On Opera

A grim chorus of philistines

Rishi’s £1.57 Billion handout to the arts sector is the last good news it’ll ever hear, says Robert Thicknesse

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The past months have yielded a happy surfeit of anti-pleasures, one of my faves being to wallow in the country’s fathomless loathing of the arts, as expressed BTL beneath any news story involving posh music, theatre and the rest. And I don’t mean in the raised-by-wolves press, either, nor yet the Wail, though the pandemonium of wanton capitals and apostrophes is certainly a lot of fun; no, the choice snarls are all to be found in the laughingly-called grown-up papers.

And one of its most pleasing aspects is the ideologically all-embracing nature of this space: on one side, suburban crypto-nazis with their “defund woke luvvies who hate Britain” shtick, on the other peevish, envious Graun morlocks and “let posh twats pay for their poncy hobbies, which they only pretend to like anyway”.

First in line for the revolutionary tribunal, as ever, will be the Royal Opera, but let’s not weep too bitterly

Naturally it’s all duck’s-back terrine to the opera gang, long inured to the contempt of, essentially, everybody, and one strongly suspects the involvement of some Peterborough-based Gove-Cummings trollbot sweatshop, preparing the ground for the appointment of Gavin Williamson as DCMS secretary for the final apocalyptic cull.

It’s clear that Rishi’s £1.57 billion handout to the arts sector is the last good news it will ever hear: Arts Council England (ACE) was already, pre-plague, honing the axe for the big arts organisations (see the drip of stories about the true creative “crown jewels” residing in garage hip-hop bands on the Stonebridge Park estate, “the arts” being replaced by “culture” in the quango’s propaganda, the dumping of the word “excellence” for the babyish “relevance”) — and it’s hardly likely to change tack with a teeny hole of £300 billion to fill.

First in line for the revolutionary tribunal, as ever, will be the Royal Opera, but let’s not weep too bitterly — they will simply persuade London’s old Russki and new Chinese ’garchs that the stalls are a steal at a grand a pop, peanuts for most of that seating area’s regular denizens.

Tougher shit for those without Covent Garden’s meretricious pulling power. A sort of Arts Council advertorial in the Times back in January was devoted to dog-whistle factoids about the horror of hundred-quid-a-seat subsidies in opera (the figures tendentious and much disputed — but nobody saw that bit of the argument). ACE’s latest report succeeded in massaging reported attendance at opera down to 3.7 per cent of consenting over-16s (“drama” somehow managed to cobble together an impressive 21 per cent, doubtless by virtue of compulsory school trips and the accidental inclusion of Hamilton in the list).

Meanwhile, BBC4’s shiny new Beethoven documentary got 100,000 fewer viewers than one episode of happy-tree-whisperer Bob Ross’s old Joy of Painting abortions. Armed with these handy figures, defunding classical music will be a stroll — and probably the only popularly applauded thing this government will ever accomplish.

Whether live opera can be reanimated in any worthwhile or sustainable form remains to be seen

Given all that, we’d better make the most of any temporary resurgence the opera world can cobble together before the hecatomb. Limbering up with online offerings, it turns out that reconnecting with opera post-furlough entails many of the symptoms (nausea, self-loathing) incurred when you try to properly start smoking again, palliated by the same glow of spiritual enrichment.

Whether live opera can be reanimated in any worthwhile or sustainable form remains to be seen: current reasons for modified rapture include concert performances of the great Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park, a drive-in potted Bohème at Ally Pally from ENO under its admirable new artistic director Annilese Miskimmon, and nascent plans by English Touring Opera for an autumn tour of rare piano-and-singer “monodramas” by Poulenc, Britten and Shostakovich: austere but bracing.

These shows, even more than usual, promise to recreate the original opera experience of a very few posh people in a big room being given moral and aesthetic tuition through music, a programme whose stunning success a glance around the royal families of Europe will confirm.

If all else fails, there’s always Abroad. Even with the tremulous quid doing the Mexican hat dance, and the ruinous data roaming charges you’ll rack up in day-long queues waiting to be subjected to merry Brexit quips by European border guards, a well-chosen trip to the opera in Germany has plenty to recommend it. (Belgium’s also pretty good, and occasionally France.) Though it obviously feels a bit tragic and pointless without the transgressive thrill you get edging through hostile crowds here.

It would be nice if I’m completely wrong. British opera has always run a tight, honourable ship on a fraction of continental subsidies, is infinitely less self-indulgent and on the whole frankly better thanks to the discipline, rigour and responsibility that go along with being perennially brassic; there’s really no fat to be shed. But when the Arts Council itself conducts the chorus of philistines, it’s hard to feel too sunny about it all.

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