Glyndebourne, during the interval of the 'The Marriage of Figaro', 1955. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
On Opera

An opera critic in lockdown

The critic, like a used-up traveller in ladies’ corsetry in a Fifties film, is enjoying a happy furlough

It is surely any normal person’s worst nightmare: to spend the summer in a threadbare old dinner jacket like a poundshop Bertie Wooster, flitting gaily from one grotesquely expensive fête champêtre opera to another across southern England, exchanging one set of braying snobs and parvenu hedgies for a marginally richer and more vulgarian gang as one circles ever closer towards the anti-matter Grail Kingdom of Glyndebourne. Yet from May to August this has traditionally been the lot of the opera critic, who by the end would be a sobbing soup of semi-digested prawn sandwiches and own-brand Tesco prosecco.

This hellish merry-go-round broke the spirit of the doyen of critics, the lamented Rodney Milnes of The Times, who nearly 20 years ago unloaded a lifetime’s anguish in a gratifyingly hissy piece, “The Unspeakable in Pursuit of the Unlistenable”, whose climactic line — “cut-down Wagner in a barn stinking of chicken shit” — was a disobliging reference to the new auditorium at Longborough in the Cotswolds, whose roguish chatelain Martin Graham had let on (not entirely truthfully) that it had previously seen service as a poultry shed.

Pretty much anyone living south of the M40 could open an opera festival in their back garden and make a success of it

And he thought it was bad then. Poor old Rodders would have been horrified as the blight marched across the countryside like virus hotspots: Grange Park in Hampshire undergoing a marvellously rancorous cytogenesis, half the huffy amoeba flouncing 30 miles to the Surrey Hills to reopen, the other sniffly renaming itself “Grange Festival” — and still nobody can tell them apart, except for the amusing addition of the “lavatorium rotundum” at the new joint.

For a while there was even a filiale of all this fooflah in the south of France, to cater for those members of the legal community unavoidably detained on Cap Ferrat during the long vac; the hovering shade of Somerset Maugham might edit his apophthegm about opera being entertainment for people who don’t like music to “summer opera” being a jamboree for people who don’t like opera.

It’s not so much the operas themselves, of course — as Milnes noted, the standard of performance varies wildly, but is hardly the point. Like anywhere else, most of these places switch off the lights, and the only reminder that you have fellow-auditors is their fuddled snoring.

No, the more terrifying ritual is the endless picnic break, a carnage of competitive poached salmon and larks’ tongue terrine in the usual fine drizzle, salad leaves as soggy as the Miyake shawls of the guzzling ghastlies of the home counties. (A glum, phenomenally misjudged Glyndebourne staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion a few years ago perked things up by timing this knees-up for halfway through the Crucifixion: oh, do try the vinegary sponge, Cressida darling!)

Well anyway, like the rest of the performing arts world, that’s gone the way of all flesh, for this year at least, and the critic, like a used-up traveller in ladies’ corsetry in a Fifties film, is enjoying a happy furlough and thanking incompetent Chinese bat-chefs/sloppy chemical-weapons labs for sparing us months of (inter alia) the sort of freeloader companions who think bringing an M&S mixed bean and alfalfa salad is an adequate contribution to the day’s ordeal.

It is a catastrophe for the opera business, of course: with its cunning marginalisation of the actual performance as a sideshow to the costly trip into a gimcrack Gainsborough, this was opera’s only thriving sector, employment and pay levels in London’s financial sector (the overwhelming backbone of this audience) meaning that pretty much anyone living south of the M40 could open an opera festival in their back garden and make a success of it, providing the tickets were pricey enough to guarantee exclusion of the undesirable.

Well, there may be some gaps in the market next year, so if you fancy a pop my first bit of advice is to aim for the comfort-zone of soporific panto, aka “honouring the composer’s intentions” as it’s called by those purists strongly in touch with the spirit world.

As noted, country house opera is essentially a refuge from opera as much as anything (notably also from the general public, though this can backfire when the return trains are buggered and you find yourself on the midnight Brighton to Victoria vomit-and-crack chugger with all the south-London drug-dealers looking beadily at you and your missus in DJ and wafty kurta-paizama twinset).

You must position your product as cutely quirky but aesthetically unchallenging, with no question of going through the rigmarole of pretending opera is “relevant”, or even of any particular interest.

You must conform strictly to the critic Arthur Jacobs’s description of opera 70 years ago as “music by dead composers sung to rich people in foreign languages” — something opera perennially congratulates itself on having moved on from, to the bemusement of absolutely everyone in the real world. (He might have added “pissed”.)

To check you’ve got it right, eavesdrop on the audience as they drift away at the end: full marks if they emerge from the rapes, murders and moral sewer of Rigoletto, sighing: “Oh, that was just lovely!”

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