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Can opera be cool again?

What do you think of when you hear the word 'opera'? Do you think of extravagant, antiquated institutions ruled by despotic directors and racked by competing egos? Do you think of fat ladies singing?

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Lucia di Lammermoor, Deutsche Oper. Photo by Betina Stoess

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘opera’? Do you think of extravagant, antiquated institutions ruled by despotic directors and racked by competing egos? Do you think of fat ladies singing? Do you think of auditoria populated by cruising gays, bored school kids and elderly people on their quarterly evening out?

For many, a suit and a superior income bracket are prerequisites for a trip to the opera – but with rock concert tickets now routinely closing in on €100, and many of the rockers themselves well over 40, maybe it’s time for a reappraisal? Back when this crazy new art form was being forged in the heady, oversexed courts of 16th century Florence, opera was cool. Everyone in Europe with more florins than sense had to build his or her own ludicrously grand opera house and fill it with castrated boys. Germany was not spared: baroque follies dot the country – and the music that emanated from them has formed a vital part of its rich cultural heritage. But is the genre still relevant and, if so, to whom? Is the fact that ‘opera’ is now also an alternative web browser a signal of its doom?

Moving opera out of the house

One of the main stumbling blocks is that the art form itself has not developed much since the late 19th century, nor has it properly capitalised on the advances in computer, lighting and film technology. And to top it all off, the atonal, or tuneless, musical language favoured by modern composers has not helped win new friends. Still, there are signs of a renaissance. Pierre Boulez, the French avant-garde composer who once declared opera “dead” has recently admitted that he is considering writing one – though not for an opera house: zany locations are the trend du moment. Enterprising Berlin producers like Christoph Hagel, who staged Mozart’s Magic Flute in the U-Bahn and Don Giovanni at E-Werk nightclub, have proved that this is a good way to get less wrinkly bums on slightly odder seats.

Modernized settings, sexier stars

And why not set ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ in a concentration camp (as Hans Hollmann did in Basel), or Verdi’s Rigoletto amongst 1940s New York mafiosi (as Jonathan Miller did at the English National Opera). Relocating old classics to challenging historical periods is commonplace these days, and has helped spark the imagination of a more contemporary audience.

In Berlin, the Komische Oper has done the most to redefine itself for a younger demographic, pushing aside the overweight prima donnas for a more lissom set of heroines. But last season, the Staatsoper’s world premiere of Hölderlin was an example of experimental opera at its best: starting with the universally alluring theme of existential angst, Peter Mussbach and Peter Ruzicka built a fascinating show where no single element dominated any other – computerised lighting F and audio effects were combined with a marvellous, atmospheric chorus and orchestra.

The music had the immediacy and power of a film score; monotony was avoided by alternately speaking and singing the text. Even the most exclusive Berliner hipsters with the floppiest, most triangular haircuts would have agreed that this was pretty neat. Unfortunately, few of them were there to applaud the effort.

Perhaps the way to get out of the old-age pensioner ghetto is to adopt sexedup communication strategies: the Deutsche Oper has been giving its marketing a definite edge by employing the star photographer André Rival. His images of top model Nadja Auermann dressed as famous opera characters looked resolutely cool. They liked the idea so much that they’re now continuing with TV star Barbara Schöneberger, who, despite her resemblance to a bosomy old-school soprano, doesn’t look so bad either. But let’s face it, old people still dominate the house’s audiences. “To relax, 20- to 40-year-olds still prefer traveling or partying. It’s only much later, once they have established themselves, that they appreciate a night at the opera,” says Felix Schnieder-Henninger, press officer at the Deutsche Oper.

The most elevating of all artistic experiences

Opera is a difficult and fragile art form: it involves up to 500 artists and technicians in a complex fusion of arts and technology. It can turn to farce in an instant – a horse takes a dump onstage at a moment of dramatic tension, or a soprano who asked for extra mattresses to cushion her final, suicidal plunge from the castle ramparts, bounces back into view to general hilarity (as, according to legend, Stella Roman once did at the end of Tosca). But this quasi-circus in posh surroundings can deliver evenings of perfection: an aria can reduce audiences to tears. And when everything concords, the miracle can finally take place – turning your evening at the opera into the most complete and elevating of all artistic experiences.

So can opera be cool again? Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles definitely thinks so. People’s prejudices are the main obstacle. After all, no one cares if you wear jeans and it doesn’t have to be expensive. If you are under 30, why not invest in a Classic Card (€15) and get in for €10? If you have never been to the opera, get advice about what to watch and go. Hardly any other city in the world offers as much choice and better access to this strange and wonderful art form.