I am an opera-lover, and enjoy many wonderful nights at the opera every year. However, these evenings are actually spent at home, in preference to Covent Garden (ROH) or the Coliseum (ENO). This is because the overall experience of home opera seems preferable in almost every respect. So nowadays I hardly ever go to the ‘real thing’. I should explain that I have a loft in my semi-detached home in West London, with a large TV and a Hi-Fi system with speakers either side of the TV. I also have some low staging blocks which elevate a row of seats at the back, so that 12 people can sit in comfort.
My wife and I started our home opera club 9 years ago, when she was ill, and was forbidden to travel into Central London on medical grounds. Since then we have had monthly opera evenings, or about 100 operas in all, including four Wagner Ring Festivals with the operas viewed on successive evenings. Our audience ranges from 9 to 12 for each opera, and we naturally have a liberal supply of wine and food to complement the opera. The evenings are simply idyllic – I can’t think of any better word to describe them – and really do compare favourably with those spent at ROH or ENO, or anywhere else for that matter. It is worth listing the advantages, although most are self-evident. These are as follows :
Total choice of opera and date. There is a huge range of opera performances now available on DVD and Blu-ray, covering virtually the entire repertoire. There is no need to wait for a rare ‘live’ performance of a particular opera, and one can explore the whole gamut of the art form.
Wide choice of singers, conductors and productions. There are at least 20 available versions of the most popular operas, and one can therefore enjoy most of the great artists of the past 40 years, singing in their prime, and usually giving their best performances, with no risk of cancellation due to a sore throat ! And one can choose between different opera houses, conductors and production styles, and in particular one can avoid the increasingly absurd productions which have almost become the ‘norm’ in recent years. We find ourselves concentrating mainly on productions from before 2000 for this reason.
Better visual experience. The ability of home opera to provide close-ups of the main protagonists is a huge asset, only rivalled by a seat in the front stalls at the opera house. And the provision of subtitles on the screen means that the performance can be enjoyed without the distraction of repeated glances upwards to read the surtitles – again a considerable advantage in practice.
Better sound and musical experience : With a good HiFi system the sound on most DVDs and Blu-ray discs is certainly preferable to the sound in the amphitheatre at Covent Garden, which is ‘boxy’ and unsatisfactory. The difference in clarity and volume is most obvious in the overture, where the orchestral sound quality is clearly superior to the ‘live’ experience – certainly in the amphitheatre. I accept that the sound in the front stalls is also excellent but few can regularly afford to sit there.
Better seating Sitting in an cosy armchair at home, with a glass of wine to hand, is an infinitely better experience than sitting cramped up in the amphitheatre, with an obese stranger invading one’s ‘personal space’ all evening !
Better start and end to the evening : The journey from my West London home into Central London will typically begin at around 5 pm, and the journey home will involve a dispiriting tube journey along the Central Line with assorted drunks, arriving home tired and depressed, about 11.45 pm. It’s either a mildly, or very, unpleasant end to the evening, regardless of what went on before.
Less expensive : Most DVDs and Blu-rays cost about £15-30, compared with the cost of two tickets at Covent Garden, which with travel, programme and drinks will be at least £120, and more likely to approach £200. I have put this factor at the end of the list, because, in my case, it is not the prime mover.
Disadvantages of home opera :
Missing the ‘frisson’ of a ‘live’ experience. This is obviously a potential disadvantage. Occasionally evenings in an opera house can ‘take off’ in a special way. Hearing a young singer making their first mark on the opera world is exciting, and some say that encountering the various different singers is perhaps the main attraction for going to ROH, perhaps to see yet another performance of Boheme, Traviata or Figaro in a familiar production. I am unsure whether the same performance, seen at home if/when the recording is released, would have quite the same impact. I suspect it will be pretty close, but admittedly there is some alchemy in being there when it actually happens. However, a more common experience is to be irritated beyond belief by an absurd production – but that’s a topic for another blog !
Missing the social scene. Many people go to the opera for the social occasion rather than for the opera itself. This has always been the case, and is fine. Enjoying a drink and good company with friends in an attractive environment is an important part of any opera evening. However, watching the opera at home with a dozen close friends, rather than casual acquaintances, all of whom are interested in opera, is an immensely social experience, and we inevitably enjoy lively discussions about all aspects of the performance in the intervals and the end, lubricated by much wine and food. It doesn’t get any better than this !
Neglecting to support the ‘live’ opera scene. I do feel guilt about this, which is why I am still a ‘Friend’ of the ROH. Opera does need active support if it is to survive as an art form for future generations to enjoy. It would be disastrous if my pattern of operatic experience were widely adopted. However, I do think that at least some of the blame must be taken by those in charge of our opera companies, aided by opera critics, who pour scorn on ‘traditional’ productions – i.e. those aiming to emulate what the composer intended. I feel that opera has to some extent lost its way over the past 10-20 years. But as stated previously, that’s another topic, for a separate blog.
So I am very happy with my opera-‘going’ at the moment – which in practice is opera-‘staying at home’ ! If you are, like me, primarily interested in the opera itself, rather than the social scene surrounding it, then I would suggest that a home opera club experience is the equal, and in my view markedly superior, to ‘live’ operas at ROH and ENO. I realize that this will be an unpopular view, particularly to the opera establishment. Anyway, you might like to try setting up your own opera club. You may find, as I have done, that it is a life-enhancing experience.