Chris Harman

Thinking it through

People in class houses

(April 1996)

From Socialist Review, No.196, April 1996.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The musical form of operas is certainly not something people instinctively reject. The popularity of recordings by tenors, from Caruso 80 years ago to Pavarotti today, shows that. Most working class people are turned off not by opera as such, but by the aura of snobbery that surrounds it’

The question of opera is always thrown up when arguments break out over ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’.

This is hardly surprising. People watching The House series of fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the Royal Opera House will have discovered something apparent to anyone who has ever been near the place. There is a very close association between its highly spiritual productions and the crude material realities of class.

There is an absolutely sharp class divide between those who labour behind the scenes and in the orchestra pit and chorus to make the productions successful and the sharp suited managers who count their own salaries in multiple Ks as they impose redundancies, productivity schemes and new contracts.

There is also an equally sharp divide between those who relax with outstretched legs in £120 stalls seats a few yards from the singers and those who queue for a cramped partial view 100 feet up in the gallery. Even at the allegedly more populist English National Opera, the boast that the performances are in English means much more in the stalls than it does in the gallery – trying to decipher the words and the story lines of the present excellent productions of Tristan and Isolde and Turandot is a bit like tackling cryptic crosswords.

But the class divide is more than just a material divide. The whole ethos of places like the Royal Opera House or Glyndebourne serves to create the impression that opera is something just for a select group of the upper class. An evening there is a social occasion rather than a musical event for most of the stalls elite. The champagne in the interval is as important as the performance and whole rows of seats are paid for out of corporate hospitality bills – and they are often left empty.

The result, of course, is that the great majority of working class people feel that opera is something that has nothing to do with them. It is this feeling which papers like the Sun are seeking to exploit with their denunciation of lottery money going to the opera. And certainly, as things are at the moment, subsidies to the opera are part of that hidden welfare state (along with the salaries of the quangocracy and the tax relief on Tessas) which caters overwhelmingly for the rich. This explains why on this issue some sections of the left put forward a line that is not so much different to the Sun’s.

Yet there is nothing intrinsically anti-popular about the opera form. The combination of theatre and live music has a capacity to convey drama and emotion in a way that can move anyone.

And the musical form of most operas is certainly not something people instinctively reject. The popularity of recordings by tenors, from Caruso 80 years ago to Pavarotti today, shows that. Most working class people are turned off not by opera as such, but by the aura of snobbery that surrounds it.

It is this aura which has caused so many of us to grow up believing opera is something we should reject. It is usually only chance – being dragged reluctantly to the opera by a friend, or accidentally watching a powerful production on television - that changes people’s minds. And even then, the sense of being out of place at the opera often remains.

This is doubly unfortunate, because the great operatic composers did not, by and large, aim at the existing upper classes. In the 19th century they usually identified, to some degree at least, with popular agitation against the upper classes – even if it was popular agitation by a middle class trying to take control of society for itself, as Antony Arblaster shows in his excellent book, Viva Liberta.

The issues they deal with – freedom from tyranny, resistance to oppression, the stultification of human emotions by money and privilege – remain relevant today for precisely the people least likely to find themselves in an opera house.

If many 20th century operas are less popular in form, this is not because the composers consciously cater for the upper class, but because they seek to escape from its ethos by separating themselves off as an aesthetic vanguard – only then to find that few of the ‘great’ opera houses will perform their work.

This is an example of how the class basis of the organisation of opera feeds back into the character of an operatic production itself. Going to the opera is, for the rich, one way of displaying their social superiority to the rest of us, of emphasising that they alone stand for civilisation and ‘culture’. But, of course, their notion of civilisation hardly goes beyond money making, while ‘culture’ normally means being seen in the right place with the right people at the right time.

It does not encompass anything that challenges established ideas or conventional ways of viewing the world. And so what they want of opera are lavish productions of a small number of well known works, performed according to tried and trusted conventions by the international star singers.

The well known works themselves suffer, and newer innovative works hardly get a look in.

Hence the paradox that the best productions are most highly appreciated by those stuck in the gallery with the worst view and poor acoustics.

Hence, too, the way many of the best productions are not by the big opera houses at all, but by small groups touring from one improvised venue to another, and performing without the musical and technical back-up needed to convey the power of the work they are interpreting so well.

There are many more horrible things about existing society than the domination and distortion of opera and other forms of ‘high’ art by a money grubbing ruling class. Fighting against it is never going to be at the centre of anyone’s revolutionary programme. But that does not mean appropriating that art is not an issue at all. It is part of humanity’s heritage that has been stolen from us.

Last updated on 21 December 2009