On Opera

Original sin

Robert Thicknesse on the woes of modern, British opera

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

So Bach or Mozart or one of those lads comes back to check up on us, and is staggered to find crowds of saddoes spaffing away their lives reconstructing some frippery he scribbled out in the bog as wallpaper for one strawberry-nosed Holy Roman fool or another’s levée. “Come on, guys!” he sighs, “I shredded that tripe the minute it was played. What are you thinking of? Haven’t you got any of your own stuff?”

Sixty years ago, the first people to de-clag the arteries of 18th-century music were proper revolutionaries

Picture the shuffling feet, downcast eyes and mumbled evasions. Well, though everyone is overjoyed by the backwards extension of what’s considered fit to play — all those Handel and Rameau operas, say, which 20 years ago everyone simply knew to be unperformable — the mania for exhuming every tossed-off note by the old dudes and performing them, ahem, “authentically”, has led to Philippine mega-dump style mountains of idiocy (while also providing many happy berths in tragically over-promoted “period” orchestras and concerts for scratchy fiddlers and singers with ever-so-tiny voices — which is nice for them …).

But it also raises vexing questions of aesthetics. Sixty years ago, the first people to de-clag the arteries of 18th-century music — Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Raymond Leppard, Neville Marriner — were proper revolutionaries, dreaming anew the sound and rhythms of old music in a vividly modernist way.

But despite the delight this spawned, it soon turned into “historically informed performance practice” (they’re basically filing clerks, not musicians), essentially a neurosis born of the inconvenient fact that we had mislaid any actual taste of our own.

Until not so long ago, old music was played according to the palate of the now — the high-point being Thomas Beecham’s 1959 recording of Messiah, using to an almost satirical degree the resources of the 20th-century symphony orchestra (something Handel would have beaten his granny to death with a sackbut to have) to set the heavens on fire. And then suddenly it all turned vegan, anaemic, a freakish quest to recreate the measly sounds and purity of a fictive, unknowable past.

This no-confidence vote in the aesthetics of our own time is one of the big reasons behind the catastrophe of modern opera. (Ever wondered why Glyndebourne and those other joints are so wildly popular? That’s right: because summer is the season when nobody has to pretend to like contemporary opera.)

Odd, really, since the heavy lifting of rescuing opera from the powder and poncing about of the old days was done a century ago by Janáček, Bartók and co — and subsequently by blazing originals like Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti. Sure, it’s not easy listening, but neither is it what got contemporary opera its magnificently-earned reputation for making horrible noises at appalling length: that came next, as a later generation settled into a knock-off modernism ineptly cannibalised from those post-war visionaries.

And guess what, this was exactly the same time as “period performance” turned into a self-serving production line: coincidence, eh? One special-interest cell after another is selected to receive state subsidy to create crappily executed, unedited, unlistenable pieces, with no questions asked about why it might be a good idea to spoil memories of a great old movie or book by turning it into a piece of inert music theatre.

Yet in our individualistic age (presently hitching itself up to the potassium drip at Dignitas, now we’ve all been cattle-prodded into exciting groups identified by our least relevant characteristics) you can knit your own idiom. Unless you go down the “minimalist” path of Philip Glass and co, popular with stoners and others who enjoy having their brains formatted by endless repetition: devotees of Guardian, Spectator, those kinds of things.

Imagine the multiple universe of possible sound-worlds! — the wonderland of styles, effects, timbres, the sheer magical eclecticism of available noise — Prospero’s isle in octophonic: that should make it kind of a fun thing to do, wouldn’t you think?

British new opera remains devoted to this axiom: no matter how low your expectations, they can still be cruelly dashed

Instead, we get horrorshows like Nico Muhly’s half-baked police-procedural Two Boys, or Tansy Davies’s mimsy new-age platitudes about 9/11, Between Worlds — to mention only the traumas of recent years hardest to rip from the memory; not operas in any meaningful sense, barely even music, but devilishly successful facsimiles of drowning in mud in the driving sleet in eastern Poland.

And to those who say critics serve no purpose, behold, I bring you Mark-Anthony Turnage, who briefly cheered the music world up by huffily retiring from opera (on Twitter, naturally, that joint-venture of Satan and Nemesis) after his Coraline took a pasting in 2018. (Pity it was him, actually, and not one of his genuinely talentless colleagues: Turnage’s Oedipus-in-Hackney Greek of 1988 was fabulously original, though evidently another false dawn for Brit-Op.)

Is it just that opera houses commission only from a secret Arts Council list of journeyman notesmiths, all in thrall to the dreariest of sound-worlds? Certainly there’s nothing good on the horizon: ENO, in a bit of forgivable zeitgeist-surfing, will perform Poul Ruders’s take on Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale next year, though it was pretty grim last time round. No sign, alas, of (foreign! argh!) composers such as Salvatore Sciarrino or Hèctor Parra who take and deliver intense aural pleasure through the marvel of sound. No, British new opera remains devoted to this axiom: no matter how low your expectations, they can still be cruelly dashed.

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