Is opera really meant to be populist?

Many of its greatest moments are meant for an intimate setting and to be appreciated in silence
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Sturm und Drang in Trafalgar Square, as the weather mounted a symphonic riposte to English National Opera's latest populist event. The opera company had planned a free open-air performance of Puccini's La Bohème to a large audience. As it turned out, a monumental summer storm made the idea impracticable, and apt though "Your tiny hand is frozen" would have been, the winds and rain promised to make the line inaudible. The performance shifted back inside, and opera resumed in a more conventional setting.

English National Opera, like many other opera companies, have been trying a number of wheezes to make the art form accessible and available to untraditional audiences. The most widely-publicised of these was a performance of Act III of The Valkyrie at the Glastonbury Festival; an excellent choice, which seems to have been unaffectedly enjoyed, and it was even praised by some of the critics who greatly disliked the experience when it was on at the Coliseum.

I certainly enjoyed it - admittedly, there are not many ways in which the third act of The Valkyrie can ever fail, but there was something touching about the directness and naivety of the Glastonbury responses, cheering the end of the Walkürenritt and the entry of every new character. It was easy to imagine that this succeeded in its aim of converting a few agnostics.

Other opera companies have been trying a variety of approaches. Opera North, in its season of eight one-act operas, have enterprisingly decided that you needn't pay for the whole of a double-bill but if, say, you want to see Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins but not some frightful tosh by Zemlinsky, you can pay for half an evening and leave at the interval. Others, such as Glyndebourne, have for long been taking excellent travelling productions round the country, guessing that people may support their local theatre where they are unwilling or self-conscious about travelling to an opera house with a "grand" reputation.

Those large-scale open-air performances are, however, the most conspicuous of the populist gestures, and one which we might wonder about a little. The point which is always made about opera, not altogether accurately, is that it is, or was, a populist medium. The operas of Verdi were often huge public events; the music took a wide public by storm - it is often said that Verdi refused to rehearse "La donna e mobile" until the day of the premiere of Rigoletto, knowing that the tune would get out immediately. They also had, in many cases, a political significance, and operas like Nabucco and Un Ballo in Maschera were seen by every Italian patriot.

Plenty of other cases could be cited; the initial audiences for The Magic Flute, Tosca, even Carmen were much more like the audiences for Spiderman 2 at the Odeon, Leicester Square, than the audiences at Covent Garden now. It is tempting for opera houses to argue that opera is really a direct, populist medium, and it is up to them to reclaim the mass audiences.

But I wonder whether it is inevitably true. Against the case of Verdi, you could very readily cite all sorts of examples where opera was consciously élitist, abstruse and, for all reasonable purposes, anti-populist. Wagner is an interesting case: though, like Verdi, he was trying to construct a universal national myth, there is not much sign that he was interested in populism in any obvious way. When he built Bayreuth, it was much rather in the spirit of expecting the mountain to come to Mohammed, and indeed did his best to forbid the performance of Parsifal anywhere else. Once there, the public was expected to be silent and devout, and to follow some frankly very abstruse philosophical debates - you could see the discussion between Wotan and Brunnhilde sailing over the heads of the Glastonbury festival-goers like a homing pigeon.

Opera is not necessarily populist, and many of its greatest moments are only really meant for a very intimate setting, and to be appreciated in silence. It is very odd, really, that some of the operas confidently put on in vast arenas, open-air spaces and public squares are in reality intensely intimate and private pieces. Carmen and Aida are not just matters of big tunes and processions with horses; if you can't see the singers' faces, particularly at the terrifying conclusion of Aida, the opera hardly works at all. Oddest of all, I think, is the idea of performing La Bohème on such a scale; broad as its invention is, it only really works as a tender love story in small, dusty rooms.

The biggest argument against these performances, however, is that the music just doesn't sound right. Sitting at home and watching the Glastonbury Valkyrie, I quite enjoyed it. But I can't imagine what on earth it sounded like when amplified, mixed and blasted out over loudspeakers in a field. Wagner, and every good composer, planned his music to be heard in an enclosed, reverberant space, and never considered the possibilities of microphones and amplifiers. In the end, these performances never sound right.

I rather admire the enterprise of ENO in tackling unconventional audiences with some bold repertoire, but in the end, opera is always going to have to take place in opera houses, with an orchestra pit and a darkened auditorium. What these public events constitute, really, is a sort of trailer, encouraging customers to take the plunge and come in. Despite all appearances, it isn't, and can't be, the real thing.