Professor Alexandra Wilson's 'Opera in the Jazz Age' to be published this month

Monday, 11 February 2019

history of opera

Think opera is highbrow? Think again. Professor Alexandra Wilson’s new book considers the place of opera in the 1920s ‘battle of the brows’.

This ‘battle’ was a heated debate about whether various forms of art should be categorised as highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow. In the case of opera, the answer is probably not the one you would expect. 

I wanted to challenge the view, so pervasive today, that opera is and always has been elitist. That was not a word you would have heard being used about opera in the 1920s.

Professor Alexandra Wilson

In Operain the Jazz Age: Cultural Politics in 1920s Britain, out this month from Oxford University Press, Wilson shows that opera interacted in fluid ways with many forms of popular culture during the interwar period, including film, jazz, and romantic fiction. Opera singers were bona fide celebrities whom audiences camped out overnight to hear, their every move documented in the pages of the tabloid press. For all of these reasons, opera proved extremely difficult to pigeonhole.

Opera was performed in many types of venue in the 1920s – music halls, cinemas, and restaurants as well as theatres – and was popular with many different types of listener. Touring opera companies performed to socially mixed audiences in the industrial cities of the north and there was a particularly keen following for opera in the East End of London. 

“My aim in writing this book was twofold”, says Professor Wilson. “First, I wanted to find out where opera fitted into the vibrant new entertainment world of the 1920s, an era we might associate more with the Charleston, nightclubs and cocktails than classical music. 

“Second, I wanted to challenge the view, so pervasive today, that opera is and always has been elitist. That was not a word you would have heard being used about opera in the 1920s.” 

Professor Wilson’s next project, funded by a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, will investigate how attitudes towards opera have changed over the period from the end of the 1920s to the present, pinning down exactly when the ‘elitism’ tag began to be used.

Listen to Professor Wilson talking about her book on BBC Radio 3’s Music Mattersin an episode first broadcast on 12 January (from around 21 minutes in).