Standing ovation. After three hours of soaring sopranos, resonant baritones and everything in between, Paris’s Bastille Opera house comes alive. On this warm evening in the twilight of spring, the audience is enthralled by a performance of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini – a saucy tale inspired by the romantic memoirs of a Florentine sculptor. The whole spectacle was set against an ornate mise-en-scène featuring a giant golden head and penis.
There are a surprising number of young faces, nestled among the immaculately turned out crowd. About a third of the audience members here are under 30.
“I guess curiosity brought me here this evening,” says Camille, a 24 year old musician, adding, “You can get decent seats for €30-40 which really helps a lot.”
Opera has traditionally been seen as the preserve of the ‘elite’ – an art form enjoyed by wealthy older sections of society. It began in Renaissance Italy as a way for “Grand Dukes to impress other Grand Dukes,” according to social historian, Daniel Snowman.
In Paris today, Opera is becoming steadily democratised. Split between Le Palais Garnier and L’Opera Bastille, the National Opera of Paris attracted 95,000 audience members below the age of 28 last season. The average operagoer in Paris is 48, not far from the median age of a French citizen – 41. The French capital’s opera scene defies the worldwide trend of aging audiences.
Special tariffs aimed at making the opera affordable are key to youth engagement. “I never go to opera paying the normal price because I simply couldn’t.” says Barthélemy, a 22 year old singer attending the show with a cheap last minute ticket.
But it is the apparent magic of opera that enchants young people into returning.“Opera is special,” says Maria, a filmmaker who first went to a performance aged 30. “The music is an expression that touches. It gives me emotions, makes me reflect and makes me feel things. It gives me a great pleasure – the pleasure of existence.”
Another audience member, a 32-year-old business manager named Caroline, explained that after attending an opera performance in Italy last summer, she was left so ecstatic that she spent the rest of the evening “dancing in the street.”
Even 10 year olds are getting hooked. Ulysses, a young schoolboy attending the performance with his dad explains simply, “I like the opera. Duhhh, it is opera – it has a big structure, grand and beautiful.”
He has already seen a production of Le Comte Ory and was familiar with the works of Hector Berlioz. “My dad made me listen to it and I liked it,” he said.
With names like Ulysees and Camelot and jobs in luxury marketing and banking, these young people undoubtedly come from a certain milieu. But their presence in such large numbers is surprising.
According to Snowman, “Opera houses are desperate to try and attract audiences that will still be there in the future, when people like me are dead and gone.”
With government subsidies falling, the pressure on these institutions is immense. Snowman cites the mass closure of opera houses in Italy since the 2008 financial crash as evidence of this. With young audiences the key to survival, opera has forcibly become more inclusive. “We have cheap tickets and you can turn up in jeans, no problem,” he said.
But Dr Alexandra Wilson, a cultural historian at Oxford Brookes University, refutes this idea.
“At the beginning of the twentieth century we find people fretting about the probable death of opera because it only appeals to older people and those people will die out – but that has never happened,” she said.
However, Wilson also believes that opera is falsely perceived as elitist because of pricing. “It can often be cheaper to buy a ticket for the opera than for a concert by a headline rock artist, or for a premier league football match or another high-profile sporting event. Expensive clothes or watches are never seen as elitist, but as aspirational,” she said.
The velvety plushness of many European opera houses can give a contrary impression. But with a growing young audience and the decentralisation of performances into cinemas – and even pubs – opera has never been more accessible.
Sam Bradpiece, Luis Jachmann and Luis Miguel Cabrera explored the reasons behind the surging enthusiasm for opera, among the young people of Paris.