Last month, The Guardian newspaper featured a series of fiery altercations about the extent to which opera is inclusive. The BBC's Director-General Tony Hall had just announced “the strongest commitment to the arts we've made in a generation”, and coverage of the likes of Glyndebourne Festival featured strongly in his vision for the future. Novelist Stella Duffy responded promptly, calling for the promotion of more representative art, whilst columnist Catherine Bennett dubbed The Royal Opera House “stratospherically inaccessible”. Though The Royal Opera House's Kasper Holten weighed in to defend his institution, outlining the good work it does to appeal to new audiences, one feels that Bennett's and Duffy's reservations are far from atypical. “I've not been,” wrote Duffy on Glyndebourne. “Like many people born into working-class families in the 1960s, I have never felt I had much access to opera.”

Glimmerglass' OPERA-tion Arts © Brittany Lesavoy
Glimmerglass' OPERA-tion Arts
© Brittany Lesavoy

An opera tradition broadly seen as inaccessible presents two related risks. Firstly, notions of elitist opera will be hard to reverse, with views on art embedded deep within culture where national broadcasting corporations can't touch them. This risk is especially poignant where opera receives generous public donations but is seen as failing to engage with society in all its diversity, breeding resentment at its perceived special treatment and disproportionate rewards. Secondly, an increasingly alienated public will likely effect yet more poor ticket sales, leaving opera to stand on financially rocky ground. The recession is clearly biting, with New York City Opera going bust last year, and San Diego Opera set to follow as it spends the remainder of April in shutdown in search of a viable business plan. Unless opera companies forge new audiences, others may follow.

Zürich Opernhaus © Dominic Büttner
Zürich Opernhaus
© Dominic Büttner

However, opera houses are doing work to bring in new audiences. Take Zurich Opera's opening day under the slogan “offen", for example, where the Opernhaus's doors are flung open for a day, attracting 10,000 people for a free glimpse of its inner workings. Opera open days like this feature the fun and informative, from children's shows to machinery presentations, simultaneously piquing people's curiosity for opera and demonstrating that the opera house does not have to be a daunting place. 

Another common trend is to take opera out of its traditional setting and into the community, and here opera companies have used a multiplicity of access points to reach a diverse range of communities. Glyndebourne has worked with H.M.P. Lewes since the 1950s, where prisoners study operas and produce their own shows for performances to other inmates. Opera Holland Park works closely with sheltered housing centres in Earl's Court, and Welsh National Opera has had a strong presence in Wrexham hospitals with its project Singing Doctors. Opera outreach is surely at its most effective where groups work on issues that impact them directly. Last month, Welsh National Opera performed Anon, Errollyn Wallen's new opera exploring the challenges facing women today. Wallen worked with school girls and sex workers in Birmingham in a series of workshops, before expressing their experiences and concerns through her opera.

Welsh National Opera's Anon © Brian Tarr
Welsh National Opera's Anon
© Brian Tarr

But how does opera engage with people who feel they have no way of relating to the art form? One solution has been to embrace already normative dramatic forms to present what is often unfamiliar in more familiar ways. Welsh National Opera's three-year residency in Wrexham featured a project called Nine Stories High where local residents created the script for a sung soap opera. This culminated in a flash-mob performance in a Wrexham high-street, where “episode 1” featured a hapless Terry standing at the centre of a love triangle, and a chain-smoking Tina who hurled insults at her love rival.

Similarly, outreach has harnessed popular music to reach an audience already switched-on to the  expressive potential of music. Zurich Opera invited a Swiss rapper to the opera, who then wrote about his experiences in a culture magazine. Opera Philadelphia worked with Philadelphia's Arts Sanctuary on a project called Hip H'Opera, which combined elements from hip-hop and opera allow local children to tell their stories. Participants wrote poems on themes like struggle, life in the neighbourhood and personal aspirations, before having them set to music and performed by professional singers. Workshops featured parallel discussions on the history and aesthetics of the two genres, thereby demonstrating what opera has in common with types of music whose value is already recognised.

Fflur Wyn and James Cleverton in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at Opera Holland Park © Alex Brenner
Fflur Wyn and James Cleverton in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at Opera Holland Park
© Alex Brenner

Opera outreach has worked extensively with children, subscribing to the view that people are more receptive to opera when they encounter it early in their lives. The best schemes equip children with the skills they will need to enjoy opera.  Glimmerglass's OPERA-tion Arts gets children to engage critically with opera through painting and drawing, whilst Opera Holland Park sharpens children's ability to understand theme and plot in workshops accompanying their Alice in Wonderland show. A host of youth opera companies, including those of The Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and The Canadian Opera Company, aim to hook children on opera by introducing them to the thrill of performing on a main stage.

That these projects have real utility is clear, but does opera outreach have the power to interest people in full fat opera productions? Some of the recent data appears positive, with the Metropolitan Opera House reporting a fall in the average age of its audience from 60 to 58 in 2011, and Zurich Opera citing its extensive outreach programme as a reason for improved performances at the box office last year. But for a really sustainable future, opera companies will surely have to effect a total change of their image, becoming valued, indispensable treasures at the heart of their communities. The nature of the relationship between an institution and its public is complex, and is difficult to discern from statistical data alone.

But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that outreach is successful at making people passionate about opera. It would follow, then, that broader, more inclusive schemes will generate a larger and more diverse base of followers. To see just how all-inclusive opera can be, one need look no further than Dutch National Opera's work, whose ambitious, sprawling projects have drawn together vast and varied groups of participants. Their Marco Polo in Amsterdam project, which celebrated the city's multiculturalism, featured amongst a rich tapestry of events the “River of Song”, where all residents of Amsterdam were invited to sing in one of the project's choirs.

BOOM! Amsterdam is een Opera © Hans van den Bogaard
BOOM! Amsterdam is een Opera
© Hans van den Bogaard

BOOM! Amsterdam is een opera explored environmentalism through Wagner's Ring Cycle, and featured a series of one-minute operas from residents, as well as forty compositions from conservatory students performed all over the city. Where opera outreach is as broad, diverse and spirited as this and the other examples cited above, one cannot help but see the pool of potential opera fans expand.