The splendidly named writer Robert Thicknesse has long been an evangelist for opera, the most maligned of art forms. But, he’s beginning to wonder, what’s the point of it all? Has he been defending the indefensible?

I’ve been writing about opera for about a decade now, and over the years, as I’ve watched one companion after another’s eyes glaze over, or close gently, during a show, I have begun to wonder: what if I’m wrong about this? What if it actually is all rubbish, self-indulgent, glittery, adolescent, incontinent, with a vastly inflated view of its own importance? Can opera ever be more than a diversion for people with too much money and too little taste? And was it ever intended to be, anyway? Opera’s latest defence mechanism is a retreat into high camp best summed up by Rufus Wainwright’s recent quasi-opera Prima Donna, a piece that enshrines the extraneous things that have become the point of opera for many of its audience. It took a critical pasting because many of the critics are in the business of convincing themselves that opera is actually something else – a notable forum for discussing issues of great contemporary moment, for example. “Attacking me for using cliché in an opera about opera is absurd,” says Wainwright. “Cliché, camp and sentimentality are cornerstones of the form and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”

Is Robert Thicknesse playing the role of agent provocateur hoping to get droves of opera haters to defend an art form that they have absolutely no interest in – for the sake of defending art? Such a ploy must surely be doomed as very few are interested and many perceive it as a bourgeois art form to be enjoyed by bankers.

If it is not a ploy, should we then take what he says at face value? If one does that, then one really wonders at his critical acumen. Is he tired of the buildings, the opera-goers, and the marketing, rather than the art form itself? Seems he is. Even the Viennese writer Karl Kraus (one of the most cynical writers who ever penned a feuilleton) was capable of appreciating operetta – which is for some a watered down or dumbed down version that sits between opera and the musical. However, like Thicknesse, Kraus was merciless when it came to satirising the “Opera World”. I think one can be adult enough to separate the two. I can enjoy art without bothering to think of all those odious people in Japan, New York or Moscow buying the art works, or those imbibing wine and chattering about taxes spoiling their weekends. I think that opera transcends their values and lifestyles. It has its roots in what after all was seen to be an entertainment for the people, its themes a distillation of the sentiments and melodrama of ordinary people.

It was a subversive art form. It has tremendous potential in the postmodern period for providing a locus for all art forms. Why not defend that? Why not promote that? Instead of going for an ideologically safe approach, and say opera is exclusive.

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