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 Opera's Place in the World
Excerpt from Graham Vick's 2003 Royal Philaharmonic Society Lecture

If opera has a place in the world it must be of the world. Now a world of multi -cultural nations, a world where rapid information technology has brushed aside all assumptions, brought down all absolutes and created a culture of doubt, suspicion and cynicism. Dominated by the philosophy of the market place the high financial rewards of popular culture put a strain on high culture in terms of accountability and justification, however, the moral high ground is no longer available and the retreat into the idea of universal good and ancient snobbery unthinkable. But until now we have perpetuated the civic heritage of the nineteenth century; a privileged élite opening the doors of its great institutions for the education and enlightenment of the people in essentially 19th century values. This ethos dominated the 20th century and in the 1950s and early 60s formed the series of structures and institutions which we now call opera companies. Surely it is not surprising that such values are at best irrelevant and at worst alienate what is now a broad-based inclusive 21st century society.  The rules of opera going which are the guarded privilege of an ever smaller section of British society are in growing conflict with the need for openness – open channels of communication and exchange between art and the society which sustains it and which it is, in return, bound to nourish.

The challenge of responding to this tension has, however, largely been devolved to outreach departments, education workers, studio theatres and most recently strategic partnerships – anything to keep it away from what is called the “work itself”. I do not wish to devalue the very important and often exciting work done in this field for many years: the sadness is that I have yet to see any real impact on either the audiences or the stages of our main theatres.

This rather too convenient separation meant to protect the core work has only succeeded in isolating it. The future health and development of opera depends on it embracing the whole of contemporary society and that means being a part of it and being prepared to change as rapidly as society itself. Companies lurch from crisis to crisis. We have to find a way of recovering a fundamental sense of adventure, challenge and interaction – a modern world demands nothing less. However, the desire to keep everybody happy from paymasters to tired and cynical reviewers, from the conservative and wealthy to the modish and wealthy has created a strange climate of catch-all in which it is sometimes difficult to understand whether we’re being offered vision, excellence, audience pleasers or a competition for who can produce the glossiest international brochure. When Lilian Baylis founded Sadlers Wells and the Old Vic her motivation was the need to deal with social deprivation and the acute drinking problem on the streets of London.. She knew why she did what she did. Can we all say the same? Why do our opera companies exist? Because they’re there? Because they have a payroll? Because they receive public subsidy? Or because they are the best possible way of serving this exciting art form and the taxpayer given the available money? Because we cannot get away from accountability. Whether we like it or not, those who pay taxes expect to see some return. This is not Government policy but the culture in which we live. It is after all, society which produces the government and not the other way round. So it saddens me when those who would resist change or growth would resist the exciting challenges and possibilities offered by our rapidly changing society, hide behind cheap shots at Blairite policy and political correctness. Equally unworthy is the absurd notion that the choice between protecting the excellence of art for arts sake or accept dumbing down. Such crude oversimplification reflects badly on our desire and willingness to learn and grow and on the quality of intellectual debate which surrounds this most vital artform.
Opera on Naxos


Fall 2003 New Release

Don Carlos

"Naxos has promoted completely new opera recordings at a time when the big international labels have been shying away from them as commercially unviable...An excellent bargain that even includes the full Italian libretto."

- The Guardian


"Calling all 'Nessun dorma' fans who've never listened to the Puccini opera it climaxes - this is your bargain-price chance to make amends...a uniformly fine cast in what is after all, an ensemble work, grounded by some fine playing from the Malaga Phil under Alexander Rahbari."

- The Observer

Copyright 2003 Graham Vick.  Reprinted with permission from the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Agree or Disagree with what you've read?  Send your comments to  Selected responses may be posted on

Reader Responses
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Mr. Vic's comments have a ring of truth to them regarding accountability. As an institution, Opera, doubtless, will survive because it has tradition behind it. Society, on the other hand, despite its oft-viewed crass nature, is ever threatened with extinction by the government which it has created; this due to the myopia which accompanies the myriad illusions which government fosters. Nowadays, neither government nor society is particularly accountable for what it does. The pleasure which opera gives should be enough to sustain it amidst the devolving world of concentrating capital.


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I agree with most aspects of Graham Vick's Lecture. But some considerations about opera performances in the XXIth century are lacking:

Why is the "star making" machine no longer working ? Why are the so-called "great singers" of our time so deprived of personality in the colour of their voices, of sensitivity in their singing, of stage presence in the opera house ?

The answer is that they are selected only on one criteria (Musicality) which is not important for opera-lovers, but very important for the actual Toscaninis: they must be good musicians, they must be always in rhythm, if not in tune. But how many opera lovers in the audience can detect a slight difference of rhythm between the orchestra and the singer ? They would much more complain about the ugly voices and the coldness of most of interpretations. Martha Modl, Maria Callas, where are you ? In the current system you would not have been allowed even to sing in the chorus !

So it's good that new people go to the opera house. Those who could attend during the last golden age of opera (Caballe, Sutherland, Horne, Ludwig, Fischer-Dieskau, Nilsson, Crespin, Vanzo, Freni, Ghiaurov...) will stay at home with their recordings.


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