Operettas for the apocalypse
As we career merrily ever deeper into the end-times, what is the appropriate soundtrack for civilisational collapse?
This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Reflecting on my decades-long campaign to destroy opera in Britain, I have to admit in all modesty that it seems to be going rather well. While everyone credits the Arts Council — and Nicholas Serota’s hommage to East Anglian iconoclast “Smasher” Dowsing certainly scores well for execution, if less for artistic impression — this scarcely gives due recognition to our great opera companies themselves, whose staunch work alienating their audiences and annoying the tits off of everyone else is finally paying off.
There will be more of this intensely boring subject anon, no doubt, if we get a particularly slow month. But if the English National Opera can’t sell half the seats for the pitiful number of performances it now puts on, why the hell (you may ask) should anyone continue to prop it up?
Well, thus does opera fruitfully reflect the world. As we career merrily ever deeper into the end-times of both, I am often asked what is the appropriate soundtrack for civilisational collapse? The national companies evidently reckon the Lower-Middlebrow FM playlist of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and co will do.
You’d hope for something a bit grittier, like Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s ultraviolent Die Soldaten of 1965. This far from enjoyable piece about military rape-victim Marie’s revenge on the world is top gorecore, and it occasionally crops up around Europe in an old but happily savage staging by Catalan axeman Calixto Bieito.
Other Germanic blood-frenzy possibilities include Richard Strauss’s let’s-invent-expressionism Elektra (last performance at Covent Garden, 30 Jan), which is always on somewhere in Europe and would make a bracing first-date gig for anyone auditioning a blushing young hopeful.
Opera is a sanguineous old thing: Calixto even managed once to turn Mozart’s comedy The Abduction from the Seraglio into an admirably blood-boltered evening, hiring a gang of Berlin sex workers and a bathful of gore to illustrate Wolfy’s jokey catalogue of Turkish tortures, starting with nipple-slicing; but these Teutons take it to a whole nother level.
Which is all very well, and fun in its way, but a bit ploddingly literal for times when the only good news on the horizon is that we might soon be allowed to spell Kiev correctly again. In actual fact, though, when stuff was really on the skids in the old days, opera looked not to cacophonous mayhem but to the blithe jog-trots of the operetta — that’s right, Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss and the rest.
The normally sentient turned to these lovely pictures of themselves dancing on the volcano
It makes perfect human sense: while the Guardian readers of late 19th century Paris and Vienna whined about the coming apocalypses, the normally sentient turned instead to these lovely pictures of themselves dancing on the volcano.
The big breakthrough was in finding an amusing way of bringing the bourgeoisie on stage — middle-class lives hitherto being too frightful and drab to even consider dramatising. The next was to ditch the single most off putting thing about opera, its retarded emotional halfwittery, that dedication to sickening pulp romance, resulting in all those poshies and lizard-eyed financiers sitting piously in front of a sort of Barbara Cartland musical.
Operetta introduced a jovial ironic realism, correctly divining that in a world where the likes of Bismarck and Kaiser Bill were amassing large piles of solids to be directed towards pan-European fans, the only sane response would be to get drunk and have as much illicit sex as possible (something echoed in György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre of 1977, an operetta in spirit, and probably the ultimate Cold War piece, when viewed through this prism).
Thus the flighty Viennese of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus ignore the stock market crash and the crumbling of the old Empire, to enact a docudrama clearly designed to illustrate Homer Simpson’s description of alcohol as “the cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems”. Act two, a party thrown by a Russian androgyne, charts the mood-swings attendant on proper boozing, ending with the emetic you’re-my-best-mate croonalong “Brüderlein und Schwesterlein”.
The next day, everyone undergoes a nightmarish detox at the jailhouse, presided over by the brilliantly tiresome, alcoholic screw Frosch, before deciding to blame it all on the boogie, and do it again.
Further irruptions of real life can be found in Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow (Hitler’s fave), with its celebration of the aphrodisiac qualities of hard cash; Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, starring Louis Napoleon as PR-huckster phony Jupiter, defusing thoughts of rebellion by carting everyone off to an all-expenses-paid beano at an infernal Folies Bergères; even Puccini’s operetta-in-disguise La rondine, which rubbishes the infantile dying-for-love fantasy of Romantic opera with the sassier story of sensible horizontale Magda chucking over her toyboy for a Parisian bank magnate.
The fact that none of these is on offer in Blighty this year hardly matters, given how dreadfully our houses do operetta; but it’s surely nicer (and cheaper) to greet the end of days in some pleasant Euro burg than in London, Cardiff or Glasgow — where it seems already to have happened.
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