And....The Kings Head Are Proud To Present : The Opera!
I never get tired of visiting Barcelona’s fantastic Boqueria market, it still has to be the everyman’s market of choice in the city centre, whether visitor or resident.
And so neatly segued along from this is the Barcelona Opera House, Gran Teatre del Liceu the proximity of which sets the scene for a city’s past that saw frustrations over inequality with such bourgeois and ostrich feather flourishing Operatic nights out that it became the focus of a destructive bomb attack pre-dating unrest well before the civil war.
Image of the attack in 1893
Barcelona recovered, the Opera House recovered, but not without a good deal of thought. And even for an Opera House that had its origins in non-royal business patronage, and with its private member society, being up until very recently, totally misogynist but requiring an absolute no to any political affiliations. This ever evolving Theatre of Opera, Ballet, Music and Plays was still not without its critic’s of high brow elitism.
The atmosphere of art snobbery, in general, seems to prevail whichever country you are in. But speaking personally when we, as fledgling art students, were individually visiting London’s appointment only galleries one of us inspite of a blossoming and brilliant creative talent, balked at entering one, saying that he felt uncomfortable, out of place and unsuitably dressed.
The few students of a perceived *certain background* (ie; the majority) fortunate enough to enter one of the predominantly rich-biased education emporiums like Oxford or Cambridge also mention things along the lines of, the academic bit being ok, but the topics of social conversation and activities having gaps as wide as The Grand Canyon.
A bit further into the 20th Century after The Gran Liceu's abrupt awakening and fast forward to a small me and my Mum, who in her youth would think nothing, post Second World War, of taking her sandwiches into the Free Trade Hall, Manchester to listen to one of the regular lunchtime concerts performed by the Halle Orchestra conducted and (revived, post war) by John Barbirolli. A mum who then would think nothing a few years later, of buying LP’s of more lighter family-listen-to things like The Nutcracker Suite Ballet or Die Fledermaus with the Vienna Philharmonic. Tchaikovsky through to Mozart through to Gershwin, all mixed in with film soundtracks like High Society and David Rose and his Orchestra. And certainly not without the dance music of the era including Chris Barber’s Jazz and no-end of obscure dance records that my Dad had amassed after the war.
And both parents would think nothing, whenever finances and opportunity permitted, of taking me on the bus to the Kings Hall in Derby (the night-time persona of the city centre swimming baths, before a proper concert hall was built in the late seventies) to listen to many of the above Orchestra’s interpretation of composers of that ilk. And only by want of distraction during the waiting time for the Orchestra to begin, would I be intrigued as to how they actually managed to empty the gala size pool and place wooden flooring over the top – with what I calculated to be the deep end at the front, and so deducing we, being a bit further back, would have less distance to fall, pending of course a spectacular collapse – ahhh!! the wonder of children’s minds!
I also had the experience of seeing my first Opera at Theatre Royal Nottingham for a matinee of Die Fledermaus which for a 7 or 8 year old was a fantastic look at the colour and dress and spectacle of it all. I remember my mum saying this would be a far more interesting first time experience, (as it was a light-hearted look at shenanigans during a masked ball) whether a foreign language opera or not, than say, the likes of a much darker Il Trovatore. The Nutcracker Suite with Sadlers Wells Ballet came to visit locally and I was also enthralled by that.
Music was in my head from an early age – no way was I ever going to be a musician! But the musicality of my early years was fairly broad - so it was always going to hold a place.
Then music became much more digitally available and film became a regular visit on my calendar. And really although surrounded by this kind of classical music it was still my parents choice, and so more personal tastes began to occupy my listening time.
Orchestra visits too became less and less something I would go and listen to – being presented usually as a *musical evening of x,y,z*. Which in itself is ok but a little less like a grouping of similar styles or sentiments and more like listening to a pick and mix of greatest hits. But then greatest hits compilations have always sold well.
The Opera also, I began to notice less though The Theatre Royal is still the local venue of choice – my last visit was a couple of years ago to see a very new version of Tosca which had a brilliant set with the remnants of a fascist propaganda campaign hanging from the church’s grey and decaying walls. The Theatre itself has a lovely, if shoe-box sized orchestra pit and period decor suitable of the name Royal. And most who visited on that November night I noticed, dress wise, were probably erring on the side of woolly cardigans and jumpers. With a few in suits and some with the odd sparkly bit peeping from under a NorthFace jacket – but mainly dressed for what was an extremely cold November night.
And a few miles up the road and into the Peak District – on the way to Manchester lies The Opera Central town of the North – Buxton – yes Buxton Opera House, with its fantastic little theatre and a regular and enthusiastic crowd from all around, it has opened its doors to a wide variety of performances and festivals which spill over into the pavilion grounds embracing events similar to most city centre concert venues. And although hiking boots fresh from the peaks are not generally worn to actual Opera events the dress code is more Yey! let’s get dressed up, but not let’s do Harvey Nic’s and Knightsbridge first and get the max £££££ tag for effect.
Maybe it is just the nature of capital cities and the wealth they create, but once a social form of creative entertainment becomes zietgiesty then it can become an elusive commodity – by price – hence the exorbitant ticket prices fuelling an audience who go there to be seen to be buying into something exclusively priced. Opera kind of lends itself to that.
I suppose a loose analogy here could be drawn with football and a night in the box as opposed to the terraces, and depending on the popularity of the match played so the price would be hiked.
Opera in particular has been caught in a time warp – so much so that a lot of *popular* productions (aside from innovative endeavours into modern opera) are pretty much rolling out the same old – all without doubt wonderful stories, wonderful costumes, dramatic scenery and super wonderful opera singers. All the right ingredients to satisfy an audience able to pay £200 a ticket. A parody, a club of distinction that can and does feed on itself.
Full House; stalls and private seating at La Scala Milan
Traditionally Italy's main, original and world renowned Opera House, where critics could and would bay from the highest and cheapest seats - making or breaking productions. A phenomena not in existance today.
Nor the practices of gambling and other non-opera engaged activities which were quickly filtered out of the experience.
Theatre too has been caught up in a social bubble, a bit like many event-oriented creative endeavours, in as much as the people involved are usually academics and/or fairly liberal thinking (I am generalising) but if you look around any art venue or theatre production – you know the sort of audience who is going to be there.
As with all creatively inspired nights out, Opera is bound to have bent towards a production most likely to get bums on seats (and they need to be!) Experimental is all well and good but a production has to come up with the costs at least. So yes, whether lefty-liberal-whatever, middle class or extremely wealthy with generic view points to boot, all this has a resounding ring of exclusivity. Either through the basic expense or by the things that will resonate with the audience. Not to say critical thinking doesn't have value and place but, whether through the story lines, jokes involved or critical issues raised, even *right on* topics can, taken out of the context of theatre and audience, become quite patronising.
So location, apart from the traditionally nurtured venues found in most capital cities, seemingly is not an issue either; as the converted swimming-baths-as-venue, and the various makeshift auditoriums around the country will contest (Quality sometimes can be an issue – but hey! there will always be room for improvement).
Accessibility though is, which is why I totally understand the new pub phenomena going on in London at the moment whereby Opera is being put on at The Kings Head Islington with an evening’s entertainment at £15.00 a head. The Kings Head has always been a well known fringe and experimentally creative venue since the early 70's. For Londoners too, who ahhem, can actually afford to LIVE in the city as opposed to exist. I suppose the price is good – and it certainly makes for an entertaining night out, certainly no less than sat-in-noisy-boozer-music-too-loud-to-talk scenario and makes a change from watching the footie on Sky.
I know this is Islington, and it's still a trendy pub-theatre venue, but, and I think this is more like it, It's a far cry from Covent Garden’s average of £150-£200+ per seat with boxes available at a staggering £500 per person (only in the *gods* will you acquire a pew for the cost of an average London-satellite-city top-dollar seat). I tried to check out Liceu ticket prices and apart from being re-directed to the baffling Caixa Bank online ticket site, seemingly offering seats around the sides of the auditorium for eu19 (one can only hope!) and another service offering Prime-Stalls and Circle for between eu285-485, the benchmark is fairly clear. In comparison, The Opera North's (touring production) of Tosca, for example, came in at around £50 per head for fourth-from-the-front stalls, with dress circle a couple of pounds extra, with £10-25 for other more bendy-vision areas.
Covent Garden's Royal Opera House
Covent Garden Opera is an historical and spectacular capital city venue as is Teatre Liceu (which had a massive and awe inspiring renovation including state of the art technology after a fire in '94).
Standards are high, staff and cast pay though, maybe not. As Sir Ian Mckellen pointed out this week in his reference to pay and aspirations within the theatre today. Top stars no doubt have drawing power and salaries to indicate that, and I’m not saying quality and remuneration (for a career worked hard for) is not a deserved reward. But just as with Footballers the desire to be that top star – and not spend time in the choir or in the crowd scenes learning. Instant genius, instant gratification, instant celebrity seems the preferred career path.
Leaving aside the welcome-to-all–mass-coach-trip bookings for ABBA musicals and Rice & Webber productions, (which have gone some way to get audiences back into music based theatre). The upmarket ghetto-isation of Opera and Theatre productions in general, still has a way to go to before being on peoples entertainment shopping list of choice.
From Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre ( I know this is a Playhouse Theatre and more experimental maybe, but I think they go by far way a leap and a bound to engage the city as their audience) to Liverpool's Royal Court through Glasgow’s Theatre Royal and its many spin-offs, Edinburgh’s Lyceum (admittedly The Fringe is alive and kicking but although on the street it is still a fairly middle class one) to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal (and Yey! the Baltic Gallery is holding the Turner Prize this year, moving out of central London for the first time).
Throughout the UK and beyond most countries who have ever had the want of theatre and music have evolved and survived one way or another with some sort of help, whether wealthy patronisation or more recently (arts) council style funds.
Productions do cost yes – but only so much - unless using gold taps.
Appeal, like football, and as with music, you either get it or you don’t. That’s down to different tastes, topics and productions, even a critical education (self taught or whatever) – but you can’t have an opinion one way or the other until you have had the opportunity to experience.
That is what it’s all about no?
And as for the argument of some things being over peoples heads vs having to make things more *intellectually* accessible......a random example here but....The Mona Lisa is well known, it may well have reams of critical stuff going on that is only accessible after doing a PHD in it alone – but it is still an accessible work of art that many appreciate and have opinions on.
Dumbing down?, ahem, precious entertainment-enclaves being tainted by baying uneducated crowds more like.
And you never know, as with the story of The Emperors New Clothes, somewhere there is always someone who can see the wood for the trees and blows the whole charade apart!
Even if, due to hyped up ticket prices and the stigma of exclusivity as with The Opera, they will first have to garner enough interest to venture into the auditorium, not be in awe of the glitz and then will still probably have to peer critically down from the *cheap seats* in the gods!.
I may sound like a whining middle-class arty-liberal patronising *others* rights to be included in the spectrum of exclusive art – but hey ! So What! It's still a nod in the direction of including, accessibility and de-mystifying it.
And what was that word? - Oh yes! possibly even ENJOYING it !
Viva La Pub Venue Opera – Karaoke this is not!
And although a far cry again from a London pub, wouldn't you just love to be part of an evening out enjoying the entertainment at the fantastic Gran Teatre del Liceu - it must be an amazing night out!
I believe that the eu19 tickets at the Liceu are for pre-show recitals before the Opera proper starts - mini sound bites and a chance to see the auditorium, along with mini tours. Whichever way - is pretty good for extra fund raising in a tourist destination city.
A trend setting open-doors-style that in the late sixties was opted by the Sydney Opera House - the building itself being purpose built to hold diverse events for the arts and so also attracts people for a myriad of reasons not least the architecture.
Back next Thursday 7th Oct ........