Tuesday 16 August 2016

Why not an afternoon at the opera?

West Green Opera
The gardens of West Green House, setting for West Green Opera
Last month we attended a performance of Gounod's La Colombe (see my review) at West Green House as part of the annual West Green Opera season. The performance was a matinee, so we arrived early enough to have a delightful lunch, followed by a walk round the garden. After the opera there was time for a further perambulation and afternoon tea. Altogether a lovely way to attend the opera. All this set me thinking, why is opera-going so resolutely an evening activity.

Perhaps it is all Wagner's fault, with his insistence that audiences should sit in the dark? Or perhaps it is the association of opera going with aristocratic social activity. The Grand Seasons at Covent Garden happened during the Season and were part of the aristocratic social round.

But many operas do not easily fit into this mould. Witness the fact that baroque opera has to be routinely cut to fit the evening time slot, or suffer the indignity of having the act structure re-shaped with just a single interval.

Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano - Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano
Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Covent Garden does offer matinee performances of operas occasionally, and for the longer works these prove to be very popular indeed when booking opens for members of the Friends of Covent Garden. But there will be, at most, a single matinee during the run of an opera. Yet attending a matinee starting at 3pm and finishing at 8pm is attractive to many, and would seem to make a great deal of sense for a longer opera.

I have never understood why more summer festivals do not embrace this model. Do we really need a 90 minute dinner interval inserted into an opera, thus unbalancing the act structure considerably. At Buxton this summer, Handel's Tamerlano (see my review) was performed cut, with just one interval, so it fitted into a three hour time slot. A significant number of the attendees were in Buxton for a few days, so how much more civilised to offer performances relatively uncut with two intervals, running from 3pm to 8pm.

Like baroque opera, Wagner is a particular problem and performances in the theatre have to start very early or finish very late. It has always struck me that it would seem to be far more civilised to start Gotterdämmerung after lunch and run on into the evening.

As society becomes far more varied, with the standard nine to five job replaced by more flexibly working, surely it is time for opera companies to experiment with opera presentation. But audiences need to get out of the mind set that opera must be an evening out.

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