Commended - Francesca Hamilton

RPS Young Classical Writers Prize 2023

Choose Opera

It is May of 2022 and I am sitting in the university library after a morning of finals revision. At midday, tickets for the English National Opera’s (ENO) new season will be released. The season will include a production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, an opera with which I have been obsessed since watching a recording from New York’s Metropolitan Opera during lockdown. Now the ENO are staging the same production, for which I manage to get two £10 tickets.

Fast forward five months to November 2022, and one of the lead stories on the ten o’clock news concerns the ENO. Arts Council England (ACE) are poised to withdraw National Portfolio funding for the opera company if it does not establish itself at a new base out of the capital. On top of this, the timing and funds proposed for such relocation look tremendously challenging. ACE’s strategy calls for opera to take root in new settings and on digital platforms. This is how I first became acquainted with Akhnaten, but after two years of only being able to watch opera on my tablet I am tired of it, and hungry for the real thing. But whether the production will now go ahead as planned is somewhat uncertain.

Another five months elapse, it is March of 2023 and against the odds I am on my way to the London Coliseum. Thanks in no small part to a huge outpouring of public support, and a petition signed by over 80,000 people, ACE have backtracked on their original decision and are funding the ENO in London for a further year. The problem has been postponed rather than eradicated, with uncertainty hanging heavy on the horizon. Merchandise is on sale at each of the theatre doors bearing the slogan ‘Choose Opera’, hammering home the precarious position of the art form.

There is one aria that I am most excited to hear this evening. I have listened to it incessantly and obsessively, everywhere and anywhere, since I first encountered the opera. I now have the chance to hear it live, sung by the countertenor from my favourite recording. I wait with bated breath for the moment to come around at the end of the second act. As the bassoon figure begins, I am nervous with anticipation, noticing every slight divergence from my familiar recording. But the performance is everything I had hoped it would be, with the countertenor dazzling in real life. This aria, the ‘Hymn to the Sun’, is traditionally sung in the language of the audience to convey universality. This almost sacred moment calls to mind the accusations of elitism and inaccessibility so often cast at opera. But sitting in this stunning theatre, listening to a familiar and beloved aria performed by a world-class countertenor, and all for the price of the average cinema ticket, I am overwhelmed by the feeling that opera is worth fighting for.