How opera can be ‘open to everyone’

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Antonio Pappano conducting an orchestra (Credit: Getty Images)

Is the world of opera becoming more inclusive? A new documentary, featuring conductor Antonio Pappano, explores the mission to open up the art form to everyone.

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Conductor Sir Antonio Pappano is renowned for being a warm-hearted “people person”. But there’s one thing that makes his blood run cold: when he hears opera being accused of being an art form that’s only for a wealthy elite. “I get very offended by people who say we’re elitist,” he says passionately in a new documentary. This is “a misconception that totally distorts the image of opera,” he adds. “The fact of the matter is, it’s harder to get into a football game in London than it is to get into the [Royal] Opera House.”

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This allusion to the beautiful game is not a frivolous one. When Pappano  became music director at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (ROH) in 2002, he spoke of his love for popular music by stars such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Oscar Peterson, Joni Mitchell, and for musicals. “I like football too,” he added. “Does that mean you can’t like opera?”

La Bohème at the ROH is among the productions that have recently been screened in cinemas across the UK (Credit: Getty Images)

La Bohème at the ROH is among the productions that have recently been screened in cinemas across the UK (Credit: Getty Images)

Back then Pappano was 42, and the youngest conductor to lead ROH’s orchestra. Some 700 operas later –  with many productions of the French and Italian repertoires; a good part of the Russian; Wagner, Strauss and contemporary works – and he is the subject of A Time of Change, presented by Zeinab Badawi, and part of the BBC documentary series Take Me to the Opera.

The documentary follows him from his modest roots, as the son of Italian immigrant parents who came from southern Italy to the UK, who worked hard to make ends meet.  They passed on their strong work ethic to him, and he learnt how to work with singers from his vocal coach father, flourishing as a musical talent in the “the family business”. A Time of Change goes on to trace a career that includes assisting classical pianist Daniel Barenboim, through to a recent high, conducting the King’s coronation service in May, featuring solos by Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel and South African soprano Pretty Yende.

Opera shouldn’t cater just to one audience – it must be open to the interests of many different people – Antonio Pappano

The main focus of the film, though, is Pappano’s mission to open up opera to everyone. “Opera shouldn’t cater just to one audience, or be focused on just one corner of the repertoire,” he says. “It must be open to the interests of many different people.” While he asserts that the ROH, like every big opera house, wants to entice young audiences, he does concede: “I think you have to be honest and say, yes, but younger people can’t afford very expensive tickets, can they?”  

It’s true that the price of opera tickets can seem too high to be anything but a rare luxury for most, especially young people. Halley Bondy, writing on the arts website Paste Magazine, describes herself as someone who has been to the opera many times “for a millennial”. And although she loves opera – “from the hyper-real grandness to the unbelievable talent, to the septuagenarian, fur-hatted audience” – she finds it “easy to see why places like The Met [Metropolitan Opera House in NYC] are ailing in sales; young people just don’t go. It’s too expensive, too arcane, too massive… The onus is on the opera houses to do a better job of catering to the young.”

Bondy has only managed to attend so often by being treated by a “ridiculously generous friend” or chasing discounted tickets. “Like everything else in the world, the opera is a lot of fun if you have gobs of money,” she observes, but she concedes anyone could get in with the $25 [£19.40] rush tickets, student tickets or commercial offers – which make it “affordable, if you just dig a little”.    

In opera’s defence, ticket prices are generally high because it is notoriously costly to produce. All the more reason, argued The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins in February, for adequate government funding. Discussing recent cuts to opera funding, she wrote: “If you starve something, run it down constantly, gradually reduce the provision of it so that few can afford it, it becomes ‘elitist’… And if opera in the form that its creators imagine it becomes for toffs, that is nothing to do with opera itself… [it is] precisely the result of neglect and underfunding”. 

The Youth Opera talent development programme at the ROH gives children and young people opportunities for training (Credit: Royal Opera House)

The Youth Opera talent development programme at the ROH gives children and young people opportunities for training (Credit: Royal Opera House)

Pappano is also invested in bringing new blood to opera, via schemes like the ROH’s  schools matinees, which offer young people low-cost tickets to opera productions. Also, its Youth Opera talent development programme gives children aged seven to 13 the chance to try its “rigorous music and drama training”.

“We make sure there’s a real variety of socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities, and an even gender split,” says Tom Floyd, ROH senior opera manger, talking about its open recruitment system. Most of the young people who join them “come from families who probably have had no real experience of opera,” he says.       

Opera for all

Over at English National Opera (ENO), the company has stayed true to its egalitarian roots of the late 19th-Century, when theatrical producer Lilian Baylis and music director Charles Corri shared a vision of it as a place for “people’s opera”. ENO has “opera for all” in its mission statement. It does not assume knowledge of opera; its website has  key figures of the organisation  explaining what opera is and how it’s made; and  the site hints at how it skillfully reimagines crowd pleasers, like La Traviata (to be performed this October), in thrilling new ways, alongside daring new work, such as 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, by performance artist Marina Abramovich (November).   

“We sing in English to be accessible to the widest possible audience,” an ENO spokesperson tells BBC Culture. The company offers free tickets for under-21s; discounts for under 35s, and tickets from £10 for all. No surprise, then, that more than half its bookings last season were from opera first-timers.

Still, in order to survive the cuts to Arts Council England (ACE) funding, the ENO will next year move its main base from the London Coliseum to outside the capital and in so doing will  qualify for £24m funding over three years.

A new generation is embracing opera and music presented in new ways: opera in car parks, in pubs, opera on your tablet – Darren Henley

Opera must change, ACE chief executive Darren Henley wrote in an article for The Guardian: “A new generation is embracing opera and music presented in new ways: opera in car parks… in pubs, opera on your tablet”. In truth, most opera companies are not digital-age dodgers; they have presences on the popular digital platforms, while the hashtag #operaisopen invites new audiences to click through.  

Streaming services –  like Royal Opera Stream and Glyndebourne Encore – have dished up productions and events, both popular and esoteric, to reach a wider audience. And there’s also opera at the cinema. At ROH, 2022/23 has been its biggest cinema season ever, with more than 1,300 cinemas worldwide having shown or showing 13 productions (opera and ballet), including Madam Butterfly, La Boheme and Aida. The latter, staged in May and June 2023, was conducted by Pappano.

Nurturing promising young talent – like soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha – is a passion of Pappano’s, and he’s also a role model for young opera conductors, like Avishka Ederisinghe, who says that watching him talking on YouTube was what inspired him to explore the art form. 

Conductor Antonio Pappano is keen to fight elitism and make opera more widely accessible (Credit: Getty Images)

Conductor Antonio Pappano is keen to fight elitism and make opera more widely accessible (Credit: Getty Images)

As he steps down from his music director roles – at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome after 18 years, and at ROH next summer, after 22 years – Pappano is looking forward to change. He will not be hanging up the baton yet: he will succeed Simon Rattle to become chief conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra, his “dream job”.  

He describes how he grew up in a council flat that was just “a four-minute walk to Westminster Abbey”; and that rising from his humble background to conducting the coronation at that same abbey was “not a bad gig”. Jokes aside, there is a message there that  he’d love to hand down to a younger generation: “If you have a vision for what you want to achieve in life, that spark and… the energy and resilience to keep pushing when you know things will get tough, you can make it in any walk of life.”  

Take me to the Opera: A Time of Change is on BBC News Channel and on BBC Reel

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