Is opera just for toffs?

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Sunday 16 October, Church House, London


Last July, the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, accused Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, of ‘champagne socialism’ because she went to the Glyndebourne music festival to watch opera and drink champagne instead of joining colleagues on RMT picket lines. Raab’s comment was unfortunate, but it highlights the prevailing sentiment: opera is the preserve of the rich and upper-class people.

Is it because of this perception of elitism that young and new audiences don’t go to opera? After all, it’s not just right-wing politicians who hold this view; many within the left-leaning arts sector also seem to regard elitism as a problem for opera – a phenomenon neatly encapsulated by the Stormzy vs Mozart controversy.

In fact, opera houses around the world have undertaken numerous initiatives aimed at widening access to their shows. The Royal Opera House even hired an outside expert to tackle imperialism and orientalism in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and cast its first black lead in Verdi’s Otello. Nevertheless, all sort of people attended the Arena di Verona Opera Festival in Italy last June to see the 1913 historical production of Verdi’s Aida where the white soprano Anna Netrebko sang with her face painted in black.

So how does opera stay relevant and attract new audiences? Do opera houses have to decolonise opera? Or do they simply have to stage truly exciting productions?

Henrietta Bredin
deputy editor, Opera magazine; author, Labour of Love

Dolan Cummings
author, Gehenna: a novel of Hell and Earth; associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Peter Hanke
conductor and artistic director, Voces Academy; associate fellow, Oxford University

Michael Hollick
sub-editor; opera lover

Elisabetta Gasparoni
linguist; teacher; founder, Aesthetic Study Group