Why opera?

Last month, our own Vanessa Oakes and Sayan Kent held an online conversation exploring why they had decided to create Her Day Opera for the upcoming Coventry City of Culture. In this blog, Vanessa reflects on their experience so far and the many questions raised during the session, particularly on how participants felt about going to the opera.

Over a week after our first open online conversation I’ve finally had time to read through the chat (all 6 pages of it). It proved to be a fascinating read which reflected the discussion we all had. Before our conversation I was interested in whether there are assumptions about how opera is made that are in tension with opera appealing to a wide audience? And, what does that mean for Sayan and I (working class women) who are writing our first opera?

Here are just a few of the many comments in the chat that I found particularly thought-provoking:

Why I haven’t been to opera? Never felt invited although I know I don’t need to be.  Don’t know anyone to go along with.

For me I’m always narrative driven and I never feel like I understand the narrative with opera, often because of the language but also the style is difficult to consume.

I have been wondering why I have never seen an opera? I have experienced and love many other art forms. Maybe because I imagine not being able to understand it and maybe because I have never spotted an opportunity locally to go and watch it? I am looking forward to seeing Her Day. I didn’t think opera would/could be about ‘ordinary’ women.

I didn’t go to the opera for a long time and honestly it’s because I didn’t feel it was ‘for’ me/I didn’t belong/couldn’t afford to be in those auditoria. And then I saw Woolf Works onscreen, the extraordinary beauty of which then cajoled me to go see a Katie Mitchell opera on a Rush ticket and it changed everything for me. Late to the opera party, but feeling like this issue of WHO is telling the story is really important…

I’ve been running some online opera projects in lockdown, and the casting process made me think much more about the voices that are presented; and in particular the lack of voice for women. But as you say, the enormity of the task of undertaking new work makes it out of reach.  And perhaps as an artform, that’s opera’s challenge – the difficulty of creating new work and finding new voices makes it harder to keep it relevant.

Perhaps taking opera out of the opera house into other spaces is the greatest step to making it accessible to people who don’t think opera is for them?

This project is interesting with regard to the awareness of the roles/ portrayal of Women in the world of Opera not only as subject matter but also as the creators.  the excitement of Her Day is that women are creating this work.

To what extent are the prescribed voices in repertoire operas (soprano, alto etc.) limiting or restricting the endeavor of finding room for all voices and perspectives?

Historically the context of opera performance has been the domain of the upper classes (also white, heteronormative, non-disabled etc) as a place to socialise. The legacy then became entrenched so much that a lot of people wouldn’t consider it a place that is inviting them in regardless of how engaging the content is.

The other elephant in the room is the fact that opera (and classical music) demands a long and intensive training. The elitist label partly derives from the ‘inaccessible’ level of technical accomplishment required by the form. Ballet too.

So much to mull over before our next conversation on 1st April which is now open for booking – we hope to see you there: CLICK HERE TO REGISTER   Many thanks to all those who asked questions during the session. Vanessa Oakes

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