Adrian Hamilton : The English have never understood opera

'They haven't changed. They hate the thought that art can be rich and enjoyable'
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There is something remorselessly predictable about the present debate on the Royal Opera House. Each spring we get the announcement of its new production schedules and latest attendance figures. Each time the management tries to defend itself with figures showing cheaper seats and younger people, while the critics claim that it's all an elitist pastime funded by the poor to entertain the rich and the rest of the populace remains stolidly uninterested in the whole debate.

The truth is that the English as a whole, or even as a chattering class, have never understood opera or the place of a grand opera house. For nearly half a century this country had the greatest operatic talent in Europe working out of London, the German-born, Italian-inspired, English-patronised Frederic Handel in the early 18th century. He flourished on the stage for less than a decade in that time. His theatre became the fighting ground of crown versus nobles, his stars were pinched by competitors, the public deserted him for the more populist musical form of The Beggar's Opera. Eventually he gave up in favour of that very English compromise of the oratorio. It had all the tunes and arias, plus the big choruses. It was cheap and, not the least of its virtues, it had the veneer of seriousness and moral relevance.

The English haven't changed. They hate the thought that art can be rich and enjoyable. Oscar Wilde had it right. With the English ruling classes, it's the importance of being earnest. Today more than ever. The old-style theatre of curtains and dressing-up is out. In are jeans and the small space. Just look at what Adrian Noble is planning for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre. What we want, they say, is small groups going out to flexible spaces to perform theatre up close. It's more relevant and (they don't add) it's a good deal less costly.

There's nothing wrong with this if you want the performing arts to imitate television or believe that this is all the modern audience is capable of accepting – the intimacy of small relationships eternally examined in the vernacular. But it won't do for Shakespeare, not if you believe that King Lear is more than a story of individual old age but concerns power and appearance as well; not if you believe that The Merchant of Venice is a story of a woman's right to choose as well as anti-Semitism or that Romeo and Juliet is about the division of the known world as well as the union of bodies.

Still less will it do for opera, which – for a major part of its canon at least – is about heightened emotions set against love, death and the whole damn thing. Laugh if you will (as I did until a friend took me to Janacek's House of the Dead) at backdrops that simply demand the Marx Brothers sliding down the wrong curtain. Join the ribaldry if you wish at East German directors who insist that even Puccini be played in leather overcoats and baggy jumpers against the backdrop of a hugely symbolic phallus centre- stage. But manage without a full box of man-size tissues, if you can, the final arias of dignified despair in Jenufa or the father's desperate search for his daughter in Rigoletto.

Opera is not shaded half-emotion, although it is peerless in portraying the conflicting desires and feelings of man and woman. It cannot be done on the cheap, and it must not be done badly.

You can't make opera appealing by demanding that it be "relevant". Like all great art it finds its own aptness in the eye of the beholder. The night that Mrs Thatcher fell, a bevy of cabinet ministers were to be seen at a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House. The next day several hummed the great chorus of the released prisoners.

Others will find more resonance in the emotions. No art can relate the peculiar emotions of simultaneous loss and longing in the way music can, nor any composer as profoundly as Handel. Artifice, luxury, dressing up and – dare one mention it amid the glum earnestness of New Labour functionalism – pleasure, even fun, are part of the occasion.

Of course modern opera, and traditional works, can tackle contemporary themes and even be politically relevant. The four great operas of the 20th century – Wozzek, Jenufa, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and Peter Grimes – are all about morally weak anti-heroes who commit horrendous and inexcusable "murders" in terms that are all too true of today's world. To reduce opera to television soap, however, is to deprive it of life.

Good on the Royal Opera House if it can bring in younger audiences with cheaper seats. That's how we all started, standing at the back and nipping in to take the empty seats after the first interval. But if you want top international opera, you have to be pay for it. And if you want a wider audience, you have to subsidise it. If you don't, then leave it as a pastime for the rich and those on expense accounts. But oh, of what an experience you will deprive the rest of us.