Graham Vick: ‘The existence of education departments proclaims that opera is only for the educated’

The international director takes his knife to a sacred cow:

The existence of education departments proclaims that opera is only for the educated or, worse, the initiated. Their statistics adorn annual reports without making any visible difference to audiences or performers; the more the outreach work, the more hermetically sealed the inner sanctum. It’s a form of protectionism.

Our charge is not opera itself but the experience opera can give. What is the difference? Well, when we talk with someone we adapt ourselves to be as communicative as possible to that person – we may even try to speak in their language or use terms that will carry meaning for them. I sometimes think performing opera in imperialistic opera houses sung in foreign languages by artists who patently do not have a command of them betrays all the effort to communicate of the Englishman abroad stubbornly speaking his own language louder and louder, expecting to be understood. The way we present our work should itself reach out and educate. Isn’t that what the guys who wrote them were trying to do?

Read his full revisionist and provocative article in The Stage, right heregraham vick

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  • The public percerption in the late 19th Century was that chamber music is for the educated, and symphonic music, ballet, and especially opera are for all. Verdi was his time’s Quincy Jones.

  • I’m glad I discovered opera in the 70s, before people thought of improving it. This reminds me of a free concert I went to in my local park, by a string quartet. They had the idea of bringing chamber music to the hicks in my town. So they played some pieces that sounded like Haydn plus Starbucks jazz. I left pretty quickly. I don’t know how other people felt about it, but I got that the musicians didn’t know where they were. My town is small, but we’re not hicks, and our little amateur opera company does full operas in the original language, and even little kids sit through the whole thing. So I’d say, funding is a problem, but pandering isn’t the answer.

  • “A production of La Boheme in a pub theatre in English with a piano is closer to Puccini’s masterpiece than any starry concert performance could possibly be.”

    I’m interpreting that as hyperbole. Coming from a working class background, I’d find it very patronising if he were suggesting that I can only appreciate things communicated through my local pub. I don’t think he is. People of all backgrounds will happily visit the most elaborately gilded Victorian theatre for something they want to see. The trick, IMO, is to get across the notion that opera is “normal” and potentially enjoyable for everyone. TV and cinema could play a part in this by avoiding tired old stereotypes and sneering comments.

    Opera is expensive and cut down performances clearly have a part to play, but let’s not go too far. Seriously, how many modern teenagers will want to listen to an opera with a piano, possibly of dubious quality? A good recording – maybe.

  • I agree with Mr. Vick that opera needs to strive more to connect with the audiences of its day. And it certainly needs to move away from class distinctions that have held it back I recently wrote a blog post about making opera fun again: http://operagene.com/new-blog/2016/7/22/wto-takes-opera-off-its-high-horse-and-makes-it-fun-again?rq=making%20opera%20fun. However, I don’t share the doom and gloom I so often read about; my eyes tell me something different. I have only been an opera fan for a few years, but I see tremendous dedication and activity in opera across the US, not only in operas produced but in innovative outreach efforts to make opera more accessible and attract more potential fans to opera. Opera North in the UK seems to me to be quite a vibrant company in reaching out to its community. If anything, an emergence of new opera and clever updates of traditional operas seems to be taking place. Tom Huizenga just published an overview of new classical music coming up this season, which is not exhaustive: http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/08/31/491833898/first-impressions-a-guide-to-new-music-in-the-new-season?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=classical&utm_term=music&utm_content=20160831. Honestly, from my admittedly limited perspective, I think this is an exciting time for opera.

  • ‘opera is only for the educated’

    Quite right too. It’s also only for the musical and the grown-up. The rest can bog off to their children’s records.

  • ‘opera is only for the educated’

    Quite right too. It’s also only for the musical and the grown-up. The rest can bog off to their children’s records.

  • We have operas and recitals in the vineyards where I come from (as well as popular concerts). The hoi polloi get there in a fleet of buses (so they can safely drink wine) and bill and coo as though they are imbibing high art rather than kitsch. They love to be seen there!! When they ask if I’ll be going I usually just laugh!!! “Oh, but I thought you liked classical music”.

    My reply: “I do; that’s why I’m not going”.

  • I find much of what Mr. Vick says borders on the pretentious. “I sometimes think performing opera in imperialistic opera houses sung in foreign languages by artists who patently do not have a command of them betrays all the effort to communicate of the Englishman abroad stubbornly speaking his own language louder and louder, expecting to be understood.” We can all picture the latter, an outmoded colonial caricature whose existence is far more rare today. As for opera, though, many houses today do attempt to bridge the communication gap through the use of supertitles and other means.

    But this focuses merely on words. Does the music have no part to play in the communicating the experience in “imperialistic opera houses”? Of course it does, and he later admits so in saying that music adds a “deeper, profounder” element to the expression of those words.” I would have been more interested in his dialogue if he had started – as all opera directors should – with the music rather than the libretto.

    It’s all very well to say that a vastly slimmed down performance of Boheme in a pub with piano accompaniment is closer to the real Puccini than any “starry” concert performance could be, but what does he mean by concert performance? One in an Opera House? Then surely he should make himself clear by saying so. Or does he mean literally a one-off concert hall performance with singers in front of an orchestra but no staging? Perhaps he means semi-staged concert versions a la Glyndebourne at the Proms and as Seiji Ozawa presented in Boston and Tokyo for many years. Perhaps Mr. Vick who has made a great deal of money throughout his career with performances in the very Imperial Opera Houses he now dismisses, ought to take a dose of his own advice, methinks!

  • This paragraph is perceptive:

    “The existence of education departments proclaims that opera is only for the educated or, worse, the initiated. Their statistics adorn annual reports without making any visible difference to audiences or performers; the more the outreach work, the more hermetically sealed the inner sanctum. It’s a form of protectionism.”

    The rest sort of shows he does not understand the integration of (original) words and music that distinguishes opera from other music-theater forms.

    • Absolutely. We should therefore go on performing Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in Hungarian, with singers who have learned their words phonetically, for audiences who don’t understand what they’re singing.

      Opera where words mean nothing. That’s Regietheater’s dream come true.

  • “Opera is theatre. A production of La Boheme in a pub theatre in English with a piano is closer to Puccini’s masterpiece than any starry concert performance could possibly be.”

    Dumbing down – the best way to put off music lovers both new and old.

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