Covent Garden’s Samson et Dalila
On Opera

Ethics men

Opera directors are utilising programme books to purvey their moral and ethical wisdom

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

With that vacancy for Archbishop of Canterbury looming (as all fervently hope), might I suggest that candidates preferable to recent Koko-the-clown incumbents might be found not among the posturing pygmies of the House of Bishops but rather in the ranks of our infinitely more sainted opera directors?

Combining the roles of Olympian moral guru, life guide, relationship counsellor, eco/social-justice warrior, liberation theologian, sex wizard, animal husband and many more, these paragons are uniquely suited to be the spiritual leaders we thirst for in these difficult times.

If they have a weakness, I suppose it is that they tend to be not awfully good at directing operas; their attempts to perfect humanity — the true duty of theatre — have had a negative effect on actual audiences, ever-increasingly venal, insanitary, drunk, entitled, racist, porcine consumers, corporate slave-drivers, Tories, etc.

Programme books now always include a useful homily on general ethics

So directors are turning to the page to purvey their wisdom: programme books are full of tracts which not only explain why they have set Aida in a Bond-style undersea lair (obvious metaphor for the suffocating horror of the post-Brexit wasteland, which Verdi’s prescient tragedy is uniquely able to convey), but always include a useful homily on general ethics.

After explaining why that lair so well represents the society poor Aida is drowning in, in her aqualung there, with squads of imperialist scuba-divers exploiting her for “sexual porpoises”, we move to a disquisition on how our “evolved practices” are destroying the world physically and morally, and many other shaming instances of how much less virtuous we are than the writer.

Given the breadth of their vision, they can illumine any area of human experience. In a recent example, touchingly written more in sorrow than anger, the director confessed her bitter disappointment at her heroes providing “unfortunately very poor role models for functional, healthy and reciprocal intimate relationships”.

This was a shock, since I had always thought of opera as a how-to guide for improving the number and quality of one’s admittedly shabby amorous gallivants. Now suddenly comes this suggestion that this is not its primary aim. Can it be true? And couldn’t someone have told me 40 years ago?

To back this up, a handy checklist of incorrect relationship behaviour appeared in the Telegraph recently, ostensibly directed at teenagers but surely applicable to real human beings: “Does your partner find it difficult to compromise? Pressure you to respond quickly to texts, emails or calls? Act in a possessive or jealous way with you? Ever threaten you, or try to make you feel bad? Tell you what to do? Make it difficult for you to say no to things you don’t want to do (eg have sex)?”

Well, whoever wrote this is evidently sitting quietly in the corner noting down every last detail of my married life — yeah, and yours too. Yet opera has always led us to believe that these exact “behaviours” are the only desiderata of proper relationships. Such matters loom large in the peculiar subset of opera dramatising Bible episodes. Covent Garden lately staged Camille Saint-Saëns’s 1877 piece Samson et Dalila — a chillingly accurate metaphor for marriage, with D taming old Sam by cutting off his “hair” — know what I mean? These, ahem, “religious” operas of the late 19th century did furnish rich lifestyle bonuses to our forebears; this one, or Wagner’s Parsifal, or Massenet’s Hérodiade, were the equivalent of spending hours in church, allowing the spiritually refreshed Victorian punter to emerge bursting with vigour to hunt for child prostitutes in Drury Lane.

Won’t we be sorry when directors have expunged all traces of unhealthy behaviour from opera?

Probably the ultimate example is Richard Strauss’s Salome of 1905, coming up soon in Edinburgh and London, which suggests that best outcomes are achieved by removing the loved one’s head, which certainly limits opportunities for inappropriate or controlling behaviour. “Not so chatty now, eh?” says Salome, nibbling on John the Baptist’s blue-tinged lips as the orchestra scrubs away to achieve music’s most elaborate manually-assisted orgasm.

I know, it’s wrong to laugh, and this kind of frivolity only belittles the lived experience of the millions of “human relationship survivors” who stagger about the place with only the tatters of their traumatised emotions and a support wombat for company. But won’t we be sorry when directors have expunged all traces of unhealthy behaviour from opera, along with the racism and patriarchal, right-wing propaganda? No, no: clearly a much greater good is served by Guardian-appointed editors being required by law for all performances. Obviously many, many poor singers are currently triggered, with who knows what long-term effects on their sexual usefulness, by being required to enact the conduct that perverted composers have imposed on them.

Incidentally, any suggestion that all this wickedness is not heavily gendered needs to be rooted out. As everyone knows, any female behaviour — including Salome and Delilah’s — which falls short of the ideal is ultimately men’s fault. I suppose that’s why “toxic femininity” is so exceptionally hot.

Which of us wouldn’t throw our whole lives over to join Carmen in the mountains with those drug-smuggling gypsies, dressing like Dexy’s Midnight Runners? I would beguile the quarter-hours between ferocious bouts of sex by reading director-penned programme notes to her. I can already hear Carmen’s scornful laughter as she learns what a very bad thing “the male gaze” is. It’ll be a shame to have to kill her.

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