I hate Peter Grimes. I don’t really understand the story, and I hate all the characters in it, who seem like deeply unpleasant people who all deserve each other and the parochial hell they’ve created. And its attempts at jocularity leave me cold – when it comes to Britten and me, I infer there would have been very little overlap between our senses of humour, if any.
The bad news for any fellow Grimesophobes out there is that Britten’s first genuine opera is showing ominous signs of entering the mainstream repertoire. A quick search on Operabase for 2021-22 shows no fewer than 14 productions taking place worldwide (over a period when the industry has still been some way from full capacity), including runs in France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Finland, the Czech Republic, two in Austria, four in Germany, and this autumn at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Oh yes, and in London. Deborah Warner’s co-production (with Madrid and Paris) for the Royal Opera closes tonight, and has been met with five star reviews, sold out houses, and social media clamour for any hint of a spare ticket. Deservedly so: it’s a striking production which pulls no punches, with a starry (and largely home-grown) world-class cast, and fiery playing from the ROH orchestra under Mark Elder. In particular, Allan Clayton in the title role blows out of the water forever the myth that an authentic “English tenor” sound requires any compromise at all in vocal quality: his singing, acting, diction, movement, and utter embodiment of the character are unforgettable. If I never see the piece live again, I’ll always know that I saw it executed at its very best.
If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, and your route to Covent Garden takes you along the creaking Bakerloo Line, you may well pass a whole row of posters advertising the ROH’s next operatic offering. If you had to guess blindfold, and are smart at playing the odds, you’d probably put money on it being La Traviata, and of course you’d be right.
The ROH’s milking of its perennial cash cow has by now become a bit of a recurring joke in the industry, viewed and largely accepted, eye-rolling aside, as a necessity in these financially challenging times. Top prices, endless double-cast runs, lavish marketing, bums on seats. Opera companies don’t generally publish show-by-show breakdowns of their budgets, but you’d assume that the revenue generated by what seems to have become a triannual corporate tourist trap helps fund some of the ROH’s more artistically innovative, and far less lucrative, ventures.
It’s not really possible to question that approach in detail, at least without a closer look at the books. What I think is worth questioning is the idea that a piece like Peter Grimes comes under that category of cliff-edge artistic risks that are impossible to perform without financial water wings.
Covent Garden’s recent productions of Britten’s operas have also included Billy Budd and Death in Venice in 2019, again to rave reviews and sold out houses. The model for Peter Grimes seems to have been the same: a timidly short run of six shows, and a generous range of cut price tickets. It’s a cautious approach, and one which might be entirely reasonable if you were looking at an untested new piece with a cast of unknown singers.
Let’s look again at that list of performances worldwide. The Met, with a seating capacity nearly twice that of the Royal Opera House, is putting on eight performances – that means 30,000 New Yorkers will get a chance to see Clayton reprising his now global star turn in the title role, compared to 13,500 in London. Admittedly, the ROH seems once more to have sold out this short run with minimal outlay on publicity and advertising, and they might be satisfied with the glow of hitting that target. But the question is, should they be?
Industry veterans put out an argument along the lines that “of course Traviata will need a greater marketing push, since it has more performances and those tickets don’t sell themselves”. It seems somewhat contradictory to argue that a product requires more marketing as a result of it being more popular; more expensive, perhaps. (Red Bull owns four football clubs and a Formula 1 team.)
Here are two questions to chew on: at what point might a well-resourced UK company like the Royal Opera feel confident enough to shift the approach up a gear for a work like Peter Grimes, to market and price it along something closer to the model for Traviata? Grimes as a piece, and this production in particular, is a known five-star quantity, with a big name cast on top form; and by now the opera is as old as Turandot was in 2001. If not now, when?
The other challenge is, what should be the aim of the marketing work of a large, taxpayer-subsidised opera company in the UK in 2022? Is it purely selling tickets and increasing revenue? Or is there also a wider responsibility for shaping the public perception of “what opera is”?
Tourists come to Britain from all over the world. We invite them to explore British history, British culture, British castles, British museums, British monuments, British cinema, British literature, British theatre, and we flog them souvenirs plastered in the British flag. The sole exception, it seems, is opera, which we spend millions on telling them is 200 years old, Italian, and ideally sung by foreigners.
I mean, we even now sell them British sparkling wine: imagine that a generation ago. And there’s surely a lesson there. Climate change and canny investment has transformed the quality of the product – but that’s less than half the battle. A concerted marketing campaign continues to be necessary to bring the bubbly-buying public round to the idea that there’s a home-grown alternative to Champagne which is every bit as good.
If the analogy holds for British operas, which have only really begun to bear the right sort of fruit over the last few decades, Britain’s best singers have been premier cru supérieur for a lot longer. That’s despite the former situation representing a significant obstacle to any British singer starting out. Their Italian counterparts will unquestioningly be viewed as experts in their native repertoire; the same goes for German, French and Russian singers. Britain’s aspiring opera singers have to bring themselves up to those standards before they get started on their careers – and in so many cases, they do. English National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre may have received a lukewarm reception from the critics; but what was not in doubt was the quality of their all-British cast. What’s more, you can bet your bottom deutschmark that cast would have been every bit as proficient had they been singing in German. There are British singers who are world-class interpreters of Italian, French, Russian, Czech repertoire too. But a true acceptance of British opera into the mainstream would give our young singers a head start in launching themselves internationally, at a time when they face rougher seas than ever before. And that process surely has to begin at home, where far too often the imported product is automatically viewed as superior. (Glyndebourne, for example, has picked a German baritone and a Mexican tenor in two of the main roles in Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers this summer, which is being sung in French. Go figure.)
Beyond the challenges facing its British workforce, opera also has an urgent need for new repertoire which is capable of connecting with as wide a public as possible. The art form often stands accused of misogyny and racism in its narrative content, sometimes unjustly, but often with a hard kernel of undeniable truth. That cannot fundamentally change while we remain chained to repertoire which was written a long way away and a long time ago. Genuine, lasting diversity will never be achieved until opera can give a voice to the communities it should be serving, until that public can walk past, or hopefully even into, their local theatre and see their own stories being told on stage. That requires those stories to be written by them, for them, now.
If we can’t even bring ourselves to pluck up our courage and present a surefire global hit such as Peter Grimes as being “what opera is”, what hope does any new opera have? Italy, Germany, France and Spain clearly have the cojones to back British opera. If Britain itself can’t do the same, we really are lost at sea.
Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy
“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine
“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine
Re the Met: they’re presumably likely to stream it to small provincial theatres worldwide and make money on it that way? (“Live from the Met” was a staple of programming at my local theatre pre-Covid)
As I understand it, no one makes any money at all from streaming or cinema broadcasts of opera… For more details and discussion: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09MCCBJV1