On Opera

The G&S divide

A large proportion of the English drive themselves mad with a baroque cocktail of fury, snobbery and self-hatred over Gilbert and Sullivan

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Rum sort of joint, Covent Garden. One minute there’s the boss saying: “We can’t just produce La Traviata and La bohème. That way lies artistic ruin,” the next they unveil a season headlining precisely those old boilers, plus a load more cluckers by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Handel, Wagner — y’know, operas from the old days there.

Non-insiders might be a bit baffled by all this, as if the head of the RSC was all like: “What, do a bunch of old crap like bloody Hamlet? Piss off!” so I should explain that the people who run these places take a very dim view of proper operas. What they really want is to put on appalling rackets by creatures like Boris Blacher and Hans Lachenmann to leave the rather small audience in no doubt that they are in hell.

The real question is whether there can ever be any more opera at all

So anyway, the Artistic Ruin season looks rather nice (and now everyone’s so brassic, I doubt we’ll be seeing much of old Blacher for a bit). As previously discussed, the Royal Opera has given itself a nice long rest, during which it aired a variety of low-input online bilge, patronising to an almost experimentalist degree, which naturally nobody bothered watching, e.g.

This original piece explores the exploitative relationship between humankind and mother nature, told through the narrative of women’s objectification.

This darkly comic piece to camera follows the narrator as she grapples while penning an email to a male colleague challenging his behaviour.

Which cannily, if a teeny bit cynically, dealt with what they evidently perceive as the “woman problem”: and they seem to have got away with it, too. No such luck down at ENO, despite their radical scheme to actually do live music through the plague — La bohème at Alexandra Palace, broadcasts of Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem. Au contraire, a fun shitstorm broke out when the company (for the first time in living memory under the control of a psychologically stable grown-up who likes opera, in the shape of artistic director Annilese Miskimmon) announced a blamelessly normcore new season and got instantly dumped on for not doing anything by women or black people.

Well, careful what you wish for. Unfortunately, Clara Schumann, overwhelmingly voted the world’s greatest composer by BBC Music Magazine — despite not even being the second best composer in her own house, given the amount of time J. Brahms spent there trying to put horns on his pal Robert — forgot to write any operas, so pretty soon the choice devolves to Victorian eccentric Ethel Smyth’s neo-Wagnerian evolutions, which are kind of jolly but not actually much good, and a clutch of ageing contemporary ladies whose stuff nobody likes.

The real question is whether there can ever be any more opera at all, what with the latest larks at poor old Scottish Opera: in a fluster of self-abasement they withdrew their 2020 staging of John Adams’s Nixon in China from its Sky Arts award nomination when some little online tosser squeaked (a year after the event) about Mao being sung by a white guy. Rather than doing a Tarantino and telling him to “go suck a dick”, it was SO itself that it instantly dropped to its knees and started fumbling with zips.

Well, that’s it, isn’t it? Now the attention-seekers know they barely have to lift a finger to get stuff cancelled, who’s going to have the balls to stage Aida, Butterfly, Nabucco, Turandot, The Pearl Fishers, Tamerlano? — and Christ help us when Dwarf Lib gets its teeth into Wagner. Can it be any coincidence that at this very moment there is a rash of Gilbert & Sullivan appearing everywhere?

Other than those who would demand a wholly Japanese cast in The Mikado — and I’d pay triple to see that — the only group with locus standi to condemn G&S are those public schoolboys who were forced aged 11 to perform Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, and whose love-lives instantly peaked in the communal showers before taking a catastrophic nose-dive thereafter. As it happens, most of them subsequently became opera critics.

G&S divide opinion more violently even than actual opera; a large proportion of the English drive themselves mad with a baroque cocktail of fury, snobbery and self-hatred. “Sexless and camp,” said Peter Hall. “UKIP set to music” — that’s Jonathan Miller. Germaine Greer labelled the audience “racist, right-wing Olde Englande nerdery”. It’s all about those showers again, isn’t it? And no poppers when you need ’em.

Sure, the old D’Oyly Carte stagings could be a bit grim, but now various lively contrarians (Opera della Luna, Charles Court Opera, Sasha Regan’s Union Theatre) have hosed the gunk off them, and the many virtues of these pleasantly idiotic — and a whole lot more than that — old things can shine again. They’re coming soon at Holland Park and ENO, too.

Gilbert’s satire is terrifically effective in the sense that exactly nothing has changed since 1880, so it’s still funny (or “relevant”, as they say in the Arts Council). Sullivan continues to slip proper music, appropriately disguised, past the defences of the philistine Pom. It’s way cleverer and subtler than the French or Viennese equivalents, though these too provide much not-so-innocent merriment.

And no danger of finding Bozza, or Farage, or any of those retread gargoyles there, except on the stiletto-point of some beautifully honed Gilbertian barb: they had those creeps back then, too.

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