Monday, 1 March 2010

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star, where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods.

In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is:
  • Mediocre music
  • Melodramatic plots
  • Amateurishly hammy acting
  • A forced and unpleasant singing style
  • Ridiculously over-supported by public funds
I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some expansion. There is no doubt that opera is heavily supported by public money. And there is no reason for it. Opera lovers argue it needs to be shored up financially because the stars are expensive, and so is the orchestra. Exactly the same argument applies to West End musicals - but no one suggests we should subsidize them. Cancel the subsidies. If opera is so wonderful, it can stand on its own financial feet.

Then there's that singing style. An opera singer just can't compare to a good soloist in a cathedral choir with pure tone and perfect enunciation. You can even make out the notes and the words better when most pop stars sing. I thought it was interesting on Pop Star to Opera Star that the couple of times Katherine Jenkins sang, I couldn't make out a single word - the words were lost in the tone. I'm not saying it's easy to sing like an opera star. But it's not easy to stand on one leg for three days in a row either. So? The fact is, opera style is wobbly with vibrato and sounds forced and bellowing. There was a historical reason for doing this, but it's not needed any more with modern sound systems. And don't get me started on opera singers trying to sing pop music or church music, while still employing an operatic voice. That is just unbelievably unpleasant.

Finally there are the composers. Yes, some great composers (Purcell and Beethoven, for instance) did venture into opera, but that was just as a sideline. The real, dedicated opera composers (Rossini, Verdi and Wagner to name but three) are, without exception, second rate. Don't get me wrong. They can pump out a good tune. But they are the exact parallel of an Andrew Lloyd Webber, and should be treated as such. They aren't in the same league as Byrd or Bach, for instance.

So there you have it. Opera. Badly sung, dated musicals pickled in very expensive aspic. What's not to like?

Please note - I know some people who sing opera or have operatic training and they are lovely people. It's not the people (with the exception of the more outrageous opera stars), it's the opera itself, and the way it is reverentially treated.


  1. I do partially agree with you, certainly about the subsidy. But opera attracts a sort of awe-struck devotion that no other art form I know of attracts. I've wondered why, but the fact remains - opera lovers are fanatics, so I'd lock your doors and bolt your windows for a while. They can be crazy!

  2. Brian, Brian, Brian! YES YES YES! Here I am, a fellow sufferer of opera, who lives with an opera NUT. I absolutely agree with you on EVERY point. Give me half an hour of it, and I won't be bothered, but SIX hours of Wagner is enough to be make me stabby.


    1. You're not the only one who's against opera. I'm also against mainly because of my least favorites. And those are two opera of China. These are them:

      1. Peking Opera

      2. Sichuan Opera

      The reason that those two opera are my least favorite is because the painted faces of its actors have horrified me since childhood. Thus, they're my least favorite things about China despite that country's being my second favorite of Asia and its being one of my fave nations in the world.

      Now that I told you all that, I want to thank you for being against opera.

    2. I so agree with you, Brian, my wife is an opera singer and in church I can't even hear myself think sitting next to her, I also know people who have moved to the other side of the church to get away from her!

  3. I was expecting to have to duck, Sue, but the truth must out. So far, though, my very small sample of two comments have been positive. If I were a character in an opera this would probably be a good enough reason for a quick aria of joy.

    I feel your pain, Lucy, I feel your pain.

  4. I agree with you completely. COMPLETELY. Well, almost - some of Mozart's opera music was lovely, and you could nver accuse him of being second-rate. However, I suspect balletomanes are worse.

  5. Henry - Mozart is a special case - though I will be arguing in a later post that he is over-rated.

    I don't think ballet fans push it in your face quite as much as opera lovers do. Also you can listen to ballet music and the radio and enjoy it, whereas with opera you have to listen to those opera singers!

  6. I have had a lively discussion on Facebook over this - thanks to Sarah J, herself a professional singer, for pointing out that Kathryn Jenkins is NOT an opera singer - apparently she has never sung in a performance of an opera, she just sings 'songs from the operas'.

  7. Serious music forms are a bit like chess, the more you understand them the more you enjoy them. I don't like opera and think it is over subsidised. I am, however, now a total jazz junkie but it took me years to start liking it.

  8. Yes, I agree. You can distill all the good bits of a 3 hour opera down to 15 mins and play it on David Mellor's show on classic FM, while you are doing the housework and it is fine. But put yourself back in the days when there were no CD's or radio. When you read books for enjoyment, possibly by candlelight. Somehow I feel, putting myself in this senario, I would quite like an evening at the opera house seeing a story brought to life with music and lighting and acting, and a chance to meet people. Maybe even today there are many who like to go out for an evening. Seems pretty harmless enjoyment to me? At least they generally don't blare their music out of car windows and we don't need to go to opera houses if we don't like opera. Also , many minority interests need funding or they will die out- no need to go into any of the more bizarre ones that sometimes get into the Mail..

  9. Dom - I don't deny anyone the right to be able to go out to opera of an evening if they want, as long as I'm not expected to subsidize it, or have it treated as great art on the TV and radio.

    It's true that many minority interests are funded - arguable whether or not they should be. But if they should, I'd be quite happy for the Royal Opera House to get, say, a £30,000 grant. Anything more is excessive.

  10. As an opera lover and a classical music lover I think your arguments are based on shoddy facts and more on personal taste.

    Firstly, Opera is a great art form. Created over 500 years ago, the fact that Opera is still going strong is a sign that it has staying power and as such is obviously up there in reverence as an art form.

    Secondly, you mention that "there is no reason for it [subsuidies]. Opera lovers argue it needs to be shored up financially because the stars are expensive, and so is the orchestra. Exactly the same argument applies to West End musicals - but no one suggests we should subsidize them". The same argument absolutely does not apply to West End musicals. They do not have an 80 piece orchestra to fund or the world renowned stars that make up the ranks of the great opera singers (Domingo does not come cheap)

    Thirdly, you mention how a good soloist in a cathedral choir is better than an opera singer and how the opera singer's sound is forced and unnecessary. You may think so because they have totally different styles of singing! And when I heard Susan Graham (one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos in the world) sing in a church and she sang like a soloist in the choir, because she didn't need to propel her voice over an orchestra. You also say that an Opera singer's sound is forced. It is the most free and natural of all types of singing. In fact, most opera singers can sing well into their seventies because the singing puts little strain on the chords. And how dare you say that the singers should use microphones! That takes away from the music and their voices are much better than the pop stars whoneed mics to actually get heard! Oh and by the way Maria Callas was one of the greatest actreeses of all time and she was an opera star so it's not all bad acting. Though some of the acting I'll admit is pretty poor sometimes.

    My biggest beef with your article though, is about the comparison of the . You are out of line saying that Wagner is second rate. He completely redefined music and his operas are some of the most powerful in the canon. Verdi is in the same league easily as Beethoven and his operas have more emotion than many plays and musicals. Incidentally have you ever heard Bizet`s or Gounod`s or Tchaikovsky`s operas? They are opera composers too who have written some of the most beautiful music ever! And heads up, Mozart is the greatest musician of all time and yet he was primarily an opera composer, yet you try in your other post to compare him to Andrew Lloyd Webber but he is still head and shoulders above the rest and his religious Exultate Jubilate is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. And no, all these composer's cannot be compared to Byrd or Bach because they are from totally different musical eras! Even Byrd and Bach cannot be compared for the same reason. The resources that Wagner had at his disposal were much different than Bach who had 1 trumpet in his orchestra!

    In conclusion, I belive your arguments are based on taste, not fact. I believe that opera should be subsidised. Did you know that at the MET ticket sales account for less than 50% but still, they get near full houses every day. In short it's the art form that's expensive but it is alive and well and very popular and should be subsidized!

    P.S: Handel was an Opera composer primarily and he is on par with Bach or slightly better in my Opinion.

  11. Pot, kettle Anonymous. I admit absolutely that what I've written is an opinion, rather than fact - but so is your contribution.

    I won't analyze it all, but 'Opera is a great art form' is absolutely a matter of debate. I'd say it's a second rate art form, on a par with stage musicals. To say it has been going for 500 years doesn't justify one opinion or the other. Football has been played for thousands of years in one form or another, but it's not a great art form. Dog fighting was carried on for well over 500 years...

    One other point I can't resist - I don't think you are even in line with general classical music opinion in saying Handel was 'slightly better' than Bach. Bach is generally accepted as one of the handful of greatest composers who ever lived. Handel simply isn't in the same league. (And of his works, his operas generally hold up least well.)

  12. I realize this isn't the most timely response to your article, but I feel duty-bound to say that I agree with you since, as you say, there seem to be so few willing to question opera as high art. Certainly, there is no shortage of people who object to opera, but it's refreshing to hear someone with a strong argument as to why, instead of those who are simply concerned about the stigma of enjoying something outside the pop culture norm. Worse are those who praise opera only to seem refined, as though mindlessly consuming opera is somehow more admirable than mindlessly consuming pop media. I'm sure for some hearing or watching opera does inspire profound emotional and intellectual reflection, and there is no doubt a great amount of effort in the creation of opera, but the former can be said of virtually any genre of music and (as you've pointed out) effort does not necessarily produce quality (conversely, neither does automation). Also, for opera lovers to insist that people are dimwitted or not credible critics of art, music or other, because others are not impressed by opera or because others are more impressed by other forms of music is incredibly insulting and itself culturally shallow.

    My criticism of opera is primarily of the sound. Opera's volume and tone is so consistently emphasized that the music is aggravating to hear, physiologically and psychologically speaking, for an extended period of time. Furthermore, I don't think the occasional memorable and enjoyable aria elevates its context, making the opera's story more than simplistic melodramatic rubbish. Some will argue that there is more to music than a pleasant sound - sure, but isn't sound the foundation of the medium? Why go to such lengths to justify something that on a basic level fails? I mean if the worth is in examining the art as something purely technological or mathematical or anthropological or whatever else, doesn't that just mean the art is superficial?

    I've struggled with a similar problem in studying film. Early film is absolutely worth examining academically to learn about historical perspective and the development of certain techniques, but that does not make a film good art. Too often enthusiasts ignore the major flaws of "classic" film, the most obvious problem being that many old movies relied on their novelty. They do not shine as narrative works and their presentation, now inferior rather than novel, no longer impresses most people. It's like arguing that cave paintings are superior to Michelangelo’s murals.

    Ultimately, my point is that it's fine to enjoy opera, but it's absurd to treat it like the be all and end all of musical expression. So many other forms of music are belittled or ignored in the process.

  13. As the anonymous poster, I was dismayed in your dismissal of my argument on the grounds that it was an opinion. I can assure you that with exception of the comparison of Bach and Handel, and my remarks on the acting of the singers which was based on my preference ( I don't like Bach very much.) And I was aghast when you compared Opera to stage musicals. Whats wrong with them! Stage musicals are also a venerable art form. Just because you are impartial to both forms does not mean you can dismiss reasoned factual evidence based on the fact that in your opinion they were matters of opinion which thay were not.
    I have many recordings of operas and I have been to a few. I would like to ask you how many have you been to and on what grounds do you dismiss my article. As your rebuttal said nothing that dislaimed my evidence I would like a full analysis and a reply to why my article was based entirely on opinion.

  14. I forgot to put this into my last post. You are wrong to think that Handel is in a different league than Bach. To say such a thing is an unmitigated travesty. I quote from the textbook, Music an Apprecition, page 196, "Handel shares Bach's stature among composers of the late baroque...the core of his huge output consists of English oratorio and Italian opera. You said yourself that Handel's operas hold up the least well, but that is simply not true.

  15. If I'm honest I'm a bit bored with this, but I will do my best.

    In reverse order, I am surprised by your statement about Handel, which isn't one I've widely come across. I'm not saying he wasn't a good composer, but he can't really rival Bach's output. If his operas stand up so well, why is it that they aren't on all the time? You can find Bach works being performed every day - I'm not sure the same is true of Handel operas.

    I don't understand your comment about Operas versus Stage Musicals. You say you are aghast at the comparison, and then you say 'What's wrong with them?' I didn't say anything was wrong with them, I merely suggest they are a comparable but money-making rather than loss-making form, which may suggest something about their relevance.

    I'd turn the question about opinion and fact around the other way. How can you say that assertions like 'Opera is a great art form' is a fact rather than an opinion. How can you measure the greatness of an artform? How can this be anything other than opinion?

    I would also point out:
    a) Most of the commenters agree with me. It seems opera's great popularity doesn't extend everywhere.

    b) It is interesting your refer to your comment as an 'article' and a 'post'. Please remember whose blog this is.

  16. Sorry, this was my first time leaving a comment. I'm sorry if I referred to article and post in the wrong way.

  17. Nietzsche shows exactly how artificial opera can be as an art form in the Birth of Tragedy.

  18. I suffered opera since I was a child.
    my mom is a fanatic and she really believes that "no-classic-like" musics are a piece of crap.
    Because of this, I can't turn on the radio in my house if it's not classic enough, and she really believes that other music genres are not culture.

    Oh, you see what a bad-actors when the opera is on the TV!??

    When the opera sounds, I can't think, and my brain is about to explote, like a TNT bomb , a virus, like the end of Mars Attack.
    thaNK you, someone else want to join the club "Opera get out of my life?".

  19. Appalling ignorance of classical music (its history) in general, and of opera in particular. The author has NO feel for the genre, and how could he possibly understand the funding side of things unless he loved the music? He doesn't, and his ignorance fuels his rant of public support. In Europe, where opera companies and orchestras receive state funding, culture is appreciated with an understanding of its true value. Worthless article.

  20. Dear Anonymous, someone with your obvious cultural depth will obviously understand what 'ad hominem' means and why intelligent people regard it as the most pathetic form of argument.

    I am also impressed with your psychic ability to deduce my ignorance or otherwise of the history of music from an item that isn't about the history of music. Marvellous.

  21. I too live with an opera nut. ALl I can say is opera makes my skin hurt.

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. I'm in my early 60s, and have loved classical music since I was 14. I used to hate opera, just as I have never liked musicals. Now I'm really enjoying it -- at least, enjoying certain operas.

    There has been great music written for opera. I'm partial to Puccini and, now, Wagner, whose music is as powerful emotionally as any written.

    And, yes, Wagner was one of the most important composers in the history of music. A course on 20th century music I took at Princeton University was taught by the late Miton Babbit, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He started the course with Wagner's Liebstod from Tristan and Isolde, to show the origins of chromaticism.

    I dare anyone to listen to Puccini's La Boheme and tell me it's not great music. It may not be innovative, but to me it's the apotheosis of Romanticism.

    I don't believe you can judge an art form on the basis of its worst examples. Also, remember that cultural values change over time -- we know that in medieval art, the human form wasn't "realistic". But once you accept the context of the conventions of the era, you can arrive at a deeper appreciation of the artistry.

    There are conventions in opera that reflect the cultural values of their time and place. With TV and movies, we don't relate as well to the caricature-like figures that appear on the opera stage. But most of the repertory is from other centuries, when there wasn't the technology to convey the level of realism ours can.

    What I'm saying is that it takes a while to immerse yourself in an opera to discern its artistry. It's like Shakespeare. If you're not familiar with the language of 16th-century England, you're going to have a very hard time getting what's really going on on stage, except the broadest actions, in, say Hamlet or King Lear.

    Bottom line: you cheat yourself when you apply 21st-century standards to works of art created in earlier centuries.

  24. Mark - I think that last comment 'you cheat yourself when you apply 21st-century standards to works of art created in earlier centuries' is a very valid one.

    But I equally can't divorce myself from my century - if it doesn't appeal now, perhaps it means it is past its sell-by date.

    I don't think Puccini is bad per se, just that it ought to be considered more like Andrew Lloyd Webber's stuff of its day than great music. I find it sugary and insubstantial - and the plots are still corny. So, on the whole, I remain unconvinced! But thanks for trying.

  25. What a terrible post. You deride the operatic style of singing by citing someone who's not even an opera singer - Katherine Jenkins. So you've proved there that you have no authority to comment on this subject. Absolutely pointless. This is the problem with the internet. It gives a voice to self-important, ill-informed heathens .
    Verdi and Wagner second rate composers? Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! That's the funniest thing I've heard all year

  26. Thank you, Anonymous for your carefully reasoned and cogent arguments. If this is the best opera lovers can do, it's no contest.

    A couple of quick points. Jenkins isn't an opera singer, but sings in an operatic style and often sings/records operatic arias. As far as Wagner being a great composer goes, I can only refer you to Rossini's famous remark.

  27. Brian

    I'm with you on this, it's just a pity with all blogs that the uber critical always want to remain anonymous....


  28. Your sarcastic put downs don't impress me. I think I've made a perfectly reasoned argument in that your opinion on opera singing can't be taken seriously for the afforementioned reason. you cited as an example someone who may have made the chorus in a second rate house but that's as far as it goes. As far as Rossini goes (I know brilliant moments and horrendous half hours), Wagner is a million times the composer that that empty, rum-tee-tum tune smith is. Understanding the true brilliance of a work like Tristan demands a certain higher mindedness that most people don't possess.

  29. I would absolutely agree that Wagner is a better composer than Rossini... but that doesn't make Rossini wrong. You don't have to be a great composer to know about music.

  30. Opera singers do not want you to make out every words... I actually prefer singers with big voice and vibrato over the pure tone you mentioned (not Jenkins, of course).

    Opera is all about being majestic, the acting, the costumes, make ups, and the voice. It is not intended in the first place for everyone to hear and understand, but only for certain group of people as it requires a lot to fully appreciate it. I obviously consider it a great form of art.

    If you hate it, I respect that, and I can see why with the reasons you gave, except one with it being mediocre. Other than that, it's what opera is, it is not supposed to be like the music you do like. And, one more thing, in my country where opera is unknown to most people, I still think you're lucky to have seen it enough to know you hate it.

  31. (listening to Siegfried while writing this)
    People who hate opera generally just have no idea what they're talking about. What Opera's have you heard? It doesn't count if you only listened to it once, to really understand an opera you have to hear it multiple times. Wagner is by far the greatest composer ever, but it took me a LONG time to start and appreciate his work. Likely, you just haven't listened to enough opera to really understand it.
    btw, opera is not just a great art form, it is THE GREATEST art form. by far.

  32. 'Opera singers do not want you to make out every words' - that's odds. Why wouldn't they?

    Actually Parsifal I did an opera class for a year, though admittedly most of the opera I have heard has been recorded rather than on the stage.

    To call Wagner the greatest composer ever is bizarre - I don't think anyone who really knows music could hear that and not giggle. I doubt if there are any music experts who would not rate Wagner well behind the likes of Beethoven and Bach.

  33. In fact, Wagner is considered up there with Beethoven and Bach. Even to this day we are heavily indebted to Wagners innovations in the theatre (such as dimming the lights) and his early use of dissonant harmonies. In fact, he was so influential that after his death composers would align themselves for or against his techniques. Mahler once said that there was Beethoven and Wagner, and after that no one else. So many musicologists would give him the credit he deserves.

  34. I can see how dimming the lights puts Wagner up with Beethoven and Bach. Seriously, though, dissonant harmonies were common in the seventeenth century, Wagner didn't exactly innovate in that respect. I love Mahler, but I would never put him in the first rank of composers, and I think anyone serious about music, as opposed to opera, would have a similar view.

    P.S. Why is it almost everyone who is positive about opera is anonymous? Does this tell us something? Are they embarrassed by it?

  35. Connor MacDonald14 October 2012 at 02:46

    Having read all the arguments for and against opera, I must side with the great art form. As a budding opera singer myself and as a classical music enthusiast, I find some of your arguments woefully shoddy when it comes dismissing opera as an art form.
    First of all, of all the great masters of the art of composition, them being the three B's (Beethoven, Bach and Brahms) along with Mozart, Handel, Wagner (yes, Wagner, I'll get to that in a minute), the only two to not have written opera have been Bach and Brahms. They all, however, have written pieces for the classical voice. These require the same technique vocally as do any piece of Opera, so dismissing opera on the quality of singing puts you on very shaky ground when it comes to classical music. I don't know a singing teacher alive who would not demand the same technique for Mozarts the Magic Flute that they dow of Bach's St Matthwe Passion.

    Furthermore, on the case of Wagner. It shows your ignorance of classical music that you dismiss him so quickly. It remains a fact that he marked the beginning of atonality in classical music, that his advancements to the theatre were vastly influential and that his music was imitated by composers as varying as Bruckner, Bernstein and Debussy. I find it odd that you dismiss this argument on the grounds that Mahler is not a first rank composer. To me this is a logical fallacy, simply because he influence people who in you view are second-rate, does not mean that Wagner himself was second rate. This would be like accusing Bach of being second rate simply because he influence second rate composers. I think Tchaikovsky (also an Opera composer) when he says that Wagner "was gifted with great powers of musical invention; he discovered new forms of his art; he led the way into paths until his advent unknown; he was, it may be said, a man of genius, capable of ranking amongst other German greats - Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann".

  36. Connor MacDonald14 October 2012 at 02:47

    (continuation of the other comment) I also know that you have a great disdain for Mozart, in your post when you compare him to Andrew Lloyd Webber. This simply does not hold up. The fact is Mozart wrote some of the most brilliant opera music, and I am backed up by many famous musicians. Below are some quotes:
    What gives Bach and Mozart a place apart is that these two great composers never sacrificed form to expression. As high as their expression may soar, their musical form remains supreme and all-efficient.
    - (Camille Saint-Saens)

    Mozart is the highest, the culminating point that beauty has attained in the sphere of music.
    - (Tchaikovsky)

    Mozart makes you believe in God because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and leaves such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces.
    - (Georg Solti)

    Mozart combines serenity, melancholy, and tragic intensity into one great lyric improvisation. Over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart's-the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering--a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.
    - (Leonard Bernstein)

    Now, you cannot expect me to believe that these people are all crazy. They clearly understand Mozart's music for what it is. Brilliance.

    Also, you mention many opera composers such as Verdi and Rossini as being second rate. I challenge you sir, to find one place in either of their body of works that does not show vocal writing of the highest quality. While you may not like the plot of their operas, this does not detract from the brilliant melodies that either composer was able to come up with.

    Finally, I find it interesting that you mention composers that only did Opera as a sideline. Does the fact that the composers that you like didn't really do Opera detract from it as an art song. That would be like me saying that all the composers I like (Mozart, Bach, Handel, Tchaikovsky, Wagner) didn't venture into German art song means that German art song is not great art. The fact is that many composers tried their hand at Opera while composing other works to name but a few (Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Bizet, Haydn, Gounod, Sain-Saens, Tchaikovsky.) All these composers saw Opera as a way to expand their repertoire and to prove themselves as artists. They would not have done this if they saw Opera as a useless past time.

    To conclude, Opera occupies a very important place in the canon of music. Whether you like it or not, you cannot underestimate its power or its influence to modern music. To deny opera it's place would be like denying the place of concertos. It would detract enormously to our cultural heritage and to our artistic experience.

  37. Actually likening Mozart to Lloyd Webber wasn't intended to show disdain. A lot of people like Lloyd Webber. And Mozart's A major piano sonata is one of my favourite pieces of music. I think my comments have to be seen in the light of this post - btw citing quotes from professional musicians is like asking policemen if they think the police did a good job at Hillsborough. You need to ask ordinary people, not pros with a vested interest.

  38. ... and Bach's St Matthew Passion should NOT be sung like opera. This is like playing Bach's music with a full modern symphony orchestra rather than a proper baroque sound. The voices should be like a cathedral choir, not opera singers.

  39. Connor MacDonald14 October 2012 at 15:12

    I fail to see how Tchaikovsky has any vested interest in Mozart's music. And for the St. Matthew Passion, I would refer you to every version ever made of this work. While opera may require a different interpretation, the fundamentals of singing remain the exact same. Obviously there are different stylistic interpretations in different time periods, the fundamentals of all forms of classical singing remain the same. I find it interesting that you also have nothing to say about my other arguments. Could it be that they are factually correct?

  40. No I'm just a bit bored with the subject. I refer you to the post I link to above. I'll stick with my ice cream, you stick with yours...

  41. Connor MacDonald16 October 2012 at 02:48

    But you see, I am not arguing that my ice cream is better than yours, you are arguing that. I am just sticking up for mine, and not saying yours is trash. All opera fans would appreciate it if you would do the same.

  42. This is my story !

    I first heard of Wagner when I read an article in BBC about Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries being the most "dangerous" song to play while driving. I had to listen. I thought.
    I hit YouTube and boy....that thing is powerful !
    Words can't describe how I felt. I could literally see the Valkyries riding on their awesome beasts to reap the souls of the fallen warriors...then I heard the most horrible sound on earth, the noise of an operatic singer. All the Valkyries and their horses ran for their life lol :D

    It was horrible :(
    Murdered that great piece of work.

  43. I stumbled upon your post, while looking for someone who isn't as thrilled by opera as most people seem to be. I remember walking out of Madame Butterfly because I didn't like it.
    Thankfully there is ballet, which I love!
    Thank you for this refreshing point of view on opera.

  44. Welcome to the 'I don't get opera' club Dasza. There are many more of us than will admit it.

    On ballet, Firebird and Rite of Spring are among my favourite pieces, and ballet is a great way to combine excellent music with visual spectacle. Nothing to argue with there!

  45. Hello Brian. I arrived here by googling "Why do some opera singers sound so bad?" I don't think they all do. Still, I am peeved by people who go to/ listen to opera as a marker of social class (wittingly or unwittingly). That's principally the reason I for so long refused to listen to it. Ditto Beethoven. I am nonetheless not really opposed to governments subsidizing art forms that are only of interest to a small sub-group of society, be it an upper-crust group. The problem then becomes one of fairness and democracy in allocating scarce ressources, a problem of politics rather than taste.

    But back to the question that landed me here. Maybe you or some of the readers could help me. I am interested in physical / physiological descriptions, explanations of these sometimes god-awful sounds as well as appropriate adjectives. You use "forced", yes, that's good. Have you got anymore? You compare opera singers to good singers in a choir who you claim have "pure tone", what is that?

    I associate the sound of operatic voices I don't like with sexual frigidity, stiffness, rigidity, inhibition, anxiety and fear. They are about as far from sensual, soothing, spiritual or soulful as it is possible to go. And my ears are far from, so to speak, "closed". I can and do listen to forms of song very distant in time and place from what is "natural" to me, i.e. Western European folk song.

    I am sure these operatic sounds I detest do have something to do with stiffness and rigidity in a very literal way. I remember when as a kid I played in the Three Penny Opera and one among us was a guy in operatic training. I noticed that when he sang his arms would grow incredibly stiff as if he were attempting to prevent himself from punching somebody. Strained, grating, tense, shrill, stilted...

    Anyone with interesting references and ideas about this can send them to me at

  46. P.s. It is almost impossible not to like The Flower Duet (Lakmé), Julia Migenes Johnson's singing in Carmen and much of Maria Callas.

    I began to be able to listen to opera after a strange experience. Went to what was billed as "contemporary" Brazilian at an embassy. Thought I was in for something with at least a little bit of popular Brazilian music or batucada so sat in the first row up front in the very middle. A woman emerged from behind a screen, stood directly in front of me (I could have reached out and touched her), opened her mouth and immersed me in operatic sound. I was horrified and terrified but too polite to get up and leave. It was in many ways like nustling up to a loudspeaker in a dance club to feel the sound pulse through your body. She broke my resistance and thereafter I began to be able to hear opera.

  47. Interesting comments, Eli. I'd say the principle differences between a good chorister and an opera singer is that the opera singer uses a lot of vibrato, which at its most extreme makes it quite difficult to know what note they are singing, and that opera singers for historical reasons are trained to project hugely - effectively to be doing the singing equivalent of shouting all the time. This used to be necessary to fill an opera house, but really isn't any more - it gives that big, chesty, roar of a sound rather than clear, pure notes.

  48. I love opera music, but I hate the
    staging. Scenery topples over, etc.

    I know you have to play the stuff,
    but I had to comment. My ideal
    program would be La Boheme, Parsifal, and well you get the idea

    Jerry O'Dell

  49. You're not the only one who's against opera. I'm also against mainly because of my least favorites. And those are two opera of China. These are them:

    1. Peking Opera

    2. Sichuan Opera

    The reason that those two opera are my least favorite is because the painted faces of its actors have horrified me since childhood. Thus, they're my least favorite things about China despite that country's being my second favorite of Asia and its being one of my fave nations in the world.

  50. Brian Clegg, you are immensely stupid.

  51. I feel that not many people on this post have mounted a very strong defence of Opera here, which I think is a bit of a shame, particularly in the face of what seem to be some very slapdash and worryingly popular criticisms of an entire art-form. On that note, firstly, if somebody else criticised the entirety of an art in such broad terms I think that there would rightly be howls of derision “literature is just bad, the words in the entirety of literature are self-evidently un-engaging” or something like that would not be a popular argument and yet Opera, which is essentially music-theatre (or at least its birth, since popular culture music theatre, west-end shows etc. come from a tradition of operetta, light-opera, which Opera gave birth to) seems to be tarred with one brush. There are plenty of Wonderful to great to good to mediocre Operas out there, although as it’s no longer flourishing as a pure artistic we tend to just hear what’s considered to be the great stuff from days of yore (Wagner…?!) I’ve listened to a decent amount of Opera and have heard quite a few that I thought were mediocre, for sure but they aren’t generally performed much these days anyway.

    Not to be unduly provocative but I think that Brian’s post is a little insulting to anyone who does appreciate Opera as an artform. I appreciate that the intent is to provoke a little bit, but the argument consists of a bunch of wild assertions which aren’t really backed up beyond an “I don’t really like it”. It’s fine not to like it, but if you don’t have anything more concrete to justify saying that something is terrible then it’s probably best left unsaid. I don’t happen to like Gregorian Chants much but I don’t have a case against them. I’m not much of a fan of Tarkovsky’s movies, finding them a little glacial, aloof and obtuse, but they strike a chord with a lot of cinephiles and plenty have written about how important they find them – I don’t have anything relevant to say about my anti-Solaris sentiment, it just wasn’t a piece of art that struck a chord with me, and for my money that’s what art is all about, a creation that works its way into the cultural consciousness that we interact with on some level.
    So, to address this points as best as I can

    -Mediocre music

    I think your justification for saying that the music is mediocre is that it is badly enunciated. That’s a quick dismissal of hundreds of years of composition. I feel that good diction is part of a good singer’s arsenal but I appreciate that not every syllable is always clear as a bell above a 50 piece orchestra. If this is too large a barrier to entry then fair enough but I don’t feel that this is enough to warrant the charge of mediocrity. You could take apart a typical Rossini aria and examine how finely structured it is. You could dissect, say, the finale of Don Giovanni or Marriage of Figaro and see how every note, harmony and so on ordered to create the right mood and effect in the right place, and to climax perfectly through a series of mini set-pieces. You could look at a famous aria from Tosca and ask yourself if the sweep and surge of the music is designed to create a particular moment that reflects the characters emotions or personality during an extended dram. You wouldn’t even scratch the surface of the complexity of the composition of some of these pieces so I’d suggest reading a book and taking the apart in ways I’m not capable of doing – you might still not like or enjoy them and that’s a valid response, but the charge of mediocrity is a tall one. What Opera is mediocre, and why? Are you really saying that Tosca, Marriage of Figaro and Wagner’s Ring Cycle are all mediocre and mediocre in the same way? They are examples of three masterpieces but which are all very different from one another

  52. -Melodramatic plots

    This sounds like the kind of criticism I heard growing up and coloured my response to the artform as a whole. It’s a typically ignorant working class dismissive response (of which I was one, so know the class and its habits fairly well). Does anyone even know what melodrama is anymore? I guess what you mean is overtly sensational with no emotional depth or range of character? If that’s the case then I can’t understand how anyone could sit through one of the great Operas and form this opinion. Just as a quick dismissal, one of Verdi’s masterpieces, Otello (Ok, my favourite Verdi) is a very close adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Whoever called Shakespeare melodramatic? Is the implication then that Verdi couldn’t do Shakespeare? Imo he captures the range of emotion, character and drama of Shakespeare very subtly and perfectly. It’s not the only Verdi opera based on Shakespeare – Macbeth is less successful, Falstaff, wonderful. Wagner’s opera tend to be based on ancient myths and legends. Tristam and Isolde, Parsifal, The Ring Cycle, to name but a few…. There’s not even the slightest hint of melodramatic here. They are often slow, steady and deliberate tales of people seeking redemption and suffering in sin and plagued with doubt. Wagner is particularly introspective and will spend 20-30 minutes on a particular situation or emotion and feeling. How does this fit melodrama? One of my favourites, Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier is a character study of an ageing countess who has to let go of her lover to a younger, more beautiful girl and in doing so realises that time is passing and we have to move on as we get older. How is this melodramatic? Simply, it’s not.

    What bothered me particularly about your argument here is the comment “I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident.” How can you make an argument about something fairly controversial and justify it by saying “it’s self-evident” and then continue as if nobody could ever have a retort. I covered the plot, but the acting? I’ve been to a lot of Opera and I’d say that the acting is often very fine indeed -as someone who watches a lot of movies too I’d say I appreciate fine-acting. It’s of a different mode because one has to project a lot of emotion and character through song as well as face, gesture, words, but expressive many are. Look at Angela Gheorghiu singing Sempra Libera at the end of Act 1 in La Traviata. It’s a famous performance, rightly, because gheorghiu manages to capture a range of conflicted emotions about a potential lover and her place in society through both song and expression, and movement. I’d argue that it’s acting of the highest calibre to do this.

    A forced and unpleasant singing style

    All singing is forced. It’s shaping sounds with air using your lungs to create sounds we wouldn’t otherwise make. I don’t really understand this objection at all. It certainly is highly deliberate as it takes a lot to create such a diverse range of sounds. I’d argue that Opera singing is using the voice as if it were another –lead- member of the orchestra which work together to create/harmonise a piece, as opposed to, say, pop singers who have a simple clear melodic line which is basically supported by something simple and unobtrusive. But that’s to suggest that all Opera is the same which it isn’t … that’s probably most true of, say Wagner.

    • Ridiculously over-supported by public funds

    This is not an argument which supports or denies the quality of Opera as an artform, ut simply states that you don’t like paying for it. Personally I’d like to pay to keep something so important to our cultural heritage alive and I’d make that argument for things I don’t personally care for that much too (not a big museum goer, for instance, but I think we should pay taxes to keep them open and free.

  53. Finally, just to address the Wagner argument – As someone who loves classic literature from Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Thackeray etc (yeah, bit traditional in my literary tastes, I guess) and has read a good deal to cinema from Welles, Hitchcock, Resnais, Godard, Tarantino, Kieslowski, Bergman and so on … I’d say out of all the art I’ve encountered in one form or another Wagner’s Ring Cycle is probably my favourite, both because I find it the most accomplished on a technical level, but also because I can think and think and think about it on an intellectual level, find it deep and challenging, and *also* because it hits me on an emotional level. I love Mozart, I love Beethoven, I love Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Verdi, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov etc etc I truly love them all and I’d say that Wagner so easily belongs in their company – or do they belong in his? I don’t think that one can objectively say that something is the best when one talks about these things, but to be so dismissive of someone who is so frequently considered to be one of the great artists is a bit baffling to me. I sat and watched the Ring Cycle over a four night period and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done artistically – I kinda feel a little sad that there are people out there so keen to lay it to waste. I suppose we all have things that we loathe (I can’t stand Wes Anderson movies – seriously – but I’d spend a lot of time justifying my position if I were discussing it, because he’s held in high regard. You really ought to come up with some solid justifications as to why Wagner is bad … I have no idea if you’ve listened to much (I say listened, it’s intended as equal parts drama/music).
    Ok, I think I’m done! *phew*

  54. Indeed, if you don't like the opera singers, you can still listen to Filippa Giordano haushaushaus... Sorry, everyone, didn't resist the joke.

  55. God don't get sucked in. I have sung some opera loooooove musical theatre, and give a thumbs up to anybody who has a go up on stage or in the choir loft. I wouldn't give a toss about some snotty blogger. Enjoy your opera. Relish it. Has our blogger ever sung a note under pressure?

    1. Hi Matthew - I'm not quite sure why you are commenting if you 'don't give a toss', but to answer your question, yes, I have sung in a Cambridge college chapel choir and a fair number of other choirs/solos since.

  56. I found your blog after a bad reaction to Britten's Billy Budd, yes another Saturday evening of protracted overdone screeching and mewling on radio 3. While I liked the comment above," There are conventions in opera that reflect the cultural values of their time and place. With TV and movies, we don't relate as well to the caricature-like figures that appear on the opera stage. But most of the repertory is from other centuries, when there wasn't the technology to convey the level of realism ours can." ,obviously, context is important, appreciation for the cultural history of opera, is'nt the same as liking it.It's all subjective and personal tastes differ. I'm going to saw away the branch on which I'm sat, by admitting that I've just the radio back on, BB's BB is still on, and the increased orchestration and diminished yelling have improved the music no end, and I like it.This is because I've always disliked strident melodramatic music, and these are two properties that opera employs in depth and scope. Which is possibly why both I and the author of this blog, if I understand him correctly,favour the tuneful Ness of baroque opera over the romantic and classical kind.