Now the dust has settled a bit on Alfiegate, it might be a good time to reflect on what happened in the last couple of days. The more I think about it the more it seems to me that Alfie may well have no intention of singing many, if any, opera roles again. He may have said what he said on Desert Island Discs because he is in the process of rationalising a choice to leave conventional opera behind.
Who can blame him? The temptations are huge.
On the one hand the life of a regular opera singer: long rehearsal periods leading to relatively few performances. A limited audience. Difficult repertoire. Public anonymity, save to a few enthusiasts. Critics dissecting his performances. Long stints away from his family. Loneliness. Auditions. Opera managers sucking their teeth about which repertoire is right for him and his voice. A modest income (despite all the rumours to the contrary). Worst of all perhaps – and something that is oddly peculiar to opera as an art form – the very real possibility that a few fanatics will one day develop an irrational loathing of his singing and boo loudly at the end of a hard evening’s work (which singular phenomenon alone could be the subject of a whole different blog).
On the other: all the trappings of popular success. Earnings well beyond anything he can possibly earn on the regular opera circuit. The love and adulation of a relatively unsophisticated public (and I don’t mean that in a sneering way). The luxury of being critic-proof. Repertoire which he likes but would never sing on the opera stage. A certain amount of self-governance in his career path. Amplification – that is, never having to worry about fighting an orchestra or being told that his voice isn’t loud enough; the microphone can take care of those problems. The chance, in musicals, to inhabit a role for more than a handful of performances at a time.

Whenever pundits start banging on about opera singers having “a responsibility to their art” I find myself grimacing. Afie’s first and foremost responsibility is to himself and his family. Singers leave the opera profession on a daily basis for a plethora of reasons, the vast number in complete obscurity. Who on earth has the right to say to someone else “you have to keep on doing on what you’re doing because it makes ME feel better”?
But this is all speculation on my part. Whatever Alfie chooses to do with the rest of his life is alright by me. I hope he does return to opera because he was starting to manage the rare feat of being a popular singer both inside the opera house and away from it. And that could be a very good thing.
A lot of people (and I include myself until I took the time to reflect on what this fuss is all about) took umbrage because the implication of what Alfie said was that unless he was in an opera it was going to be very boring. Well I for one don’t think Alfie is capable of that sort of malice. I just believe that he didn’t think it through.
No, if there’s a villain in the piece it has to be the PR types. They’ve got exactly what they want. Opera is back on the stand as elitist and snobby. And Alfie is the populists’ champion. And, more immediately and important to them, Les Mis has garnered vast amounts of absolutely free advertising.
The truly extraordinary thing about this is how this idea of opera snobbery came about. I remember a time when I was completely unaware of any charge of elitism. I went to Covent Garden in jeans, standing in line for cheap tickets with lots of perfectly ordinary people from all backgrounds.
Then Classic FM came along.
Suddenly we were in a new world of bleeding chunks and popular arias. While claiming to bring classical music to a new, wider audience, all they were really doing was establishing a new class system in music appreciation. The PR people got to work and when they heard the word opera they immediately glammed it up with images of people in evening gowns and dinner jackets. There were black limousines, champagne and red roses. The message was that by listening to classical music, people were tapping into a whole new world of sophisticated glamour. But – and this is the really insidious part – heaven forbid that ordinary people think that they could eat at the banquet itself. “Oh no, that’s far too glamorous and refined for the likes of YOU. You can have some tasty little morsels, some scraps from the table. You can go in your jeans and baseball caps to big arena concerts where you can see singers in lovely dresses come out and sing the bits you like and know, but the real stuff, proper operas, that’s hard. That’s for an elite who dress up in their finery and go to stuffy, intimidating places called opera houses. Keep out you ignorant plebs!”
You can just look at “Popstar to Operastar’ to prove my point. I haven’t seen it this year. I saw one episode last year and, even though I’m told it’s supposed to be a bit of fun, was profoundly depressed. Not by the godawful singing, but by the perpetuation of the idea that anything to do with opera necessarily involves everyone bunging on dinner jackets and getting tarted up. What better way to reinforce the idea that opera is, above anything else, elitist and snobby? And none of this has ANYTHING to do with the music or the drama. It is all to do with a marketing image. Opera is now a publicist’s easy shortcut to depict a type of lifestyle, a lifestyle that is utterly and bizarrely at odds with 99.9% of the people I know that love the art-form.
And if that doesn’t make you want to say “grrrr”, I don’t know what will.
So-called opera snobs don’t react badly to the various assaults on the genre because they’re elitist. They do it because the stuff that is being force-fed to the unknowing public is simply bad.
I use the Italian food argument. Lots of people eat pizza, which they regard as Italian food, at Pizza Hut. Lots of people except Italians, that is. Italians of every class and income would regard the food that Pizza Hut sells as an affront to their civilisation. Yes it’s edible, barely, but it is as close to authentic Italian food as a poodle is to a racehorse. You wouldn’t call Italians snobs for not eating at Pizza Hut. You’d say, well, yes of course they wouldn’t eat there. Because it’s not the real thing. It’s not really Italian food.
And so it is with the pulpy, glutinous, pineapple-chunk-topped atrocity (which comes with a huge cola and garlic bread) that is the thick-crust pizza known as “popular classics”. It isn’t really opera.

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