For better or worse, opera sits at the symbolic summit of European culture. Those who love it see it as the greatest form because it contains all the others: drama, music, visual art, dance and poetry. Those who don’t, see it as unfairly privileged, the very expression of social and cultural elitism. That argument has raged for decades, with advocates of community art and opera entrenched in opposition over standards, value and politics. Of course, things have changed. The Royal Opera House is very different today to its 1970s incarnation. Like most cultural institutions, it has responded to the challenge of community art and the social change that produced it by developing education and outreach programmes. In doing so, it and other great opera houses have been assisted by the small companies and individual artists whose innovations with the form and commitment to inclusion have provided rich new talent and ideas. The cultural battle lines still exist, but they are more blurred and more complicated than they were 40 years ago.
And yet, opera remains a minority interest. That, after all, is the rationale of the Traction project, which accepts both opera’s cultural importance and its distance from most European citizens. It is undeniable that going to an opera house requires considerable financial, social and cultural capital. Even if you have a ticket, how comfortable you feel and how much you enjoy the experience is complicated. Before even a note of music has been played, the dress codes may be enough to make you feel out of place.
I’ve rarely met anyone running a cultural venue who thought that was a good thing. On the contrary, the public cultural sector is characterised by a liberal goodwill that wants to be open to all and believes it largely is. Opera, like other faiths, always welcome converts, but in is in the nature of belief to see conversion as a matter for others.
There is also the delicate question of whether some people prefer opera to be exclusive. Human beings can be tribal. They enjoy being among like-minded people. Sitting next to someone who is very different can be uncomfortable, especially if they don’t speak or behave as we do. Like most minority art forms, opera is a club of people who share certain values and habits. Is it fair to expect them to change what they do to include those who haven’t already found their way to the club? One reason why it might be is that their particular club is financed by large amounts of public money, while the youth club down the road gets nothing. Culture and politics are always entangled and rarely more sharply than where opera is concerned.
This is the minefield into which Traction invites us to venture. All three trials are focused on opera’s potential as a resource for social inclusion. In Barcelona, the Liceu opera house is working with the people of its neighbourhood, an inner city district half of whose inhabitants were born outside the European Union, and where scores of languages are spoken. In Leiria, SAMP is building on its work with young offenders and their families, working to help them rebuild their lives after release. Irish National Opera are reaching out to rural and isolated communities in the hope of building understanding and inclusion. Each of these projects is a huge challenge in itself. But they also hope to change how opera is imagined and made – to convert the faithful – so that it can become less exclusive. How much we can influence that we shall discover over the coming years.
- The Royal Opera House, London, François Matarasso, 2007
- Auditorium of the Liceu, Josep Renalias, 2008
- Opera performance on Skegness beach, François Matarasso, 2009.