Ballet and Opera - The odd couple

To many ballet fans, opera is all about melodrama and inappropriate vocalising. Yet, to opera aficionados, ballet can seem limited and dull. But, Jessica Duchen says, they do work together – and two companies aim to prove it

It's not that the loos at the Royal Opera House are necessarily an ideal barometer of public taste, but attending Wagner's Tristan und Isolde recently, I had a startling experience: it was the only time I have ever noticed a longer queue for the men's room than the women's. But, a few days later, in the interval of a dress rehearsal for the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, there was barely a man in sight. Opera and ballet audiences don't often mix, and it's not only about gender. How many people at each show, I wonder, would have ventured into the other?

Both London's main opera houses are currently finding out, if with very different repertoires. On 20 November the Royal Opera House opens its much-anticipated production of Tchaikovsky's opera The Tsarina's Slippers, with a huge cast and a powerful dance element provided by the Royal Ballet. At the Coliseum, Bartók's one-act opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle is featuring in a double bill with Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring.

Will the audience for the one art open their minds and hearts to the other? English National Opera's Rite has been radically reinterpreted by the Irish company Fabulous Beast and its choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan; Bluebeard, directed by Daniel Kramer, has transformed the sinister male lead into a Joseph Fritzl-like figure. Both have drawn rave reviews, plus a handful of noisy dissenters – sometimes from the "other" side of the pale, but not always. Perhaps most importantly, the evening has created huge excitement, evidently chiming with those who enjoy cutting-edge theatre whether in words, song or dance.

For that's where the two genres meet: in their ability to elasticate a musical and theatrical experience, stretching its potential, and the audience's, in different directions. Ballet, when you encounter it for the first time, can stun you with the astonishing capability of the body to express extremes of emotions through movement alone. The revelation of opera at its finest, too, can produce a shock of wonder: can those sounds really come out of a human throat? If an opera or a ballet is staged with maximum theatrical and musical quality, there is theoretically no reason why an audience that already appreciates theatre and music shouldn't respond equally well to both.

The real problem is with preconception rather than reality. A dance fan might hesitate to try Bluebeard in the expectation that it is a "difficult" opera with nothing to watch except a serial killer revealing his house of horrors and inexplicably bursting into song. Meanwhile, straight men, sadly, still often imagine that attending dance is an inherently gay pastime (though straight women do not share that view – Cuban premier danseur Carlos Acosta, for example, is a rather popular pin-up). All manner of prejudices can get in the way. I hesitate to drag my violinist husband to another ballet, because when I took him to The Sleeping Beauty – my ultimate birthday treat – he nodded off within ten minutes, remembering his days in an orchestra pit in Denmark where ballet had meant dull tempi and overhead thumps.

Yet ballet and opera did not always operate on such different circuits. In the mid-19th century, an opera that did not include a ballet by way of divertissement was positively anathema. That was why Wagner's manipulation of the ballet element in Tannhäuser caused one of the biggest operatic scandals in history. The members of the Jockey Club de Paris expected to be able to roll into an opera late, just in time to see their mistresses – the dancing girls – performing in Act II, where the obligatory ballet was always placed. Wagner, abhorring such nonsense, added insult to iconoclasm by positioning his ballet at the beginning of Act I, where those philistines were bound to miss it. The first night in 1861 brought a chaos that even he had not anticipated.

Being spliced into opera as artsy titillation for the gentlemen was far from ballet's origins as a high-class independent art form, developing from the courts of Renaissance Italy through the elaborate spectacles demanded, and participated in, by Louis XIV of France. But ballet's artistic repute suffered somewhat in the mid-19th century, possibly because the floaty fairy-tales that were popular then largely featured indifferent music. Only two have survived more or less intact – Giselle and La Sylphide. It was only when dance united with top-quality scores that it began to regain equal standing with opera and concerts. The partnership of Tchaikovsky and the choreographer Marius Petipa pushed both their arts to new heights; later Diaghilev built on this, envisaging ballet as a Gesamtkunstwerk (universal artwork) with top quality designs, the finest new music and the most exciting, boundary-battering choreography. His commissions included Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, Debussy's Jeux and Stravinsky's three most famous ballets – culminating in The Rite of Spring and another massive theatrical scandal on its opening night in 1913.

Fine music remained vital to ballet in the 20th century: George Balanchine aimed to make music visible in his abstract choreographies, while the partnership of composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham sparked a creative thread with a momentum of its own. But opera developed on a separate trajectory. It became rare for ballet and opera to collaborate even when they were sharing a theatre, though the Royal Ballet collaborated with the Royal Opera to provide the Polovtsian Dances for Borodin's Prince Igor back in 1990, which proved quite a hit.

Over the past few years, though, a new rapprochement has involved such artists as Mark Morris creating contemporary dance for baroque opera. Morris's choreography for Purcell's King Arthur at ENO in 2006 was widely adored; there one critic spoke of "opera and dance fans eyeing each other suspiciously across the aisles". Michael Keegan-Dolan's choreography for ENO's Ariodante ten years earlier had brought dance to Handel, to high praise; and the Bollywood moves in David McVicar's award-winning staging of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne proved amazingly popular. At Covent Garden last March, a double bill of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's Acis and Galatea drew in the Royal Ballet and ace choreographer Wayne McGregor, who gave each character a dancer-double. Dance has helped revitalise the "early" operatic repertoire and to win over many new fans for it.

Still, Tchaikovsky remains perhaps the most natural place to unite ballet and opera; The Tsarina's Slippers promises a feast of both. The coinciding of this production with ENO's double-bill success could indicate that the joining of the two arts is now becoming mainstream: a real Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete art form growing maybe more complete than ever.

'The Tsarina's Slippers' opens at the Royal Opera House on 20 November (020-7304 4000) while English National Opera's double bill continues until 27 November (0871 911 0200).

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals