It was the fourth time, or maybe the fifth, that I found myself reaching for the tissues that I began to feel suspicious. Somewhere between the poignant gaiety of A.E. Housman’s ‘…lads that will never be old’, Shakespeare’s tender valediction ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ and Strauss’s ‘Morgen!’, with its rapturous vision of a never-reached tomorrow, emotion turned to manipulation. You can’t engineer catharsis (though you can score it to music), and this attempt felt like something a visit to the Royal Opera House has rarely felt like before — cheap.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the performances at this first in a series of live-streamed concerts. Louise Alder’s soprano dazzled and warmed, Gerald Finley was all sincerity and gravitas, leaving wistful for tenor Toby Spence’s English songs. The problem was one of conception. After 12 weeks of silence London’s flagship venue reopened with a whimper, a white flag of defeat — musical mourning, before the battle has even begun.
Neither a real recital nor a gala, caught between operatic lollipops and a strange selection of songs, this programme seemed to hope that sentiment would be enough. But while we may look to the arts for consolation, what we need more urgently right now is inspiration, innovation, action.
In the aftermath of the first world war, as composers, impresarios and institutions all faced existential doubts about the future of classical music, a rash of articles appeared with coyly rhetorical headlines like ‘Whither opera?’ The current cultural crisis may be as different as the tone in which we talk about it, but the question remains essentially the same. When it comes to opera, where the hell are we headed?
Historically, bigger has always been better in the opera house. Everyone from Handel to Stockhausen has been seduced by the desire to create larger, louder, longer spectacles, to shock and awe an audience into massed submission in this most all-consuming of art forms.
But Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. Suddenly big houses and audiences are a liability rather than a luxury, the overflowing orchestra pits of Puccini and Strauss carry as many risks as rewards, and the prospect of watching a young woman dying, wracked with coughs and unable to breathe, seems frankly distasteful — however famous the musical accompaniment.
In a startling reversal of fortune, the companies best adapted to this new landscape are not the major national institutions, they are the small, agile, budget-on-a-Post-it ensembles of no fixed abode. Where Welsh National Opera has cancelled its entire autumn season, English Touring Opera has announced a whole new programme of small-scale operas and song cycles. ENO has handed over the Coliseum to Hairspray this autumn, but fringe opera festival Tête à Tête, known to stage five new works in a single night with just a handful of props and an empty foyer, is pushing forward.
Right now the big opera companies are coasting through on archive productions and a hasty smash-and-grab of cobbled-together recitals and one-off performances to empty halls. It fills the silence, but not much more. Because nostalgia isn’t going to work here. Audiences are only going to press their noses up against the digital window on to traditional formats for so long before becoming restless and dissatisfied — performers too. What we need are new venues, or at least new ways of using the old ones; new relationships between singers and listeners, whether spatially or technologically; new expectations for duration, format, set-up. Above all we need new repertoire. All of which takes money and faith — neither in rich supply from the current government, though I’m sure they’ll manage a slogan.
Meanwhile where do we look for that hit of energy, the itchy excitement of live performance? Making a necessity of the camera, turning it from a filter into a lingering, intrusive voyeur, Claire Booth and Christopher Glynn’s La Voix Humaine for Grange Park Opera is as good as it gets. Originally intended for the now-cancelled Bath Festival, this blazing performance of Poulenc’s one-woman opera has been rescued and thoughtfully filmed on the stage of Grange Park’s Theatre in the Woods. Among the physical detritus of a season-that-wasn’t-to-be — a telephone box, a barrow, a bench — soprano Booth pours herself into the role of Jean Cocteau’s complicated, self-deceiving heroine Elle, pain and anger spilling over into controlled chaos.
Viewed at arm’s length on a screen, this portrait of an abandoned woman on the brink of collapse, possibly suicide, feels like a snuff movie. The effect, particularly when framed by the percussive coolness of Glynn’s piano rather than embracing orchestral strings, is horrifyingly matter-of-fact. Distance, far from letting us off the hook, implicates us more strongly than ever. It didn’t occur to me to cry; I was far too moved.
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