The state of opera today (it's not good)

Last year was a good year only for colleges of music, Opera North, The Welsh National Opera — and Wagner

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

I’ve been hoping that in this, the last of my weekly columns on opera, I would be able to strike a positive, even cheerful note on the present and future of the art form, but honesty compels me to say that I don’t think it is in very good shape. Not, probably, that it has ever been, or at least only for brief periods. Owing to its mongrel nature, there has usually been a tendency for one or other of its ingredients to lord it over the others, so that the ideal balance of music and drama, spectacle and action, personalised in the collaboration of singers and conductors, stage directors and musicians, has only been rarely achieved.

It is, of course, an inherently expensive art form, too, originally designed to celebrate the splendours of rulers and aristocrats, so that now, when it is unlikely that any rulers will want to attend one, stagings are often evidently economical, or, when lavish, largely financed by people who can’t afford to go to them, and almost certainly wouldn’t want to if they could. What with these and other factors, the result is that the grandest opera houses, where the better tickets are exorbitantly priced, are attended by people who want a good evening out, but are actually presented, as often as not, with what are often called ‘radical rethinkings’ of familiar or even not very familiar works, where the director has chosen to ‘deconstruct’ or ‘subvert’ the opera, so that instead of sitting there passively — this is the idea — the audience will be, in best Brechtian mode, forced to think rather than feel, to feel themselves ‘challenged’ rather than moved.

If this procedure worked, one would expect opera critics, who are exposed more often to these productions than anyone else, to be radical in their social and political views, to realise that what they spend so much of their time seeing and writing about is ensuring that they are unillusioned or even developing revolutionary tendencies. Observing the critics at fairly close quarters over 18 years, I have to say that this desirable result doesn’t seem to me to be forthcoming. The critics who most often praise the extreme deformations of operas effected by Calixto Bieito or Peter Konwitschny are more often, it seems to me, relieved to be seeing something different from traditional productions, with which they are bored, than spurred into fresh ideological thoughts and attitudes.

Last year had more than its fair share of ‘deconstructive’ productions, of which it would be hard to say which was the most outrageous, but to me it was Fidelio, a Bieito effort. No doubt Beethoven’s notion of Freedom is naive and simplistic, but it’s no good attempting to show that in a production of the work: it might need another opera, with a more sophisticated view, or a barrage of critical articles such as tend to appear in the programme books, but first of all we need to be exposed to the heroic action and music of Beethoven’s opera, without interpolations and outrageous deformations. English National Opera has committed itself to a policy of putting on these shockers, and The Magic Flute fared comparably badly. Even the year’s one undoubted success, its production of Berg’s Wozzeck, was overwhelming more thanks to the intensity of Edward Gardner’s conducting and the superlative acting than to a production that was unhelpfully and elaborately detailed.

The Royal Opera began the year deplorably with Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin, in which there was a silent actor and an impotent singer for the main roles, the result being confusion for the audience and, at least in the case of Simon Keenlyside in the title role, frustration that he wasn’t allowed to act the part. Wonderfully, the two greatest successes were the revival of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, more confidently performed even than in its first run; and the UK première of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, a puzzling work that nevertheless gave one the sense that it is very likely to be a masterpiece. And Wozzeck was lucky here too, with acting and music easily overpowering the twice-revived inane production. Much excitement was generated by La donna del lago, stunningly cast, but with a work that so few people know it seems perverse to produce it unintelligibly. The same goes for Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes, a grandiose bore, which received a lavish production that would need Tolstoy to pour adequate scorn on.

As always, I gained most pleasure from productions at the colleges of music, all of which are enterprising and usually uncorrupted by modishness, and from Opera North, though it hardly had a vintage year, and Welsh National Opera with its resplendent Lohengrin, one of the peaks of the Wagner celebrations, which were, all told, of an amazingly high standard — but then most of the greatest things were unstaged, at the Proms. Not being a driver, and unwilling to inflict too much punishment on my friends who are, I missed many of the country-house offerings, but the Longborough Ring has passed into operatic lore, though — to return to an earlier theme — it can only succeed thanks to the presence of an audience that would not agree with one of its messages, that the accumulation of capital is the root of a great deal of evil.

I shall be continuing to write a monthly column.

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  • Daniel De Simone

    I shall miss your weekly column, which has provided so much insight and pleasure.

  • Lindoro Almaviva

    with drivel like this, can we please make it a yearly column, OK, give you every 6 months

    • Aloysius

      Its rather a good column in fact and if you disagree, as you evidently do, you are under no obligation to read it so why all the fuss?

      • Lindoro Almaviva

        Oh, yes, the ivory tower argument: “leave us alone so we do not have to bother with any challenges to our way of thinking. We are too busy in here lamenting our problems.”

        The problem is that this is not an ivory tower and the points made in the article are not absolute. The main issue is the idea that because the author is paid to write criticism, his opinion, OPINION, is fact and thus unchallengeable.

        The author takes the easy way out. He can not comment in detailed about the state of singing because he knows very little of it so the next best thing is to criticize the physical settings of a production while invoking a composer dead for 100 years (read: can not come here to challenge what he writes). He then clothes himself as the ultimate arbiter in what the composer wants. Unfortunately for the author, the appropriate question is: When did you last spoke with the author to know for certain whether he would like the production or not?

        The problem with anyone who pretends to speak for a dead person is that there will be 100 who will say something different and still pretend to speak for the same dead person, how interesting that the same dead person can have 10 different, contrasting and in most cases opposing opinions all at one. So who is really talking, the dead person or someone who is very much alive but has the temerity to pass his opinions for those of a dead person?

        So let’s stop pretending that the author speaks for anyone but for himself. And while we are at it, lets stop pretending that his opinion is law, or the only one available, or the only one that has merit.

        There are bad and unsuccessful productions on both sides of the isle. Zefirelli’s last Traviata at the Met, which I saw, was an overblown ugly mess while Bieito’s Carmen was riveting. The Met’s Rake’s Progreess and Fidelio and not “traditional productions and they are both great shows while a Don Giovanni I recently saw in a very conservative house in the Midwest was ugly as all hell.

        So let’s stop pretending that just because a production has a more modern sensibility it equals bad and because it is set in the times of the conductor it is a great production.

        There’s more to respecting the composer’s intentions than setting Tosca in the 1850s.

  • Anthony McCarthy

    Unfortunate comment from ‘Lindoro’ – untrue and facile.
    I’m very sorry that the brilliant Michael Tanner will no longer be writing weekly for the Spectator. He has elevated opera criticism immeasurably, not least by bringing to bear an acute philosophical intelligence and concern for the role of emotion in human flourishing (I recommend his superb paper Sentimentality). Aside from that his careful music criticism and recording of the cultural vandalism we witness around us is worth more than all the commentaries by cultural ‘pundits’. I hope that the monthly column works – and thank you Dr Tanner.

    • Lindoro Almaviva

      care to school me?

  • Anthony McCarthy

    Sure. Tanner is no simple-minded traditionalist as you imply. He is simply aware of the obvious truth than there are better and worse interpretations. He has frequently praised modern productions and has written widely on these matters. Just take a look at his columns over the years and you’ll find that he is not the type of critic you appear to think he is. And he writes about music and singing all the time (not to mention on the aesthetics of music etc.).