On being bored at the opera

Wooster at the opera

A few days ago, The Times published an article by a columnist called Philip Collins about being bored at the opera. Mr Collins told readers that his father had loved opera but his mother had loathed it and that a recent visit to the Royal Opera House had convinced him of his mother’s wisdom.

Collins announced that within minutes of the curtain rising ‘I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Hell’s bells but it was boring’. Declaring that he would rather listen to Gerald Kaufman reading extracts from the Labour party rule book than Jonas Kaufmann singing Andrea Chénier, Collins left at the interval.

It would seem churlish not to raise a smile, and I do have some sympathy because that is precisely how I would feel within minutes of starting to watch, say, a James Bond film. (It is also true that some operas have complex plots, although it surely doesn’t take long to read the plot summary in the programme beforehand.) But I doubt Collins’ departure at half time would have amused his generous host, who must have paid a decent sum even for a restricted view seat. And the article must have seemed positively galling to the many opera enthusiasts who would have given their eye teeth to hear Kaufmann sing live and to see an opera that last came to Covent Garden three decades ago.

The article prompted me to muse on the fact that opera always seems to be considered fair game for mockery, in the way that other pursuits are not, and brought to mind some interesting resonances with my 1920s project. Back then there was a particular group well known for being bored at the opera – dandy-like young aristocratic men who were merely there because it was the done thing. (This group – albeit a few years further down the line – are brilliantly brought to life in an episode of the Fry/Laurie Jeeves and Wooster in which Wooster and chums snore their way through a performance at the opera.) Such philistines were roundly mocked by the serious music critics of the day.

Yet at the same time there was also a trend during the 1920s for newspapers and even music journals to publish articles about the arts written by anonymous correspondents assuming pseudonyms such as ‘A Man in the Street’. Such commentators did not hold back in roundly ridiculing what they regarded as ‘pretentious high culture’, which was inevitably contrasted with the joys of sport – a Leitmotif closely connected to questions of British identity. It is as if the opinions of the ‘naïf’ were considered more interesting, refreshing or even valid than those of the publication’s own specialist arts correspondents.

None of this is to say that audience members should not have a voice when it comes to discussing culture and clearly this is a particularly pertinent and contested issue in the internet age. But when newspapers devote so little space to serious discussion of the arts, why give such exposure to the opinions of people who know nothing about a particular branch of culture and – more importantly – seem positively hostile towards it?

I wonder whether Collins’ article might be the first in a witty new series. Can we now look forward to the musings of a bored sports correspondent yawning his way through a party political conference? How about a bored film critic going to a football match, announcing ‘hell’s bells, it was boring!’ and leaving at half time? No, it’s probably just opera…