available, only 237 were filled.

A spokesman for Scottish Opera insisted, “We’re delighted. Even if we only turn fifty people on to opera, it is a major success.” However, not everyone was so bullish. A spokeswoman for another British opera company admitted that their future looks “very grim,” and did not even protest when I wondered aloud whether we are witnessing the death of opera—the first high-art casualty of the modern explosion in popular culture.

Startlingly, however, the prognosis for opera on this side of the Atlantic is quite different. Surveys conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts show that American opera audiences have been growing steadily since the early ’80s, a growth that includes an 18% rise in the under-24 age group. Indeed, a spectacular demonstration of opera’s New World popularity came only last year, during the Boston Lyric Opera’s two-day free performance of Carmen on the Common. The predicted audience of 20,000 was exceeded sevenfold, by people of all ages.

So what is going on? If we are really seeing the conclusion of an inexorable cultural slide from opera to Oprah then why is it only happening in the UK? Why have young Americans, brought up on junk cable TV and its associated five-minute attention span, retained a taste for watching corpulent actors singing affectedly in a foreign language for four hours, a taste their BBC-reared British cousins have lost?

No doubt the reasons are complex. But perhaps one of them is the socio-cultural climate of Britain, where opera is widely perceived as being “elitist” (a conclusion that even the government reached after investigating the management of the famed but financially troubled Royal Opera House in London a few years ago). Opera glasses, it is said, are not used to get a better view of the performance; they are used to scan the audience for people to be seen with during the interval. It seems that membership in such a snootily ostentatious set no longer appeals in the modern, “post-class” Britain. Most young people would prefer to stay at home and watch Jerry Springer.

Which brings me neatly to this year’s smash hit of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival—none other than Jerry Springer: The Opera. Yes, perhaps American-style popular culture will actually prove to be the inspiration of a whole new genre of opera in Britain, which we might tentatively christen Postmodern Opera—or, more catchily, Oprah Opera. Such irony-soaked fare may make Wagner howl in his grave, but at least it might keep a few British sopranos in work. Whether it could catch on here remains to be seen.