Thursday, August 1, 2013

Opera is Not Necessarily for Everyone, but Everyone Should have Access

It occurred to me that some people read my Monday notice about Thomas Hampson’s interview, but did not actually listen to the podcast. It’s an interesting discussion and well worth the 23 or so minutes. 

I’ve not listened to BBC Radio 3’s Hardtalk programme before, so I don’t know if the host is always so confrontational, but I found the second time I listened, the discussion made me feel very tense. The host tends to talk over Mr. Hampson (a really crappy interview technique), and is almost hostile towards him. She is the kind of interviewer who takes everything her subject says, and picks it apart and tries to turn it back on the interviewee, challenging him to contradict himself. But Mr. Hampson is not easily cowed.

He does not really say opera is for everybody, but he feels everyone should have an opportunity to be exposed to opera.  He doesn’t disagree completely with the opera snobs. It is good to know as much about the opera as possible—singers, directors, conductors, and audience alike.

But, he makes what I think is a great analogy. You don’t have to study Renaissance art (I am paraphrasing here a bit) to appreciate the beauty of a Renaissance painting or sculpture. Maybe when you are moved by such art, you might decide to look into it a bit more, and learn about the history and the style and the artists—or maybe not.

Similarly, you can hear an opera aria or duet, or trio, or chorus, and appreciate the beauty of it, without in-depth study. You can appreciate the excitement and beauty and characterizations in a Mozart ensemble, without knowing that he actually composed it in sonata form, that the melody is transformed in a subsequent work, or that he was wearing green breeches and no wig when he composed it. But once you are struck by the beauty, or intensity, or structure, or drama of the music, you just might want to learn more about it.

So, what Mr. Hampson is saying is not that opera is for everyone, but that opera should be made accessible to everyone. And those who are drawn in should be welcomed in, and (this is me talking now) they should not be made to feel stupid or inadequate because they don’t know enough about opera yet. (You don’t have to already know how to tie knots to become a boy scout!)

Mr. Hampson also made it a point to remind us of his attitude towards internet music. He thinks it should be free to listen to, but you should still pay to own it. That may be a teensy bit naïve, as so many folks have ways to capture internet streams. On the other hand, seeing a crappy, fuzzy, pixilated Trovatore from Munich on YT is great, but it’s not going to keep me from grabbing the commercial DVD when it comes out.

When you get down to it, Thomas Hampson wants to share the opera love. So, opera snobs, who feel there is only one true religion cult way to be an opera lover: we are not all the same, and we are not an exclusive, card-carrying, secret-hand-shaking, school-tie wearing, sherry-drinking club. 

And when someone wants to know more about opera, let’s share our love for the art form, instead of making people feel they can't possibly appreciate opera without hours and months and years of in-depth study.


  1. Sarah Montague is a renowned interviewer with a distinctive style which is often controversial and occasionally downright rude. The Hardtalk programme has been on TV and several clips are on YT. It is a pity she does not tailor her style to the subject matter and the interviewee but attempting to make celebrities squirm has become a spectator sport.

    1. It does seem she's better suited to interviewing/grilling crooked, shady politicians. It's not like TH was broaching a controversial topic--well, not controversial in a global world issues kind of way. :) All things considered, I thought TH maintained his composure rather well.

  2. What's wrong with sherry drinking?

  3. This interview has caused something of a backlash in the UK arts community, with some of Montague's allegations being seriously questioned:
    As one of the commenters on that page points out, though, where else would you get a serious 25-minute interview on TV with a professional opera singer? And I agree that TH maintains an excellent composure throughout, so the interview is still well worth watching.

    1. Hi Michael, thanks so much for the link to that letter. So I was not off-base regarding Ms. Motague's attack! Does she know anything at all about opera?

      Btw, here is a direct link to the letter:

      Montague is lucky she chose such a gentleman opera singer to put under her naked light bulb!

  4. I couldn't believe how hostile she seemed, and how she kept interrupting what he was saying. I have always though Hampson was pretty composed and well spoken, and he did an incredible job of seeming honestly engaged in the interview, and maintaining a polite, interested and charming demeanor, but he must have felt anything but. I don't believe I could stand to watch it again.

    1. My respect and admiration for Mr. Hampson (already high) have grown after hearing (I haven't seen it here in the U.S. but that's probably just as well) this interview. He is a fine artist and a gentleman!


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