On Opera

Into the mystic

Contemporary debates over the “suitability” of many operas leaves us with only English productions

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Attentive readers will have noticed that this column has spookily become the nerve centre of the British opera world: like Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch, I merely have to dream up some new batshit hell and it instantly comes to pass. Of course it was all meant as a laugh, not a blueprint — still, hey ho, I’d say a fee is in order. 

All that rumpus about Nixon in China, Madama Butterfly, women, homosexuals, cancellation — here, it was all joshingly here … then it went and happened. The only teeny flaw in the crystal ball to date was the vision of Gavin Williamson, rather than Nadine Dorries, overseeing the looming hecatomb, but even crystal balls know you can try to be too funny. 

Opera’s latest deathwish fulfilment arises from an odd schizoid impulse. On one hand, when applying for a job at ENO you must fill in a form demanding your ethnicity — a redundant question, really, since as the rubric explains this is a question not of parentage, passport or melanin, but of “self perception”. 

Even “harmless” comedies require the severest scrutiny

Sadly, this admirably open minded approach — the “Oli London policy” — doesn’t extend to the stage, where a slack jawed literalism has them scouring the earth for Lebanese settlers in Tunisia to sing the role of Dido, and so on. (To be fair this only goes so far. Covent Garden seems fine with any “a bit kind of oriental, ish” sopranos doing Butterfly, etc, suggesting they have not quite grasped the basic rules of this game.) 

Following my recent encomium to censorship, the Royal Opera is now avidly reviewing the repertoire to see which works are suitable (yes!) for performance. Quite right: things are clearly getting out of hand when Opera North can advertise its new Carmen with promises of “violence against women” — a ploy that felt a bit opportunist given the poor outcomes resulting from that violence. 

But what might these “suitable” works be? One hunts in vain for examples of non problematic behaviour leading to positive results. Everywhere there is disrespect to women, issues of consent or stereotyping … even “harmless” comedies such as Donizetti’s Elixir of Love require the severest scrutiny, dealing as they do in coercion, false consciousness, social essentialism, exploitation of the educationally subnormal, plus the appalling suggestion that a woman might conceivably be — or need to be! — in some way fulfilled or made complete through a man’s love. 

The truth that will emerge is that all this foreign stuff is effectively unperformable — surprise, huh? The answer lies in a proper revival of English opera, with its concentration on tea drinking and the mild dilemmas of middle class Anglicans — yes, yes, as advocated here ages ago, bien sûr. Even Scottish Opera — and one can only imagine how furious this makes the SNP, rather piquantly for that company’s future — has lately been prancing about the glens with not one but two G&S shows. 

And jolliest event of the autumn here was a one off performance of Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, an exhilarating proto hippy reboot of The Magic Flute premiered in 1955 and tragically eclipsed, like everything else the big hearted Tippett wrote, by the emotionally atrophied works of Benjamin Britten. 

Tippett’s fabulous piece has it all: a whacked out libretto obsessed with “blood and sperm”, a puppyish chorus singing “We are the laughing children!” and more — but, despite this embarrassing uncle stuff, an embracing breadth of vision, a blazing faith in transfiguration and redemption … plus Sosostris, King Fisher, Strephon, and random Ancients. Who could want more? 

English opera, inconveniently, kept exploding shortly after take off, but its ante mortem squawks have always been good value. Nothing was ever better than Handel’s operas, and Opera North is rolling out probably the best in Alcina, a Rocky Horror trannie romp to gladden even the gloomy hearts of Stonewall’s fun inspectors. And I trust Covent Garden will be seeking a Phrygian soprano to represent the Christian martyr Theodora when they also stage Handel’s contemplative oratorio of that name early next year. 

This radiant piece ponders how we should treat religious nutcases and other irritants, raising interesting questions none of which is likely to be addressed in the usual joyless production by Katie Mitchell. 

First time as farce, second time as performative Marina Abramović style communal self harm

It is inevitably billed as a “feminist” reading: all previous stagings have naturally been told from the point of view of Roman squaddies looking forward to jazzing Theo up in the brothel where this stubborn virgin for Jesus has been wittily incarcerated.

The summit we are all groping towards here is clearly a revival of Rutland Boughton’s The Immortal Hour, now inexplicably forgotten. Out of William Morris by Wagner, its emo faerie aesthetics chime absolutely with today’s neo pagan goblincore, and it was to have been the grand curtain raiser of Boughton’s projected annual Glastonbury Festival in August 1914 (followed by his massive Arthurian opera cycle) backed by fanboys Shaw, Elgar, Beecham … well, you know what stopped that. 

It finally hit the London stage in 1922 and ran for nearly a thousand performances — by most measures the most successful opera of all time. This is surely the thing to redeem Nadine’s pitiful Millennium Experience reboot (suggested motto: “First time as farce, second time as performative Marina Abramović style communal self harm”) unBrexitFest next year. 

Boughton’s pan Brito Hibernian mysticism will ignite the revival of national consciousness we thirst for, perhaps even waking Arthur from Avalon slumbers to save us — though I suppose his subsequent extermination of all the non Welsh could prove sub optimal.

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