In George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, Henry Higgens attempts to pass off a humble cockney flower girl as a Duchess by teaching her perfect diction. The young Eliza Dolittle goes from pauper to aristocrat and succeeds in fooling the establishment at a high society garden party. In many ways, my girlfriend has managed much the same feat and must understand the feeling of satisfaction that Higgens feels towards the end of the play. After six or so years, she has managed to convert a lumbering ox like myself into something close to a cultured gentlemen, despite various lapses into drunken buffoonery. The culmination of all her effort was to be found last night, sitting high in the top tier of the Nürnberg theatre, scratching his head and wondering how the hell he found himself watching an opera.
Ok, full disclosure. Obviously I’m not a totally uncultured cretin, although I can certainly be accused of my fare share of cretinous actions. The very fact I chose to reference Pygmalion rather than the myriad of alternative options (Pretty Woman, Trading Places etc) shows I have a fairly strong sense of middle class pretension. However, I much prefer what some narrow minded persons might term low culture with video games, movies and TV being high on that list. Up until last night, opera was not an art form that I had considered to be of interest. When I told my friends of my plans for Sunday, I half joked that my only experience had come from watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. That is also not strictly true as I had also encountered Carmen: a hip-hopera many years ago while flicking through TV channels.
What I knew of opera, or at least what I thought I knew, was that it was the sole preserve of the upper classes. People of Britain are inherently class conscious, even if we have trouble understanding the terminology. Although I am certainly middle class, I would have argued in the past that those who watched opera were either snooty upper class types or those who aspired to be as such. Of course, I realise this made me as narrow minded as those who disdain the wonders of Bioshock: Infinite or Breaking Bad, but life is full of contradictions. Opera isn’t marketed at people like me, at least not in Britain. Thankfully, to some extent, Germany is different.
There is some concept of class in Germany, but it doesn’t pervade life in quite the same way. It certainly doesn’t prevent you from enjoying art and culture. Here in Nürnberg at least, there are monthly efforts to open culture to the masses via free events which range from art, music, film or all three. Even those events such as going to the opera are accessible, with ticket prices that can come as cheap as a ticket to the cinema. Looking around the audience last night, before the show started, I was struck by the wide cross section of society. Although my girlfriend had insisted I wear a suit with the question “if you can’t dress up for the opera, where can you?”, there were people happily sitting in jeans and t-shirt. I was also surprised to see so many teenagers settling into their seats. It seemed that all were welcome to enjoy something that many in Britain might feel was simply above them.
Certainly, “high culture” such as the opera is more accessible here in Germany, but that’s not to say it was an easy two hours. Opera is an art form that is very much of its time. The themes may be universal, but it takes some time to get used to a character taking half an hour to die, while simultaneously warbling their discomfort. However, efforts were made to help everyone understand the narrative, with subtitles provided to translate the Italian lyrics. My only issue was the lack of interval, which made certain parts feel more excruciating than was required. Overall though it was an interesting experience, one that I hope to repeat. Sadly my girlfriend is a little less open to my own cultural tastes. After expressing my enjoyment on the walk home, I suggested we have an exchange of sorts; I’ve watched the opera, so now she should watch Star Wars. Her non committal “hmmmmmm” suggests I may have my work cut out. At least my idea has ice cream half way through.