Andrew Mellor wrote this scrappy piece for the New Statesman clutching at straws on how to substantiate his own prejudices of what classical/opera audiences are like. The main thrust of his argument is the adverts in a BBC Proms programme advertising private tuition etc. He seems to go on some semiotic reading of the adverts and awarding the crown of elitism and high snobbery to the audience. His views are so far apart from my experience that I feel compelled to shortly write about them.
I grew up in Athens and was schooled there, the only fancy paid for tuition I received being my rather good English language school (for two hours after school, three times a week). Went to a few opera and ballet performances with my best friend to the disapproval of my parents. That was mainly due to the beautifully appointed Athens Concert Hall (Megaron) and its very cheap student standby scheme which we took advantage of to see some wonderful shows. It was a way in to a world I had very little contact with through my parents or my school (which had only rudimentary music classes, mainly dealing in history).
When I moved to the UK fifteen years ago I went to pop concerts, ballet and theatre. Never felt that any venue was out of reach or that the audience was unfriendly. Eventually I went to some classical and opera performances and again never felt patronised or awkward. When I took on a summer job at the Royal Albert Hall as a Steward for the 2000 Proms, it was a great opportunity to be exposed to a huge variety of events and more importantly the love of the musicians and the Hall’s staff for music. This was an eye opener, being part of what felt like a big family, one night being lucky enough to see Tasmin Little with Simon Rattle and the next Petra Lang and Kurt Masur. Never for a second did the adverts in all the programmes that I read felt as a coded cry of the upper echelons of society telling me I was not welcome. What I felt being around all the other Stewards at the RAH and the audience was a great love and respect for the art form and the chance to be exposed to greatness, it had nothing to do with social rank or how I pronounced my vowels. In fact the only time I was exposed to unpleasantness was during a concert by Oasis and their horrible audience.
In the last five years I have been taking my partner to lots of performances of music, dance and opera and he possibly would be the one to confirm that we have never felt unwelcome to any venue. Even if some contemporary opera doesn’t totally rock his boat, he takes a lot of pleasure from the sojourns and deepening his knowledge of repertoire and musicians.
Additionally the advances in social media, the exchanges with orchestras, venues and artists have created a much tighter, warmer bond. We all know that opera and classical will remain in the fringes of mainstream culture, but orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and many more are using their resources to promote their work and to make appreciation of it as wide as possible. The fact that the LSO will not be as popular as any given pop/rock act doesn’t make them a failure.
Most of the time the concept of exclusivity and high cost is foisted on those venues, but it’s far from the truth. Tickets for the LSO at the Barbican can be had from £8 and that is to listen to one of the most accomplished orchestras in the world with some very illustrious conductors and guest artists. I have been to many concerts where the food consumed at the cafe was more expensive than the tickets for this apparent elitist pursuit.
Equally there is no buzz like it when a favourite opera singer has a great night. No matter if I’m occupying a top price seat at Stalls or a £15 one at the gods of the Royal Opera House or ENO the deep sense of pleasure and satisfaction is the same.
Last week when I was watching Les Troyens from the cheapest seat in the House I was flanked by two people in the polar opposites of the audience. The lady on my right was wonderfully chatty and telling me about performances she had seen and what she was going to next. The gentleman on my left was clutching his opera companion with religious fervour while emanating the unpleasant smell of someone that hadn’t had a wash in a few days and refusing to engage with anyone around him. Was it the Royal Opera’s fault that this chap goes to performances and that he may put off some newcomers? Are newcomers to opera such scared, fragile little things that can’t fend for themselves? Those 5hours 22minutes spent in the company of those two people either side of me it was a metaphor for the larger world surrounding live performance.
There are the sweet, obliging, polite, warm hearted, generous people and then there are the less giving, passive aggressive, unpleasant individuals and anything in between the two. As in every other walk of life we learn to co-exist and trying to get on. When the calling of the great music is strong, nothing can mar the experience not even a very smelly, passive aggressive chap on my immediate left. So let’s stop victimizing the classical/opera circuit which is much more democratic and egalitarian than many other sections of British society. I am happy not to be part of an exclusive reception for the sponsors of a concert and I don’t feel excluded or let down, after all they subsidise my hobby. Live and let live.
PS The ultimate satisfaction I derive from my blogging and Tweeting activity is when one of my readers/followers decides to give opera or orchestral music a go. Sometimes it just takes that one visit and a love affair that lasts a lifetime begins. That is the very reason why I refuse to be negative for the future of “serious music” and opera, as long as there’s curiosity there will be audiences.