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Date: 28/01/09

The Fat (Titled) Lady Sings

It may come as a surprise for regular viewers, but there some types of music I can't stand. Country And Western is one, if for no better reason than it encourages the setting up in dingy post-industrial towns of line-dancing clubs with names like Cade's County or Magnolias. What is laughingly called 'R'n'B' nowadays is another, full of auto-tuned fame-whores who would never have stood a chance in the world of real R'n'B.

But I reserve the most withering of my uneducated, groundling scorn for opera. If ever there was a form of art which lent itself to ridicule, this is the one. It's not simply the music, although it's true to say that the performers would have to be far better actors than they are if they did not have the noise to fall back on. I tend towards Thomas Beecham's dictum that,

"The trouble with singers is that they always want to be heard above the music."

To which he added,

"I make damn sure they're not!"

But leaving aside the damnability of unfeasibly large women singing at a pitch which only a basset hound could ever love, the whole idea of opera as spectacle is utterly ludicrous. Don't listen to the siren voices (and most operatic voices remind me of sirens - air-raid warnings, mostly) telling you about opera's noble descent from commedia dell'arte and about how it is the pinnacle of the fusion of the musical and dramatic arts; opera is bizarre and extreme beyond explanation. What other form could - like the infamous production of Ada at Luxor some years ago - come closer than any other to turning supposedly artistic endeavours into natural catastrophes?

(The little demon who squats just behind my eyes insists at this point that I admit that the only performance of Parsifal I ever saw - a television screening of the Bayreuth centenary production about twenty years ago - was so affecting that I blubbed through most of the final act. To which I defend myself by saying that Parsifal isn't an opera, it's 'A Festival Play For The Consecration Of The Stage'. That must be true - Wagner himself said so, so there!)

The 'cause' of opera is also vicious. It is the 'art form' which, more than any other (with the possible exception of ballet, which one Labour councillor in Swansea once dismissed as being, "...just a leg show for the nobs" - which is better than vice versa, I suppose) is espoused by inveterate snobs. It is the musical equivalent of what The Times and Who's Who used to be in the days when everyone (i.e., everyone who mattered) knew how one addressed a duchess. For every doomed attempt to make opera 'relevant' to the masses - which usually involves the absurdity of singing Mozart in English, that most unmusical of languages - such efforts are dwarfed by the preponderance of carefully-maintained exclusivity.

If you doubt this, then visit the registration page of the Royal National Opera's website. This is what part of it looks like:

Screenshot of part of the registration page of the RNO

So far, so common. But take a closer look by selecting that drop-down menu. Usually, the choices consist solely of the standard Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms.. Not in these exalted circles though, m'dear. These are the options presented to you by the ROH:

List of titles, including 'Baron', 'Commodore' and 'Countess'

It goes on:

List of titles, including 'Duke of', 'Group Captain' and 'His Highness'

And on, to include such worthies as Group Captains, HRH Sultan Shahs, Profs Emeritus and (somewhat incongruously to my mind) Rabbis.

It's so nice to know that the opera is truly for everyone, and that no-one should ever feel excluded from it - even if they're a Wing Commander.

(A big tip of the wig to the delightfully forthright Mr Eugenides for drawing the world's attention to the Royal Opera House's wonderful outreach project.) an arrow to click on to take you to a follow-up item