Michael Henderson

Let’s hear it for elitism

Katherine Jenkins is wrong: great art matters, and requires great artists

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Last month, on the most glorious of autumnal days, the world of music paid its last respects to Robert Tear. St Martin in the Fields was packed and the singing, as you can imagine, was magnificent. Sir Thomas Allen gave us Kurt Weill’s ‘September Song’, Sir John Tomlinson contributed Sarastro’s aria from Zauberflöte, and Dame Janet Baker read a poem by Emily Dickinson. It was some send-off.

Bob deserved no less. As well as being one of the finest tenors of the past half-century, he was a man of many accomplishments, not the least of which, as his agent Martin Campbell-White said in a splendid address, was being ‘effortlessly friendly’. A fellow of King’s, Cambridge, he was utterly without malice or pomposity. Any conversation with him could take in Four Quartets, Welsh rugby, Buddhism, Schopenhauer, and the foibles of his colleagues: ‘My dear, he really is the most frightful shit!’

On one thing he never budged: why great art matters. He would talk brilliantly about ‘the mediocre taste of the multitude’, not in a sneering way, but because he had dedicated his life to an exploration of music, and he knew how precious a gift music is. So I thought of him last week when Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins, self-styled ‘opera singers’, formed a two-pronged attack on a world they clearly despise.

Master Boe, who has at least undertaken a couple of major roles in British houses, played the Wat Tyler card. ‘I don’t believe,’ he said, ‘in the class system of the operatic world.’ Miss Jenkins, who has never sung an operatic role on a professional stage, denounced those stuffed shirts who ‘want to keep opera small and elitist, and I think it should be for everyone’.

Boe has previous, having complained in the past that opera is ‘boring’. Some people might say the same of stamp-collecting, bird-watching or train-spotting. For somebody who trained as an opera singer to speak so lightly of an art form that gave the world Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Janacek, among many others, beggars belief. He could hardly look more stupid if he walked across Waterloo Bridge at midday wearing only a toga.

As for Miss Jenkins, has any singer benefited quite so obviously from the technology of the modern recording studio? Unfazed by the absence of any discernible talent, this decorous lightweight has entered the realm of fantasy: one day, apparently, she wants to give the world her Carmen! Imagine if a club cricketer told his team-mates that he intended to open the bowling for England against Australia at Lord’s, and you have some measure of the lady’s self-delusion.

Mr Boe and Miss Jenkins may consider themselves to be opera singers who have been snubbed by snobs. In the real world of opera, which, oddly enough, is more interested in the exploration of high talent than media manipulation of pretty boys and girls, they are regarded as no more than end-of-pier crooners.

If this bedraggled group ever gathered under a single banner, it would probably read: opera for the masses! But opera was never intended to be a mass activity. You may as well demand ballet for the masses, theatre for the masses, or even jazz for the masses. Some things are more difficult than others, and cutting them into bite-sized chunks for the benefit of the incurious will not make them more digestible.  

Opera, thank goodness, is the enemy of accessibility. It can only prosper if there is an elite, based on the honing of skills and a capacity for hard work. In that regard it is like top-level sport, the main difference being that fans of Premier League football clubs spend far more money following their hobby in the course of a year than most opera-goers spend on theirs. If this is ‘elitism’, let’s hear three hearty cheers.

It isn’t elitism, of course; not in a social sense. Those great knights of the lyric stage, Tom Allen and ‘John Tom’, and that great lady, Janet Baker, all emerged from humble backgrounds in, respectively, County Durham, Lancashire and Yorkshire. No matter what inverted snobs may say, the only thing that matters is talent and appetite.

Opera is the silliest art form known to man. Its plots are frequently absurd, and the words that singers are required to declaim are often preposterous. Yet it can also be the greatest of art forms, which is why some of us will pursue our odd habit. Boat-rocking class warriors beware. Peter Shaffer found the appropriate words for you lot in Amadeus, his celebrated play about some boring Austrian composer who never wrote a tune in his life: ‘Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you all.’