In its prime, opera was considered in much the same way as we now think of cinema. So what keeps so many young people away from opera today? Two obvious reasons are the initial uncertainty of watching entertainment in a foreign language, and perception of opera being exclusively geared to a wealthy elite. However, there are more subtle prejudgements surrounding the genre, such as how popular music today is linked to a more free and casual vocal style as opposed to the vocal precision and intensity of opera. With this in mind, how do we go about dealing with the issue of inaccessibility in opera? Is it more important to have an audience who can access and experience more of the work, or respect the composer’s original opera?
Taking libretto (the operatic text) as an example; the composer would have written his music to complement the sounds of the foreign language, and arguably to translate and therefore change the sound would be to undermine the composer’s work. A better way to tackle the issue of foreign language might be to make a potential audience aware that subtitles are usually available directly above the stage, so that the viewer is always aware of the plot. This is actually a more efficient system than in Mozart’s day, when the words would have been written in booklets held by the audience.
Arguably, this is the time to be watching opera. Not only are works being translated and subtitled specifically for accessibility, but they are also frequently placed into new contemporary scenarios, doused in symbolism to create new meaning from old classics – something like the Marriage of Figaro set in the sixties. I recently saw the Northern Irish National Opera’s production of The Magic Flute which opened with a chequered black and white game-board as a stage and had a huge mechanical snake bursting through one of the walls. Whatever you think you know about opera may very easily be upended when challenged by the art form first hand. One production of the same work may be entirely unrecognisable from another, and I believe our arts scene has much to gain from protagonists clad in wondrous costumes, singing in lilting foreign tongues, with maybe even a giant snake or two erupting from the masonry.