Friday, 18 May 2012

Opera - The Sell

The five 'myths' in a recently produced WNO video infomercial - that opera is overpriced, dress-prescriptive, overlong, incomprehensible, and irrelevant - are issues seen as sufficiently entrenched and widespread that Opera Holland Park's Michael Volpe has also revisited them in a blog for the Huffington Post UK. These are 'myths' perceived from the outside rather than formed inside the theatre, suggesting the barrier to enagagment with opera is based on some idea of eligibility or entitlement - wealth, style, social mobility. A barrier that is about being there rather than what opera actually is.

There have been two revolutions in the fortunes of opera in the past quarter century. The first was in 1990, when an operatic aria was used to underscore the BBC's coverage of the world cup in Italy. The Damascene revelation of Pavarotti, Puccini and Paul Gascoigne was that the emotional core of the opera could escape its obscurity and pertain to something commonly recognisable.

The second, most recent revolution has come as a climax to the increasing convenience, quality and ubiquity of audio-visual technology. The immediacy and reliability of digital streaming has really gripped the art form, as it preserves a semblance of the frisson of being live, especially in the cinema.

A quick look at these two events may be instructive as to the current perception and future promotion of opera.

Given that the glass partition of awareness between opera and the popular market was broken in 1990, twenty years ago, it seems remarkable that opera is not more popular, not more a natural part of the common cultural diet. Clearly the 'myths' of perception have persevered.

Selling opera as a product is tricky. A drama that aggregates over long periods, a half hour act, say, means that conventional, shop-window extracts in picture or sound may just seem rather random. At the Italia '90 revelation, even the inherent beauty of Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma was presented on the back of an aggregated emotional narrative, the football matches leading up to and during the World Cup.

Divorced from the narrative drama of a sporting tournament, opera required other narratives to support its shop-window-sized arias. The Three Tenors, the first global act, had novelty but one forgets they also had Jose Carreras' leukaemia recovery, for which charitable benefit the initial concert was convened. So the narrative transferred from the song to the singer, from the 'opera' to the 'artist'.

Since then, familiar names performing operatically - i.e. either performing operatic arias or singing in a manner recognisable as classical singing - have always had some sort of interesting personal narrative. Lesley Garrett, Russell Watson, Alfie Boe and Paul Potts are seen as working class-made-good, dare I say it, Northern (i.e. non-cosmopolitan) types. Andrea Bocelli is blind. Finally, the perennial poster girl for popular operatics Katherine Jenkins was and is simply a beautiful woman, beautifully marketed. Belated attempts to build a back-story of Welsh parochial beginnings, struggles with drugs and familial bereavement have proved unnecessary in the long run, as the brand has taken.

The point in digesting and reproducing this history is that the trajectory of marketing opera almost immediately separated itself from the opera. The aria may be a poetic gem representing the opera aphoristically but it is formally separate from the drama. As is often the case this reduction has continued over time to the point where the content of opera has evaporated. Opera is now identified by a sound, a manner of singing. Its substance has been replaced by associated symbols, a sparkling, desirable periphery. The packaging is more desirable than the gift.

This is astonishing for a long-form art form, that something so large and rich should be rendered so small and simple. Opera requires an investment of time, a commitment. Commitment is a difficult thing to market.

This is where the WNO infomercial at the top of this post becomes rather fascinating. Listen to it again and note how often Tim Rhys Evans compares the experience to the cinema.
Expensive? '...some tickets are cheaper than a trip to the cinema'
Overlong? 'Well, it's a bit like films to be honest...'
Incomprehensible? '... you'll get surtitles, a bit like a foreign language film'
The invocation of the cinema experience is a useful one (primarily, of course, as cinema-going is as popular as opera-going is not). Not just similar, the experiences are actually so close they begin to overlap. Of course, cinema, a multi-disciplinary art form, is a natural aesthetic sibling to opera. Using the former to further disseminate the latter, recording operatic performance for reproduction in a cinema theatre (or on television), is not a new idea. Yet with the live relay comes an even closer eliding of the experiences, to an authentic operatic experience within the cinema auditorium - the second of the two identifiable operatic revolutions.

The key to this is the experience 'as live'. An audience in a cinema, aware that the performance is occurring in real time, albeit remotely, can commit to following the performance as an authentic experience, knowing that anything could happen. The physicality between performers and audience is impossible across the screen. However the audience must surrender to the infinite possibilities of the outcome of the performance, held to the narrative by that tension. Furthermore, this surrendering extends to being in tension with others in the room, all having the same real-time experience.

The advantage that the cinema has here is that it negates the idea of prescriptions of behvaiour or expectation. All the perceived nonsense about eligibility for attending an opera performance is correctly identified by Michael Volpe as coming from popular marketing, maintaining exclusivity and benightedness to create and control demand. Rather than purchasing a product to satisfy identifiable expectation, the dynamic is reversed. The screening demands that the the consumer respond to the performance. At a stroke all prescriptions of behaviour in an opera theatre are dispelled: if the audience is responding to the performance then they cannot be responding to the behaviour of others around them. Something even more wonderful also happens. The individual gets immersed in the collective, becomes part of the audience. This is as cathartic - and unique - an experience as any other the theatre has to offer.

What this deduction infers is that opera is not a product to be bought but a relationship with which to be engaged: being there emerging from what opera can offer, not what it is dictated by being there. Volpe's piece is accurate in suggesting that the best marketing tool for opera is education. Even better than cinema, this is because the nature of opera is discursive - it presents itself in live performance to involve its audience in collective, heightened, aesthetic argument.

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