Conservative MP Jake Berry was mocked for remarking opera, ballet and theatre were at the heart of southern communities while the north was more interested in football clubs. This can be dismissed as yet another example of ignorance from a government thriving on incompetence. Unfortunately, it also digs deep into a particularly sore spot of mine.
I have no interest in football; while I can admire the skill and effort involved find it very hard to take competitive sports seriously—at school, if a ball was kicked in my direction, I took the sensible choice and jumped out of the way. Opportunities for a social life that did not involve sports were, when I was in my early teens and could not enter pubs legally, decidedly limited. Before blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars revolutionised films, going to the cinema in the mid-1970s was a grim experience. Movie houses had been chopped up into tiny screens not much bigger than the widescreen televisions now available in supermarkets. Lighting was never raised so you’d stumbled in, find a seat and watch a lava lamp display onscreen until the movie started. It was not fun.
I was bitten by the theatre bug when Manchester’s Royal Exchange opened and offered banquette seats for 50p. At that price, I’d take a chance but even so had a nagging inferiority complex. If Berry is right, then the reason working class communities avoid higher arts is not out of preference but fear. As the hateful remark illustrates, the working class is constantly told certain types of entertainment are not for the likes of us and we will be happier with bingo and football. Even after attending theatre regularly, I still felt out of place and would only go to a Shakespeare production if I had carefully studied the play beforehand. I only broke that habit when dragged to a modern-day version of Much Ado About Nothing and found I could understand it without prior study. Due to the inferiority complex, it took ages before I could relax and enjoy, rather than defensively appreciate, theatre.
Yet opera and ballet remained daunting. Reading up on them raised rather than answered questions—why not just call a pas de deux a duet?—and reinforced the impression they were over my head. Manchester did not always have as many theatres as is now the case and, when younger, scratching the itch for shows meant travelling to London, taking a room in the Regent Palace Hotel, stuffing myself on their endless breakfasts and buying half price tickets at the SWET (Society of West End Theatres) box in Leicester Square.
During one of these jaunts, I had the chance to see Jonathan Miller's production of Rigoletto. It had been broadcast on TV and I’d adored—and more importantly understood—the English-speaking production with a Mafia background so felt this was my chance to break into opera. Told the tickets were £50, I offered £25 and was told £50 was actually the discount price. I declined; daunted not by the cost but the knowledge I’d be sitting with people who could afford to pay the full price. As always, I knew my place.
Yet Miller’s production appealed to a wider audience than usually attended opera and there are increasing examples of this approach that have helped ease me into the genre. Even here, however, there is a sense of elitism; the feeling popular shows are not ‘real’ opera or ballet. Matthew Bourne’s imaginative productions have widened the appeal of ballet and producer Cameron Mackintosh described his breakthrough production of Swan Lake as having all the things that he would expect a hit musical to have. It helps explain the popularity of the show but also suggests it is not really ‘ballet’.
On Sunday mornings, Sky Arts is currently broadcasting opera live from Sydney Harbour—not the famous Opera House you understand; the actual harbour. Producers Opera Australia have, therefore, to retain the interest of an audience despite the inevitable distractions associated with outdoor performances, including the public sitting on hard seats for a couple of hours. They do not shy away from offering populist productions.
Puccini's Turandot achieved widespread popularity when the BBC mixed high art with popular culture and used Pavarotti's version of "Nessun dorma" as the theme song of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Opera Australia treat the aria as a ‘greatest hit’ and emphasise its popularity by setting off a massive firework display at its conclusion. Heck of a show, but I wonder how the purists feel.
There is always a snobbish element in theatregoing. I regard recorded broadcasts of theatre productions as a cheat—they do not count as the real thing as they are not ‘live’ events. Hypocritically, I enjoy recordings of opera and ballet as I can watch them without feeling I am somehow being judged by patrons who really understand and appreciate the art form.
Jake Berry’s remarks will add to the sense that theatregoing is an elitist form of entertainment best left to those who are clever enough to appreciate its subtle charms. It is a nasty attitude that spoilt my enjoyment and put me off certain types of entertainment for years. The growing number of ’popular’ productions on the other hand gives potential patrons, nervous of being shown up as ignorant, the chance to try a new experience. You might not like the result, but at least by trying you get to prove Jake Berry is wrong.