The marriage of Figaro and footie
I'm working-class, tattooed and a football fan. I also run an opera venue. So don't call me elitist, says Michael Volpe
Friday 01 July 2011
The terrace was full of them; shaven, muscular, large. Tattoos shouting their allegiance to Chelsea adorned their arms and there was a charge of emotion in the air. This group of 20 or so aggressive males stood out from the crowd. They had been witness to a conflict and I feared their reaction. As one trundled towards me I blanched at the force of his fulmination: "You've changed my effing life you have!" The terrace was at Opera Holland Park and La Traviata, not me, had changed his life.
Prompted by tenor Alfie Boe's endless droning about his working class background, the mindless one-dimensional caricature of opera has been occupying many in the press recently. Charles Moore thinks it is indeed elitist (lazy word of the year?) and should stay that way. Boe thinks it is peopled by fey upper class Oxbridge graduates who think his oily, spark-plugged background is beneath them. He wants to punch them all very hard.
Moore and Boe each prove the other's point but, as the Scots would say, "they're neither of them spoiling another couple". The reality is somewhere in the middle, which is where most of us who run opera houses and companies sit, often unheard, tarred with the same brush and pissed off. Very pissed off.
If we want to deal in clichés then I am sure my colleague, the brilliant producer James Clutton, and I could tick a few boxes; both of us are working-class Londoners who didn't go to Oxbridge. I come from a single-parent Italian-immigrant family whose loving mother threw ornaments and shoes at me when I misbehaved, we both go to football matches, swear like troopers, like to dress up in good suits, like jazz, the Beatles and soul music. To further clarify the impression, I can be frequently found bashing the granny out of punch bags at the gym and have... wait for it... tattoos; full-sleeve, vibrant Japanese tattoos (although one has to confess such body art is becoming rather middle-class these days). As far as I can tell, neither of us is fey. Despite all of this, we also happen to run an opera company that was named the best in the UK in 2010.
I see no reason why opera cannot become the preserve of the reformed hooligan, the bin-person, the builder. When we discuss whether or not opera excludes the "ordinary" folk, the most common reference is to Glyndebourne, Garsington and Grange Park, where black-tie, seats costing hundreds of pounds and champagne picnics are de rigueur. Obviously, those houses do what they do with serious musical intent and are undoubtedly grand social events. But that isn't opera. Opera itself – the art-form – is not elitist, is not intellectually high falutin' or inherently exclusive.
Naturally, as an expensive artistic entity, opera has historically received great wads of money and charged similarly great wads to be seen. In recent years, however, countless access programmes have emerged (even at the three Gs) that have provided wonderful opportunities for all.
Culturally, since our estate kids, working men's clubs or schools in the inner city don't generally get exposed to opera in anything like sufficient quantities, the patronage of the lyric arts has tended to emerge from the strata of society who did grow up in environments where this music was enjoyed and experienced. The scandal is that this should still be the case. And we all know that there is an enormous capacity for enjoying opera in this country; just look at the Three Tenors and anything else that is considered to be operatic (whether it is or not).
But just because Glyndebourne and the country-house circuit represent the pinnacle of operatic social bolt-on, we shouldn't allow the myth that they represent the entire opera world to continue.
Michael Volpe is General Manager at Opera Holland Park, London. The season features six operas, and runs until 13 August. Tickets £12-£63.50 (0300 999 1000; www.operahollandpark.com)
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist
- 3 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins
Sherlock series 4: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have to be 'persuaded' to return, says Steven Moffat
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Oldest footage of London landmarks released
A victory for gender equality on the high seas
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election