Continuing on the theme of “things I would never normally do but that my bucket list forces me to try”, I went to the opera last week!

Ah, the opera.

Specifically the English National Opera, to see their production of Carmen on opening night.

Like much of the population, I’ve heard of Carmen through films, books, TV adaptations (even that hip-hop version starring a pre-Lemonade Beyonce), and music from the opera has infiltrated pop culture for decades. I mean…

That being said, I’m not sure I could have told you the actual plot of Carmen, beyond that it’s about a woman that seems to have an eventful dating life in 1820. Not particularly relatable… until I saw that the English National Opera were running an adaptation transported to 1970s Francoist Spain, which was, conveniently, also being sung in English.

Opera is still seen by a lot of people – rightly or wrongly – for being an artform beloved of the upper classes. When I told my colleagues I was skipping post-work drinks to go to the opera, the reactions ranged from laughter to bemusement, to, well, shock (which I’m trying not to take personally, and that I’m trying to also tie up with the admission I was going to the opera, rather than skipping an opportunity for alcohol). I’m still not sure why opera’s received this reputation over the years, but I have to say that the English National Opera is doing a phenomenal job at making opera accessible for 21st Century crowds.

From the under 21s scheme (where anyone under the age of 21 can attend for free!) to the reduced price tickets for those up to the age of 35 (score!), it’s evident that the ENO are passionate about showing young people that opera is just as relevant in 2023. I let out a sigh of relief when I found out that the operas were being sung in English (apparently many operas were sung in the language of the country they were appearing in, right up until the 40s!), as well as the, frankly genius, inclusion of subtitles above the stage so we knew exactly was being sung. Meaning that even an opera newbie like me, with no idea of the plot of Carmen before going, could suss out what was happening.

So, what about the opera itself?

This production of Carmen, as mentioned above, was set in 1970s Francoist Spain, towards the tail-end of the regime. I honestly wasn’t expecting it to work as well as it did, but, well, look at it!

The following images are from the 2023 production I saw – Ginger Costa-Jackson played Carmen, and Sean Panikkar played Don Jose, her lover. Plus there were a lot of kids and old cars.

I’m not about to do a spoiler alert – even for an opera that’s been around since 1870 – but I managed to follow everything and was truly gripped by the end (despite the occasional Cheer Up Charlie). It was well acted, the singing was obviously phenomenal, and the production just felt incredibly, well, modern. Maybe it was the language shift, maybe it was the fact it took place in the 1970s, but it just felt fresh and new.

So, would I go again?

I would… but I think I’d be picky about the next opera. I loved Carmen, don’t get me wrong, but I think I loved it because it was a bit different to all of the other more traditional operas (or, at least, what most people think of when they think of opera – stuffy and difficult to understand). I’m not honestly sure I’d love something like Don Giovanni or the Marriage of Figaro quite as much (no shade, Mozart), but who’s to say, I could be surprised…

I will, however, leave this quote from the always-correct-source, Wikipedia:

“The Metropolitan Opera in the US (often known as the Met) reported in 2011 that the average age of its audience was 60. Many opera companies attempted to attract a younger audience to halt the larger trend of greying audiences for classical music since the last decades of the 20th century. Efforts resulted in lowering the average age of the Met’s audience to 58 in 2018, the average age at Berlin State Opera was reported as 54, and Paris Opera reported an average age of 48. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has suggested that “companies inordinately beholden to standard repertory” are not reaching younger, more curious audiences.”

Try the opera next time you fancy a night out. Who knows, you may enjoy it!

R x

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