An operatic chorus of disapproval

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The Independent Online
I WAS once asked by an opera magazine if I would like to write a piece for them. I said I wouldn't be much use as I didn't like opera. Oh, they said blithely, then why not write a piece about why you don't like opera? This showed a lot of self-confidence on their part; it was like asking an atheist to explain his viewpoint in church. It certainly took the wind out of my sails, to the extent that I never did manage to write the piece.

In fact, I only remembered it the other day when I was discussing classical music with a friend and discovered that he didn't like opera either. What was odd was that we both lowered our voices and looked round as we said it, as if we were admitting to being gay or bored by sport.

Now, if you don't like classical music at all, there's no problem in being left cold by opera. But if - like the two of us - you do like classical music, then there's increasing pressure on you to include opera in your portfolio.

There are several reasons for this. One is that opera is increasingly being seen - after the TV and World Cup success of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras - as the magic way in to classical music for the multitude. Another is that it represents a symbol for many people of how willing governments are to stump up money for the arts - (if all the articles on the survival of the Royal Opera House were laid end to end, you could sell them for waste paper and raise enough money to save it).

And is there also, perhaps, an element of religious faith about it? I have noticed many of my contemporaries becoming passionately involved in opera as they turn 40, which is the age, these days, most people give up their adherence to teenage music. It is almost as if they were looking for something else to believe in, but couldn't face religion or politics. Later on they will be guests on Desert Island Discs and choose some lovely gems from opera . . .

I'd like to be part of all this. Unfortunately, I have a deaf spot. I just don't like the way they sing in opera. I can accept most of the conventions of opera, however artificial, but I don't like the sound it makes - I find it all as remote and chilling as, for instance, the way the Japanese do Noh plays.

I've tried. I've gone to opera by everyone from Mozart to Wagner. I once went to a Rimsky-Korsakov opera in Moscow. But it's no use. Nothing. As it happens, I like the other music of many of the composers who have written opera - some, like Bizet, Schubert and Weber, I love - but I don't enjoy it when it is sung. Not at all.

I am the loser in all this, I cheerfully agree. How wonderfully happy I might be if I could have a taste for opera as well. Still, I avoid unhappiness well enough, as there is plenty of music for me to get on with outside opera, believe it or not. So I have nothing to worry about.

Except for the unspoken pressure which causes two grown men to lower their voices when admitting that they don't like opera, as if they were secret smokers. It reminds me of pressure I have felt in other eras, when admitting that I have no faith in astrology, for instance, or had no respect for the Rolling Stones. You learn to cope with the ensuing disapproval, mostly by ignoring it. But what mildly riles me about the 'I can't believe you don't like opera' lobby is their implied superiority, since I believe their love of opera is not the same as a love of music.

One thing I have noticed about opera lovers - my friend has too - is that very few of them play an instrument or participate in music at all. Why is this? If someone says that he loves music, my instinct is to ask him what he plays. If someone tells me they love opera, I should similarly ask him or her what opera he last sang in. But I don't. I know they don't mean that, or hardly ever. They mean they like sitting motionless and drinking it in. They are, in fact, doing what David Owen Norris once memorably accused our age of doing - that is, of forgetting that music is an activity, and treating it as an object.

Despite which, opera lovers always predict that I will recant sooner or later and acquire an urge to go to Glyndebourne. Funny, really. I don't expect them to see the light, after all. It's obviously up to me to change my mind, much in the same way as the Danes are universally expected to rethink their Maastricht decision, but nobody expects the French to have a rethink on their equally small majority. A funny old world and no mistake.