On Opera

Content warning

On triggering opera and Arts Council England

The start of the new opera season this year replicates one of those post-apocalyptic movies with rag-clad wretches staggering from their caves to check out the smoking wasteland outside.

Of course, this is also literally true of everything in the country after thirteen years of the Era of Gove, Conservative rule now in effect one of those futuristic flying creatures in Terminator that has simply to turn its eye on any given thing for it to be reduced immediately to death and ash (“levelling-up”).

What’s heartening about the British thirst for fair play even in this blasted wilderness is that there are still many megadump-dwelling cheerleaders to be found applauding the carnage, certainly when it comes to the defunding of dreadful things like opera.

And their moment is finally here, I guess. It’s been easy enough to ignore the looming hecatomb of Arts Council funding cuts during the old summer jamboree of three-quarter-cut plutocrats braying through those grub-with-grooves affairs that infest southern England; and that branch of the business is now clearly the country’s main purveyor of the stuff.

But this apparent health of the summer season is surely just a bout of the same spes phthisica that makes Violetta Valéry leap from her deathbed fresh as a chorus-girl before conking out the next second. The violent urge to piss the audience off that infests the opera world is seeping through even here, which is pretty stupid for a sector entirely dependent on ticket sales.

Glyndebourne was startled into a self-harming auto-erotic frenzy by the miraculous manifestation there last year of Angela Rayner, and modelled much of this season on an unlikely second coming, with a production of Handel’s Semele devoted to the striking parallels between that misunderstood power-sister’s situation and the director’s unsatisfactory girlhood in Port Talbot, plus a Don Giovanni interestingly dedicated to the notion that Don Giovanni is by no means a chap worth writing or performing an opera about.

Even Glyndebourne joined in the pretence that their audience is composed entirely of minority children and gibbering trauma victims

Then they went and messed everything up by reviving an old staging by Peter Hall of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream that had the unusual aim of presenting a panoptic vision created out of love for the piece, beautiful, layered, not the now-standard babyish vacuity of some teen provocateur reducing the complexities of these huge, marvellous pieces to pitiful categories of misogyny, patriarchy and the rest. This reminder of times when directors were servants of Mozart and Wagner, etc, rather than preposterous “auteurs” and “creatives” was an acute memo of how we’ve fallen.

Still, in trying circumstances we must take our pleasures where we may, and it’s been a vintage year at least for “content warnings”, those amusing alarm klaxons of a society in calamitous denial of reality. The platonic ideal of these must be the one for Anton Chekhov’s Seagull — “Suicide, mental illness, animal death, gunshot” — which removes any need to see the actual play.

Even Glyndebourne joined in the pretence that their audience is composed entirely of minority children and gibbering trauma victims, rather than dead-eyed financial-sector sociopaths, as we were memorably warned to steel ourselves against “thunder” in Semele.

Welsh National Opera (in Candide) offered us “anachronistic language” (Akkadian? Hunnish?), war and violence, references to religious prejudices, and depiction of an earthquake — terrifyingly represented by a hand-drawn animation of an explosion. We’re still trembling.

You can’t help noticing there are no warnings for those who might be “triggered” to murderous rage by crassness, infantilism, irrelevancy and the ruin of art. Are we supposed to look out for ourselves?

Anyway, the gold medal goes to the fringe festival Tete-a-Tete, whose Plastic Bodies alerted us to “disordered eating, mention of suicide, misogyny, racism, mature language, emotional abuse, skin-peeling … “, so like my home life I wondered why I’d bothered to come out.

Back, therefore, to the wreck of autumn schedules. Of course the attentions of the “Arts Council sponsored by Destructorax™”, in their fervour to eradicate culture, have not been hugely positive. But, compared to the damage caused over the last 20 years by the cretins who run our opera houses, the depredations of Chairman Serota’s gang of droopy Red Guards are really just a detail. And we’ll talk about this another time.

There’s one thing that looks fun coming up at Opera North in Leeds: a new Purcell pastiche (i.e., the boy’s hits strung into a new show: actually, Purcell’s failure to write a proper full-scale opera is one of the more annoying holes in music) called The Masque of Might, the only drawback a sort of Year 4 plot about a Very Bad Tyrant.

It has been put together by Sir David Pountney — yes! he’s still here, nearly 50 years on from becoming director of productions at Scottish Opera, and now inhabiting a space between “immortal” and “undead”. Anyway, the cast is nice and the music unadulterated, and say what you like about him, Sir Dave is unlikely to beat us round the head with intersectionality.

Don’t be put off by the (optional, alas) prologue which runs thus: “Put out the light/slink out of slight/The Masque of Might/crawls in, a creeping blight/A dish of spite …”. I know what you’re thinking. But they promise me it isn’t.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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