Upon hearing the word ‘opera’, what comes to mind? Chances are you’ll think of well-heeled men and women in tuxedos and ballgowns, peering through tiny binoculars and wafting hand fans on theatre balconies, as a dramatic tragedy reaches a crescendo on the stage below. Certainly, it’s a clichéd image but it's one nonetheless that chimes with the popular stereotype of opera as an upper-class pursuit.
But this stereotype hasn’t always existed. Indeed, there was once a time when the status of opera, ‘high-brow’ or ‘low-brow’, was the subject of much debate – a debate that’s set to be explored in a new BBC Radio 3 documentary, ‘A Flapper’s Guide to the Opera’.
The documentary is the work of Professor Alexandra Wilson, an opera historian and musicologist at Oxford Brookes University, who received a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship in 2014 to conduct research into operatic culture in 1920s Britain. Her research focussed particularly on where opera sat in the contemporary ‘battle of the brows’.
“The period after World War One,” Professor Wilson explains, “saw a stricter codification of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and the emergence of the notion of a ‘middlebrow’. Other popular forms of entertainment were relatively easy to label according to these terms but opera, for a variety of reasons, resisted easy categorisation. Some 1920s commentators thought opera was too highbrow but others, though it sounds surprising today, thought it wasn't highbrow enough!”
My research demonstrates the diversity of the audience for opera in the 1920s and considers the ways that the art form interacted with popular culture – for instance, with film, jazz, popular novels and the like.”
In her documentary, a BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature to be broadcast 22 October 2017, Professor Wilson travels around London, from Kensington to the East End, visiting the diverse spaces where 1920s listeners could experience opera. The aim of the 45-minute documentary, she says, is to “take the listener on a journey back in time”.
“Each location tells a different story. I've chosen lots of evocative music clips – not only opera but 1920s jazz and music hall songs – and we've used actors to voice historical figures from the time. It’s about who went to the opera, what they wore, quirky performance practices, colourful audiences, celebrity singers, and more besides.
“Opera wasn’t just performed in glamorous West End theatres but also in variety halls, restaurants and places like that. It was even performed in a school on the Isle of Dogs where a very imaginative teacher put on a performance of "The Magic Flute" with a cast of 12 and 13-year old schoolboys!”
Although Professor Wilson’s research focuses on the 1920s, it resonates, she says, with present-day debates about opera – and indeed the arts in general – and accessibility.
“I think that if we’re to understand or even to combat cultural stereotypes that have powerful social implications today, it is important to interrogate their historical roots – to understand how they were created and how they were sustained.”
Professor Wilson describes herself as “a passionate advocate of opera for all” and says she hopes on one level that her documentary will simply get more people listening to the genre.
She says, “I want to break down the boring stereotypes that surround opera and I hope that the main thing my documentary shows was that going to the opera in the 1920s was really good fun, as it still is today.”
Professor Wilson first became aware of the British Academy’s funding schemes through information supplied by Oxford Brookes University and says her Mid-Career Fellowship was invaluable in helping her to achieve her project’s aims.
“The main thing that the British Academy Fellowship gave me,” says Wilson, “was time. It allowed me to take a year’s sabbatical during the 2014-15 academic year, which was a much-needed respite from teaching and administrative duties. It was great to be able to immerse myself in the primary sources for a year and to have a prolonged and uninterrupted period of writing, knowing that the full-time lecturer who replaced me was holding the fort.”
Professor Wilson is currently putting the finishing touches to the book she has written based on her Academy-funded research (Opera in the Jazz Age: Cultural Politics in 1920s Britain), which will be published in Autumn 2018 by Oxford University Press, and is also writing a book for general readers about Giacomo Puccini's famous opera, La bohème.
Moving forward, she hopes to investigate how debates about opera developed in the United Kingdom over the course of the 20th century.
“I would be really interesting in joining up the dots between the 1920s and the present,” she says. “I want to understand how, when and why opera and other artforms came to be seen as 'elitist', which is a cliché that I think does a terrible amount of harm to the cause of artistic accessibility.”
‘A Flapper’s Guide to the Opera’ will air on BBC Radio 3 on 22 October 2017 as part of the BBC’s Opera Season, which will include new films, documentaries, performances and special projects across BBC Two, BBC Four, Radio 3 and BBC Arts Digital.
British Academy Mid-Career Fellowships are designed both to support outstanding individual researchers with excellent research proposals and to promote public understanding and engagement with humanities and social sciences.