Confession: 5 Reasons Opera Will Never Be Popular, and Why That’s Okay

by   |  May 12, 2014

Vienna Opera House Small

Some people think the opera industry will never take off.   Does it have to be that way?

Opera fans the world over mourned as New York City Opera closed its doors and shut down operations. The rest of the world went on with life, completely oblivious to the news.

“Pah! Uncultured swine. How could they be so heartless?”

The truth is: opera is uncool. I lived in denial of this fact for many years as I made opera the main stage focus of undergraduate degree and career.   I realize now that this un-coolness is what makes opera so difficult to market.

After coming to terms with opera’s un-coolness, I wondered how and why anybody could get sucked into such an uncool pastime. Then I remembered: for those who invest the time, opera becomes an obsession. The music takes possession of your soul in a way unknown to any other art form.

While it has the potential to send fanatics leaping from their box seats in rapture—why do most people scoff at—or worse, completely ignore—opera as a whole?


Truth #1: Opera Takes Too Much Time


It takes time and a very open mind to come to enjoy opera. First of all, the average opera is about three hours long. Some operas last for six hours or more. Furthermore, the genre is never instantly gratifying the way modern entertainment is. It can take a person many years of patient persistence to develop a taste for opera. Most people just don’t care enough to try.

For those interested in learning how to enjoy an opera, I wrote an eloquent article several years ago. To my disappointment at the time—though now completely self-evident—it was not one of my more popular pieces.


Truth #2: Opera Never Was Popular


The word “popular” comes from the Latin “popularis”, and it means “prevalent among the general public” or “of the people”. This is one word that has never described opera.

Historically, operas were commissioned by the wealthy and written for the ruling class of Europe. In other words, they were written to amuse the rich. Only in recent years has there been a push to bring opera to the masses. Discount tickets, and standing-room spaces, and public broadcasts are a recent development in opera’s long history.

Even to this day throughout Europe, opera houses are largely subsidized by the state. This is not so much to amuse “the ruling class” anymore as much as it is to preserve Europe’s heritage. As such, many European locals and tourists alike see opera as a showcase of the past—a sort of live museum.


Truth #3: It’s Not Our Heritage


Opera has not been important in the history of most countries outside of Europe. This fact makes it hard for most of the world to fully appreciate the art form. Some people enjoy occasional visits to museums, especially when they can learn about their own history. However, few people find it exhilarating to learn extensively about cultures they can’t relate to. As much as schools try to change this fact, relatively few people hone their love of learning for other cultures. Those who do are the exception rather than the norm. As long as this fact remains, few people will find opera compelling.


Truth #4: Stylized Expressions . . . Go out of Style


It would be a lie to claim that movies have had no influence over opera. The truth is that Hollywood has reinvented many ways in which opera is enjoyed today. Overweight singers aren’t being cast as often anymore. Thinner, younger, more attractive singers are in higher demand than ever. Supertitles are the norm in most opera houses to help make the shows more “accessible” to viewers in their own language.

Another aspect that Hollywood has influenced is the manner of expression in opera. Before Hollywood, opera singers often emoted very stylized ways. Post Hollywood, by contrast, opera directors increasingly demand singers to assume more realistic facial expressions, body language, and motivations while singing. Some arias lend themselves well to these “natural” expressions. Others can be more challenging, as they were written in time periods when stylized expressions were all the rage.


Truth #5: The Jokes Aren’t That Funny


A lot of jokes that audiences used to find funny are now pretty stale to modern theater-goers. Modern opera lovers are forgiving of bad humor. They give comic operas the benefit of the doubt, not comparing their hilarity to the level found in comic movies and TV shows they enjoy.

Not surprisingly, however, non-opera lovers are less forgiving of opera’s outdated antics. Even the most popular comic operas of today couldn’t hold a candle to other forms of entertainment when it comes to comedy. While a non-opera lover might sit through an entire Mozart comic opera—maybe even enjoying it—this same person would find the jokes pretty weak compared to YouTube videos of kitties.

Perhaps you might say that the humor in opera is cheesy. Only those who acquire a taste for opera can fully enjoy this stylized flavor of comedy.




Just because opera isn’t popular doesn’t mean it’s not worth enjoying. In fact, it can be liberating, even invigorating, to embrace how unpopular opera is. A wholehearted acceptance of opera’s unpopularity leads opera fans every day to wear their love for the art form as a hard-earned badge of honor. They hold their noses high, knowing that most people don’t care enough to cultivate an understanding for what makes opera so enjoyable and great.

Perhaps, they surmise, that is where the ruling class of the world has gone. The souls of yesterday’s European aristocrats live on in the self-proclaimed opera snobs of today. Those who truly “get” these esoteric performances are worthy of the illusive adjective “cultured”. After all, only the truly cultured can fully savor the taste of cheese.

More on: Business, Culture, Fine Arts, Industry Review
About the Author:

Mimi West is a consummate entrepreneur, brand and marketing expert. This retired opera singer and Founder of My Dream Teacher is now pursuing her MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Administration. You can follower her on Twitter: @MimiGuynnWest.
Publshed: May 12, 2014  | 
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