Opera, The New Rock 'n' Roll

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Opera, the new rock 'n' roll

by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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Opera is a heady combination of music and drama that for decades was off-putting for many people, who associated it with social-exclusivity, i.e. snobbery, and extravagance. At the very least, the tickets were notoriously expensive, and black tie was the norm. And anyway, who wants to sit through three hours of an opera just to hear a couple of well-known arias.

Which is all very strange for in Italy, which many consider to be its birthplace, opera was never elitist. This was also true of Britain 100 years ago when the populace would be humming Guiseppe Verdi’s music almost as soon as he had written it. But then in Queen Victoria’s reign, ticket prices were affordable, except for special occasions such as when Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, visited England in 1874 and attended an opera at the Royal Albert Hall. That night, the cheapest ticket was £25, a huge sum in those days.

Unfortunately, this started a trend where opera ticket prices depended on who was going, who was conducting and who was singing. By 1900 in Britain at least, opera ticket prices were fixed, upwards, and out of reach of poorer music lovers. Most people were forced to enjoy their passion for opera through sheet music, and later, scratchy recordings by Caruso and others.

Then towards the end of the 20th century, interest in opera was revived through music cassettes and then CDs, video and TV performances. Opera singers are now musical icons for the multitude, instead of the loyal few, and on TV chat shows are as likely to be asked about their politics and private life as their musical tastes.

Yet it is only in the past ten years or so that opera has been transformed from an exclusive art form to one enjoyed by the masses.

This phenomenal success is due partly to companies like the English National Opera, who have made opera more accessible by updating their productions and providing translations. The music may be the same but the drama, no doubt influenced by films and TV, has become more realistic. A growing number of young composers, such as Jonathan Dove, are now writing for the opera, injecting it with new life.

The world-wide proliferation of smaller companies has also proved that opera doesn’t have to be staged in a big theatre to be a success. You can now enjoy opera in parks, lakes and on the streets of Europe’s capital cities.

Meanwhile, opera purists around the globe hark back to glory days of Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), for many the greatest tenor of the 20th century, and Maria Callas (1923-1977), the greatest soprano.

The Brits have for years waxed lyrical about the merits of Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953), one of the greatest contraltos, ever, probably because BBC radio played her stuff ever Sunday lunchtime. And the Irish love John McCormack (1884-1945) and the recently deceased Josef Locke, naturally, especially after the latter’s re-emergence in the cult movie, Hear My Song (yes, I know he wasn’t proper opera singer, but who’s writing this bloody article, you or me!).

Then there was the Hollywood influence of Mario Lanza (1921-1959), to whom Jose Carreras recently repaid his debt by performing an album of cover versions of those schamltzy 1950s hits such as Because You’re Mine and Serenade.

Most musical buffs would agree that the recent growing popularity of opera is at least partly due to the influence of Luciano Pavarotti. Especially the world famous series of Three Tenors concerts, in which he was joined on the platform by Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.

So what can one say about Luciano Pavarotti that hasn't already been said" The purity of tone, the girth - he is a living legend. Dubbed the King of the High C’s for his incredible range, this tenor has become as celebrated for his off-stage as his on-stage performances.

It’s said that Pavarotti believes anything worth doing, is worth doing to excess. And opera’s reputation for excess in terms of budget and sheer scale is unmatched by any other musical form.

Pavarotti’s triumphs on the stages of the world’s opera houses was matched by the millions of his CDs and music videos sold around the world.

There was that moment in November 1995, when he first co-sang the U2 song, Miss Sarajevo. Some consider it to be the best in a long line of unlikely duets he has participated in - with such diverse partners as Bryan Adams and Sting. 20 years ago, the very idea of this crossover of musical styles would have been anathema to the hard-core of opera lovers

But then Pavarotti, the most famous and best-selling opera singer of the 20th century, once admitted, "I want to be famous everywhere." And he is, even to football fans, who happily sing-a-long to his unsurpassed version of Nessum Dorma, the theme of the 1990 World Cup.

Music lovers would no doubt welcome Pavarotti’s return to the Royal Opera House in London, one of the world’s greatest lyric theatres. Work on the redevelopment of the 2.5 acre site in Covent Garden began in April 1996 and was completed on time and on budget by November 1999, when it re-opened with a magnificent Gala concert.

When the Royal Opera House’s box office re-opened on 27 September 1999, it was overwhelmed with enthusiastic customers who had queued for up to a couple of days beforehand. On the first day of business alone, the ticket office answered 3,000 phone calls and dealt with 1,000 personal callers.

"The gala performance was sold out by lunchtime," said Royal Opera House’s press officer, Amanda Jones, "which is a healthy indication that people are still keen. Interestingly, one of first persons at the front of the queue was a student."

So what does the redeveloped Royal Opera House mean to the renowned Spanish tenor, Placido Domingo, whose magnificent voice is matched by his magnificent acting"

"I have sung some of my most cherished performances on the stage of Covent Garden," said Domingo. "I remember especially the John Schlesinger/George Pretre Les Contes d’Hoffmann and the Elijah Moshinsky/Carlos Kleiber Otello.

"As a music lover, I feel a great sense of relief that this unique theatre, this historic treasure, is entering the next millennium with a complete face-lift which will guarantee continued brilliance in its historic path of operatic and balletic excellence."

His sentiments were echoed by Sir Colin Southgate, chairman, Royal Opera House: "The rebuilding of the Opera House is the most exciting project for the new millennium. The restoration of the wonderful Barry Theatre, the new public spaces exemplified by the Floral Hall, the new Studio Theatre giving opportunities for artistic experimentation and additional educational projects together with enhanced broadcasting facilities will enable the performing companies to reach out to all."

The operatic revival is not limited to the UK alone. 40 miles south-east of Vienna is the picturesque village of Morbisch by the Neusiedler Lake. Under the direction of Professor Harald Serafin, the Morbisch Lakefestival, which first opened in 1957, has evolved into a mecca for operetta that attracts over 130,000 music lovers every year.

Perhaps it’s the influence of Strauss’s Blue Danube, but the Austrians seem inordinately fond of staging operas on water, notably at the Bregenz Lakeside Festival, which celebrates its 55th years in 2000 with performances on its fabulous floating stage.

In nearby Germany, the Bayreuth Festival has long been a place of pilgrimage for devoted Wagnerians. Founded by Wagner in 1876 to stage the Ring cycle, the festival has staged nothing except his ten mature works. Tickets are notoriously difficult to obtain and there is a waiting list that extends to over seven years.

There is also a long waiting list for Glyndebourne Festival Opera (late May to mid-August), despite the fairly recent opening of its larger theatre (which now seats 1200).

The Internet is a boon for those seeking access to Italy’s leading opera house, Teatro alla Scala, one of the few of the country’s theatres to boast anything close to an international repertoire, with the work of Verdi, Wagner and Strauss featured prominently. Again, the demand for tickets is huge and ever-increasing, on-line or off-line. If you arrive in person, you will usually have to queue all day just for standing room places that are sold 30 minutes before each performance. And if you try to phone La Scala box office, as I did, several times, they tend to put the phone down as soon as they hear somebody speaking English (does that mean they have no-English speaking staff").

Failing that, try the famous Verona Music Festival (July-September), which is staged in a vast Roman amphitheatre and widely considered to be the grandfather of all open-air opera events, as well as the most egalitarian.

Not that any of this would bother a philistine friend of mine who swears he always reaches for the gun when a Diva gets up to sing. Which is a bit of a shame really, for there’s nothing like a good tune from someone in a costume who really knows how to belt it out.

Talking of which, where would Bizet’s Carmen be nowadays if she wasn’t working in a cigarette factory"

 Opera on the Net:

A complete list of opera companies on the net can be found at www.fsz.bme.hu/opera/companies.html

Finnish National Opera – www.kungligaopen.se/

La Scala, Milan, Italy – www.lascala.milano.it

Verona Music Festival, Italy – www.arena.it

Paris Opera House, France - www.opera-de-paris.fr

Royal Opera House, London – www.royalopera.org

Bayreuth Festival, Germany – www.bayreuth-festspiele.de

Norwegian Opera House – www.wit.no/dno/index.html

Copyright James Leavey, 1999. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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