Hacker: Let us choose what we subsidise, by the extent of popular demand.
Sir Humphrey: What would happen to the Royal Opera House on such a basis? The very summit of our cultural achievement.
Hacker: And what do they do? Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. Germans and Italians! It’s not our culture at all.
Yes Minister, Season 3 Episode 7: “The Middle-Class Rip-Off”
The lurching has begun. Yesterday, a couple of UK venues, brave enough to take a step towards re-opening under current government guidance, had to take at least one step back within hours as that guidance changed with minimal notice.
Meanwhile, one of the government’s scientific advisors is today suggesting that pubs may have to close once schools reopen, in order to keep the infection rate under control. Follow the logic of this, if you haven’t already. In terms of the complete certainty of preventing infection, pubs are not safe. Schools are not safe. Planes are not safe. And no, concert halls and theatres are not safe either. None of them are safe, in any country which has neglected to do the hard work of eliminating the virus from circulation entirely.
The judgement the government is currently making is about whose health and lives should be put on the line in return for keeping society functioning. It’s worth bearing this in mind each time we call for our audiences to be allowed to return to their seats. Not to mention the next time we’re in a ballot box: what kind of people do we want making these unenviable decisions on our behalf?
Having said that, politician-bashing is far too much of a comfort zone for artists. Any successful negotiation has to take account of the opposing side’s world-view. It’s something for which we readily criticise our leaders, regarding recent dealings with the EU for example, and yet we’re guilty of the same sin ourselves. If we genuinely want something from our political leaders, we need to make the effort to explain it to them in their terms, not ours.
The fact is that Jim Hacker’s point is a fair one. It’s not a conversation that would need to happen in Germany or Italy, or France or Russia for that matter. The intrinsic importance of their operas to their culture needs no explanation.
But British opera has this problem, and we hardly help ourselves. Sir Humphrey’s beloved ROH staged a work by Benjamin Britten last year for only the second time since 2013, and even then only ventured to schedule five performances of Death in Venice – to rave reviews and packed houses. Hopefully a lesson was learned, because if London’s biggest companies aren’t brave enough to stick their necks out for Britten, then we really are in trouble.
Choose to be bold, and doors might open. German and Italian opera has a problem that we don’t: undeniably, their greatest works are at least a hundred years old. That means that German and Italian opera houses are inevitably museums to some extent. That’s an issue when it comes to presenting opera as a living, breathing art form, reflecting society today and responding to its needs. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it’s one which we in Britain have chosen to make ours too, by relying so heavily on old, imported material.
Many regular opera-goers will be scratching their heads at the idea that contemporary composers and modern music could be the solution to the challenges we face. Let’s be honest, most of them decided some time ago that they hate all that stuff. Even those that are willing to attend new opera often do so out of a sense of reluctant duty rather than any great thirst for the unfamiliar.
In many cases their lack of enthusiasm might have been justified. And that’s largely our fault. Over the last century or so, the standard process of creating an opera has evolved to a state where you frequently get the distinct impression that we’re more comfortable working with dead composers, since they’re far less trouble.
But dead composers ultimately lead to a dead art form. Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini were all intimately involved in the creation of their works, not just from conception to written page, but right the way through to opening night and beyond. That way of doing it was clearly established as the best practice, leading to what are still viewed as the best results. But too often since then we’ve taken the soft option of keeping the composer out of the rehearsal room, and we’ve paid the price.
It’s important to note the success stories too. The ROH’s Death in Venice sold out. So did recent productions of John Adams’ Nixon in China and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at ENO. Admittedly those are works which are now decades old, but the crucial point is that their composers found various ways of engaging with the public response to their music, and what purpose their work might serve, along with the opportunities to allow that input to feed back into their future work. New operas need several outings to hit home – too often they’re discarded almost as soon as they’re written, with no thought as to where they go next.
From my own experience, the creation of new operas is an infinitely more effective, not to mention personally rewarding, process when the composer is as close to the trial-and-error loop as possible, an open, active and equal partner from day one to dress rehearsal. It’s not always easy – the soft option is to keep the number of egos in a rehearsal room to a minimum – but if composers are to have a chance of developing a sense of how to create operas that the public want to hear, it is life-or-death essential.
And it’s something we can start right now, under current conditions. Companies have empty rehearsal facilities. The rest of us have time on our hands. Why not put a composer, a librettist, a pianist and a couple of singers in a room, give them a small budget and see what emerges? This is the sort of thing we should be thinking about when we attempt to address the issues of how the industry distributes its crisis funds to its freelance artists. By the time we’re out the other end, we might have something compelling to show for it.
More than that, we might have stories to tell. A lot of Britain’s current problems stem from difficulties in relating to our own past, our historical and current relationship with our own culture and with other countries and their people. We’re more comfortable with imported art because we shy away from engaging with our own stories. Perhaps it’s time to face up to that. And because it’s not a crowded field in terms of existing repertoire, British opera should be well-placed to play its part, given a brave enough vision on the part of its artistic leaders.
British music, British voices, British stories. There’s your slogan right there. Even a politician could understand it.