It has hosted Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Strictly Come Dancing, but now the London O2 Arena is playing host to a grand spectacle of a very different sort. The 20,000-capacity indoor stadium is staging the Monumental Classics series, which is designed to bring a new opera experience to the widest possible audience. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, that unsubtle ode to youthful excesses, written in 1937 and made famous by blockbuster The Omen and a series of aftershave adverts, seemed a fitting opener for the series. Huge productions of Carmen, Aida and The Nutcracker are also on the horizon.
The production of Carmina Burana, which appeared at the O2 on Jan 17 and 18, featured no less than 250 performers, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brighton Festival Chorus and Youth Choir, as well as dancers, actors and singers. Viewers were wowed by lasers, fireworks, light projections, lavish costumes and a tall wooden scaffold containing the flaming Wheel of Fortune that controls the lives of the characters. In a venue so geared towards brash, loud displays, it is fitting that a production labelled by the German impresario Franz Abraham as "the anti-boring classical spectacle" should be given a platform.
Abraham's Carmina Burana has already played to more than a million people worldwide, including an audience of 150,000 on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. So confident are organisers that operas with mass appeal will continue to draw in huge crowds that details of the next production in the Monumental Classics series have just been announced. Ben Hur Live will hit London's O2 in September to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of the epic film. The production will be accompanied by an emotional symphonic soundtrack (that's the classical bit) and featuring a cast of more than 400 performers and 100 animals, including horses, camels, donkeys, chickens, falcons and eagles. The famous chariot race will be re-enacted around the arena floor. Critics have argued that staging such lavish productions in a time of economic depression is madness, that there simply isn't a wide enough audience for opera and that the O2 has taken a gamble that won't pay off.
Or will it? Opera for the masses is nothing new. Originating in Florence in the late 16th century, opera was born out of commercial beginnings. The first opera house opened in Venice in 1637 and was also the first musical institution to offer access to the general public. By the end of the century Venice had 16 opera houses, filled with audience members drawn from varying social strata. It wasn't until the 19th century that opera began to be consciously branded as "high culture". New rituals of appreciation were created by elite social groups. Opera was no longer to be accepted as mere entertainment, but revered as the greatest form of art. A code of conduct was enforced, formal dress introduced and a critical lexicon developed which worked to alienate the lower social classes. Opera was strategically separated from the everyday world of popular entertainment, becoming instead a vehicle of intellectual edification and, most importantly, social validation.
What the O2 Monumental Classics series is effectively doing, therefore, is reappropriating the genre of opera as popular entertainment. But initiatives such as this have not gone unchallenged. When Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma (from Puccini's opera Turandot) reached No 2 in the UK singles chart and was used by the BBC as the soundtrack to the 1990 Fifa World Cup, classical music stalwarts complained that hordes of football fans chanting "Vincerò! Vincerò!" cheapened the original. Elitism hasn't been confined to operagoers. The legendary Canadian tenor Jon Vickers once argued that opera is "being invaded by those techniques that are corrupting our society - big PR, the personality cult, techniques which create hysteria but do not elevate man. They degrade our art. We cannot compromise. We mustn't smear the line between art and entertainment. You cannot bring art to the masses... You never will."
The 14,000-strong audience that streamed into the O2 Arena for the first instalment of the series would beg to differ.