Cross Words: Head to head - Out of tune
It's Glyndebourne next week: anachronistic opera elitism, or the purest, greatest art form? Leading soprano Lisa Milne takes on musical maverick Roy Harper
Saturday 15 May 1999
"My mum and dad went to see La Boheme last week and it was pounds 5 per head - cheaper than going to the cinema or a football match. Opera is considered very expensive and elitist, but it really isn't all fur coats and diamonds. People in Britain associate opera with the upper classes, but in the rest of Europe it's not like that - it's recognised as being very much for the people. There's surtitles in most theatres now, so even if it's sung in Italian, you can follow it just as you would a subtitled foreign film - you don't have to do a horrendous amount of homework before you go. In fact, people are often surprised how many of the tunes they already know.
To people who say they can't stand opera, I would ask, `Have you actually been into a theatre and watched a live opera?' Because the majority of people that I've spoken to that say they don't like it, have never experienced it - apart from seeing a few minutes of it on TV. Opera is the ultimate art form: it encompasses music, drama, dance and, best of all, it's live. I can't understand it when people question its relevance and say, `Why should we sit and watch opera by composers that have been dead for 300 years?' Well, if you follow that logic why stand and look at a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci? Opera is an art form, like any other, but with the added bonus that it's live.
If people were to open their minds and go just once, I'm sure there'd be a lot of converts. The power of the human voice, unamplified (unlike the majority of singing you hear these days) is amazing. When you go to an opera you get unadulterated, raw energy coming out of a body. Done well, it's just the best thing ever."
Soprano Lisa Milne will be performing Handel's `Rodelinda' at Glyndebourne Festival, 19 May to 29 August (01273 813813)
"Opera is what happens when the rich are joined by a fashion-driven wannabe bourgeoisie, resulting in an expensive frenzy of mediocrity. It's Hello! magazine and penguin suits. In fact, to my mind, it's penguin-suited Pink Floyd. Opera-going has become fashionable for people who don't really want to be bothered with music from the street - the opera-loving penguins just carry on off the cliff into the water, all together like lemmings. They should stop and take a look around at what is actually happening in the real world. I absolutely agree with what Nietzsche said: opera is an `art form for philistines'.
The music just grates on me and as far as the verbal content goes, it's empty. There's nothing really there, unless they've taken lines directly from Shakespeare, like Verdi or Rossini did - opera's full of words lifted from authors who aren't connected with the medium at all. And much of it is very nationalistic. The visuals are prosaic, and often the music is incredibly dated - it belongs to another age completely. It may be passionate and a demanding discipline in many ways, but it's empty, there isn't any substance. Opera's very decorative, but not in a nicely decadent way - it's for the straitlaced; and completely overblown.
Opera is a form of identification with wealth by people who will never do anything but hang on to the coat-tails of the privileged. As a pastime you could argue it's valid, but when people claim a sort of religious status for it, it's ridiculous - it's a Western bourgeois phenomenon and just fashion at the end of the day."
Musician Roy Harper (royharper.com) plays the Glastonbury and Guildford festivals this summer, and starts a UK tour on 5 October
Interviews by Fiona McClymont
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