Coronaclassical 6: Fine Dining at Fast Food Prices

A pair of photos has been doing the rounds this week. One shows the interior of a crowded plane. The other shows a theatre in Germany, with an audience of 200 sitting socially-distanced in a 1000-seat auditorium.

Several singers have shared the diptych, most seemingly under the impression that it provides a watertight case for re-opening theatres immediately.

Meanwhile, the first results of Indigo’s After The Interval survey of UK audiences were published, and the report makes fascinating reading. In particular, two figures caught my eye. In response to the question “Would any of the following help you to feel safe and comfortable going to an event at a venue again?”, the most popular answer was “Limits on the number who can attend” at 76%. Later in the survey, the same audience was asked how, if at all, they’d be willing to contribute financially in order to help companies ensure a successful re-opening after the economic challenges of lockdown. The least popular answer by some distance was “Increasing ticket prices”, a mere 18% replying that they’d be up for that.

The two photos were originally posted by my fellow bass-baritone Michael Volle, and the flight seems to have been from Berlin to Wiesbaden (or nearby), where the concert was taking place. It’s a short trip, and Germany appears to have its epidemic pretty well under control. Leaving aside the question of why so many people chose to fly a 500km journey (are we really still doing that in 2020?), the implied question of most of the re-posters is: if the plane is safe, how come the theatre isn’t?

A more fundamental question might well be: is that plane really safe? Believe me, this is the first time I’ve ever seen singers point at a photo of a crowded plane cabin and tell us how perfectly healthy it looks. Furthermore, with two-thirds of commercial airlines’ fleets reportedly grounded, the idea that it’s business as usual for them seems a little tenuous.

(A more pertinent question might be whether bailing out airlines is the best use of public money, when, for example, arts organisations and individual artists could be financially protected for a fraction of the cost.)

As for the sparsely-populated theatre, you’d want to know whether the audience enjoyed it (although since the excellent Mr Volle was singing I’d imagine they very much did), and would they be willing to come back regularly under the same circumstances? Did they maintain social distancing on the way in and out, and would they have been able to do so had there been an emergency evacuation? Does a magic distance of 2 metres really give you indefinite protection from an infected neighbour, even over the course of two or three hours?

And, the bottom line, did they pay five times the price of a regular ticket in order to be part of an audience one-fifth the size? Everything else aside, you’d assume that at least the airline made a tidy profit on that crowded flight.

The Indigo results suggest that the answer to that last question would be, for most of the UK public at least, an emphatic: No. Even if, courtesy of some Houdini-level contortionism, you could squeeze half the usual audience in and maintain safe distancing, mere double-price tickets wouldn’t cut the mustard: for 82% of respondents any increase at all in prices would be unmanageable or unacceptable, despite the fact that almost as great a majority want to see a substantial decrease in audience numbers.

It seems a huge contradiction in terms. Of course we’re being a little unfair – we don’t know that exactly the same people answered both questions, and even if they did, were the two factors to be linked more closely in a different survey, the numbers would almost certainly shift closer.

Even so, there’s the problem in a nutshell: people want an improved product, but they don’t want to pay for it. In the UK it’s a particular issue, and not just with the arts. It’s at the core of British politicians’ problems over the National Health Service, which is free at the point of delivery, funded directly from tax. But for at least a quarter of a century the idea of raising income tax, for example, has been off the table. Even the last Labour leadership, the most left-wing for a generation, was only able to suggest tinkering a little at the upper margins for fear of making themselves electorally untouchable.

As with the British taxpayer, our average British theatre- or concert-goer seems to want a top quality service at bargain basement prices.

How do we in the arts get around this? Within living memory our answer in the UK has almost always been to cut costs, to make the product cheaper and more efficient. But even before this crisis hit, organisations had already cut away most of the flesh, and many had been hacking away at the bare bones for a while too. And the important thing to realise about highly efficient systems is that they are, for the very same reasons, also highly fragile – as the last couple of months have surely proven beyond any doubt.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. In the year I was born, Britain had precisely no Michelin-starred restaurants. Now there are 67 in London alone. Within a generation, a fair number of the British public have been persuaded that an exceptionally good dining experience is worth splashing out on. Not every night or every week perhaps, but once in a while on a special occasion, or to make an occasion in itself. That’s hardly come at the expense of cheaper restaurants or fast food outlets: it’s a different product, quite clearly a different concept entirely, and therefore people’s expectation of what a reasonable price for it is also instinctively different, without there being a contradiction.

Over the same period, budget airlines have been one of the travel industry’s major success stories, and their premium-price competitors have struggled in their wake. Many have taken our approach of attempting to slash their costs, as a result often ending up providing the same sort of experience as their budget competitors, only less well done and still at a higher price. Neither one thing nor the other.

So the rules are different for different products. Consumers view air travel differently from buying food, and buying fast food differently from paying for a fine dining experience. If you saw a fine dining restaurant had cut their costs so drastically that they were charging fast food prices, you might quite justifiably have doubts over the quality of the meal. And whereas you can probably forgive Five Guys for occasionally forgetting the jalapeños, a sub-par fine dining dish misses the point completely.

Let’s look again at those two photos. Health risks aside, the plane passengers realised quite some time ago that air travel is not really much fun, and you may as well grit your teeth, get it over with and do it as cheaply as possible. The fun starts when you arrive at your destination.

That’s where we come in. In another part of the Indigo survey, respondents were asked how they’re currently feeling about the possibility of going to live events again. Only 19% said they’d be comfortable attending as soon as venues are allowed to reopen. It reveals a dangerous gap between our instincts as performers and those of our audiences. I filled in the survey myself – thinking as a potential ticket buyer rather than a professional artist – and was surprised at how cautious most of my answers were. We might do well to bear in mind that a low probability of individual consequences still translates, given a large enough population, to a near-certainty of a number of infections and deaths.

And so we might also do well to take a little time, have a little patience. Our desire as performers to get back on stage, share our art, and make some money is perfectly natural. But we need to make it clear to the public that none of this is worth a moment of risk to their health and lives.

That aside, high art needs to be exceptional, unforgettable, or at least aspire to that. Popular culture aims to entertain you for an evening; we should be aiming to transcend your physical world and change your lives. Fast food versus fine dining. A packed auditorium, under safe conditions so that those present can fully engage in the moment, is no guarantee of that miraculous transformation, but it’s surely a key part of a genuine theatrical experience.

So for the time being we need to take every care not to risk infecting our audiences with a deadly disease; and by the same token not to infect the very qualities that make our art worth sharing in the first place.

Posted in Art, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Science, singing, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Coronaclassical 5: Spinning the Wheel

“Leicester were 5,000-1 to win the league but ended up as champions. What are the odds of that happening?” – Neil Lennon

Les Croupiers Casino, Cardiff, June 1998. For the previous three years I’ve been working as a schoolteacher, but I’m about to head off to music college, so tonight I’m keeping my cash in my pocket: I’m going to need every penny of it. My colleagues Dave and Iwan, by contrast, are on a roll. Come to think of it I never saw them lose, but I suspect they did so in private, or perhaps my memory has become selective. 

Either way, for once they’ve decided to quit while they’re ahead. Having cashed in, Iwan finds a £10 chip in his breast pocket – “for emergencies”. Rather than bother the cashier again, he gives it to me and tells me to see what I can do. 

I’m a cautious gambler when it comes to my own money, but this is a free hit, so rather than hedge my bets I saunter up to the nearest Roulette wheel and place it boldly on Zero. 

Someone else’s money, someone else’s winnings.* It was worth it for the reaction when I returned only a couple of minutes after setting out, carrying £360 worth of chips. What were the odds of that happening? Well, that’s an easy one – assuming a fair wheel, precisely 36 to 1, or a smidgen over 2.7%.

Watching how people decide to grapple with numbers, and how they apply to our everyday lives, is endlessly fascinating, and the reams of statistics being spewed out during the Coronavirus era so far has provided plenty of opportunity for doing just that. What’s the fatality rate of Covid-19, and how might that compare to the chances of dying from other causes, we all want to know? Reading between the lines, I guess we mean, what are my chances of dying from it?

It’s really the wrong question. The probability of me dying eventually from some cause or other is 100%. Beyond that, the application of population-wide statistics and probabilities to individual lives is a tenuous affair at best: it’s simply not what they’re designed for. The half-life of an element can tell you pretty much bang-on what proportion of a large sample of its atoms will have decayed during a certain period. But if you’re sat there looking at any particular atom on its own, you’re back at the Roulette wheel. 

Let’s say you’re facing a serious medical operation and the surgeon – as they are wont to do these days – informs you that it has a 99% survival rate. That sounds good, you think. 99 out of every 100 patients make it through. But it’s hardly any consolation if you’re the 1 who doesn’t – in fact, it’s probably even more annoying knowing how improbable your death was.

A newspaper columnist this week, as part of an argument to send children back to school, quoted 0.03% as the likelihood of dying of Covid-19 for under-18s. Let’s for the moment assume that’s roughly right. As an individual parent you might think that sounds fine, a chance worth taking. But the only concrete meaning of that number is that, given 10 million or so children of school age nationwide, it translates to the racing certainty of 3,000 deaths (and that’s without factoring in the health risk to their teachers). So as a national decision-maker, you might well view that percentage quite differently. Grieving parents would hardly be consoled by the reassurance that their child’s death was statistically exceedingly unlikely.

But hang on, I hear you cry – around 15,000 children are killed or injured in road accidents in the UK each year. We don’t re-organise our entire lives around that, do we? 

Putting aside the question of whether we should look again at the idea that this is a price worth paying for the freedom to drive our own cars, the suggestion that we make no allowance for road safety in our everyday lives is clearly nonsensical. In fact the layouts of our cities are in huge part devoted to allowing for and containing the risk from human-operated vehicles. Imagine for a moment what a town centre without traffic would look like; or perhaps as a more realistic exercise, visualise what a city without human-operated, individually-owned traffic could look like. No need for car parks or parking spaces, far safer junctions and crossings, cleaner air. If we invented the modern automobile today, I wager no-one would dream of putting one under the fallible, volatile control of anyone who could pass a short test, and allowing them to plough through our midst largely unsupervised.

So we’ve made about as many concessions to road safety as we’re willing to make, and presumably we’ve decided that 15,000 dead or injured children a year is something we’re happy to live with as a result.

Terrorism? The Daily Telegraph recently claimed that “over the last decade, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on British soil was about one in 11.4 million per year.” I suppose that gives us an average of six deaths a year, and a significant degree of disruption to our way of life.

What about flu, you ask. An average of around 17,000 people in England and Wales have died from influenza in recent years – it’s worth noting that this has varied greatly from 2,000 to 28,000 (during the particularly deadly season in 2016). Why are we fretting so much more about the Coronavirus? 

In fact, if and (let’s all pray) when there’s a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the precautions against it may well end up looking very similar to our current regime for flu: free vaccines for the most vulnerable, and available to all, and the NHS geared up for a huge increase in hospital admissions in the event of a bad season. Of course, that might change as our medical scientists gather more data and come to a better understanding of how this new virus operates.

That latter point is crucial, and should underpin every discussion currently taking place on the topic. If you hear anyone speaking with anything resembling absolute certainty regarding any aspect of the current science around Covid-19, please approach with care. The point about all these numbers – overall mortality rates, probability of dying from it, “R0” and so on – is that they require an awful lot of data to establish to any great degree of accuracy, and the gathering of that data in this case is still in its early stages. Plus, they’re still strictly speaking only a measure of what’s happened in the past, not necessarily an accurate prediction of what may come next.** Science is the process of establishing and quantifying the degree to which we don’t know things. The upshot of that is that there is no such thing as a “scientific fact”.

I’ve left air travel till last. There hasn’t been a fatal commercial air accident in the UK since 1989 – so to put it another way, the probability of you dying in a plane crash in this country is currently my lucky Roulette number: zero. The number and complexity of precautions we take when it comes to commercial air travel is immense compared to most other forms of travel.***

Grasping the connection between these two statements is the key to understanding the dilemmas surrounding our current crisis.

 

 

* – In fairness to Iwan, he bought us all dinner at Charleston’s afterwards. This was the occasion on which I invented the rare fillet steak with onions, mushrooms, peppercorn sauce and a pineapple slice on top. It didn’t catch on.

** – I’ve heard researchers suggest that one of the effects of SARS-CoV-2 might be to turn every carrier into a zombie after 12 months. Presumably it’s a reminder that as yet they, and consequently we, have little idea what might be around the corner. 

*** – This article provides a lot of food for thought on how we respond to air and road accidents.

Posted in Coronavirus, Mathematics, Politics, Science, Sport | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Coronaclassical 4: Missing You

You don’t get to choose what you’re remembered for. We were sitting listening to Tim Pigott-Smith at the end of an acting class. He’d come in as a last-minute replacement, and had worked through some exercises, leaving the final half hour or so for a relaxed Q&A. 

In the nicest possible way he was name-dropping a little, giving examples of memorable performances he’d witnessed by great actors. Somehow the topic got around to acting drunk, and he cited Michael Caine in Educating Rita as the best he’d seen. It was Thursday afternoon towards the end of a gruelling week, and despite our enthusiasm, our body language was distinctly low-energy. He mentioned that he’d worked with Caine on one of the worst movies he’d ever made, set in a World War 2 prison camp. Cogs in the brains of Robert Murray and myself – the two football fans in the class – began slowly to turn, and then more rapidly to whirr and whizz. “You’re talking about to Escape To Victory!” He was talking about Escape To Victory. From that point on the remainder of the session was hijacked, and a first-rate actor with a career spanning decades was obliged to answer questions about Pelé and Ossie Ardiles and John Wark and Sylvester Stallone, to the exclusion of the entirety of his other work. 

There’s a lesson for young performers I suppose. You should always be careful about signing a contract, since once you’ve done so and you’re out there doing it, people will assume that this is what you do, what you’re happy doing, and it may well be what they end up remembering you for, whether you like it or not.

That week of National Opera Studio classes at the National Theatre was unforgettable, and I still lean on many of the lessons learned there today – as well as Pelé’s friend, we had sessions with Toby Jones, Erica Whyman, Nigel Planer* and several others. (In one of those situations you’d never foresee before you start out in this odd career, I was called out of Planer’s session by a phone call for me at reception, which in fact turned out to be a fake message from the real Harrison Birtwistle who was auditioning upstairs and wanted to hear me. The audition turned out to consist mainly of being photographed beside a table. It’s a long story for another time.)

Tim Pigott-Smith, best-remembered for his work with Mike Summerbee, was on hand because he was appearing in Eugene O’Neill’s three-play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra at the NT. I must have been impressed with his session since I went along to see it the following weekend. Tim’s character Ezra Mannon died halfway through the second play. Oh, sorry – Spoiler Warning. In opera, he’d have been allowed to take a solo curtain call at the next interval and go home for his tea. The last thing I expected to see was him hanging around for the curtain call several hours later, but sure enough there he was – not even for a solo call, but a regular team-effort company bow. I loved him for it.

Theatre curtain calls always strike me as an affair for grown-ups, although they tie themselves up in as many knots as we do worrying about them. What are they for? Why are they so variable and capricious? Since when and why have audiences started booing the antagonist, and do we ignore it or play up to it or what? Why can’t we all just go home? Do any of these people even remember which character I played?

The most extreme example of the latter question came in Barrie Kosky’s production of The Nose at Covent Garden in 2016. The entire huge cast, bar the lead, had (almost) identical prosthetic noses fitted, and so we paraded onto the stage at the end in our threes and fours to receive the baffled approval of a squinting public. In fact, after make-up none of us in the cast had much idea who any of the others was either, which was quite a liberating feeling backstage, in the manner of the story about Brian Clough and the Nottingham Forest trainee. **

Singers in the time of Coronavirus seem to have divided into two distinct groups. Those who are bombarding their social media friends and followers with daily online performances from their front rooms. And the others who are seemingly struggling to summon the motivation even to maintain their usual practice routine. Extroverts and introverts? There are plenty of performers who fall into both categories, or a combination of each at various times. I wonder how they correlate with those who enjoy curtain calls and those for whom they’re an ordeal.

I’m definitely in the latter category. I’m always very clear in my own mind how well or otherwise I’ve performed, and while I’m glad if I sense an audience has had a good time, it doesn’t change how I feel about it. I’d much rather have a one-to-one chat with audience members in the foyer bar afterwards – that’s when you get the real feedback. Like any crowd, an audience can’t really begin to make sense to you or itself until viewed as a hugely disparate collection of individuals.

But don’t go away thinking I don’t miss you. Just that it’s more about what’s happened to us all, the slice of life we’ve shared together during the performance: it’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simon Callow typically puts this far more eloquently than I ever could: “What matters much more is what has passed between us and the audience over the course of the evening. Of course that may involve applause – especially if it’s a musical – but even then, it’s the minute-by-minute interplay (as often as not silent) that really counts; the sense of communication, the engagement with an audience.” 

That’s exactly what I miss. And, introvert or not, what I’d love to be part of again someday soon.

 

 

* – Nigel Planer’s session was the day after Russell Osman’s friend Tim’s, and upon being told we’d been working with him, Planer described how he’d had to apologise to Pigott-Smith for photo-bombing him at stage door in character as Nicholas Craig. The latter’s book ‘I, An Actor’ is one of the greatest works of theatrical insight ever published, and for one thing coins the term “actoplasm” for the oral emissions of a stage performer – the physical range of which is currently a hot scientific topic.

** – Clough phoned the training ground and asked to speak to one of the coaches. The teenage trainee who had picked up told him, “You can f*** off.” Clough, justifiably incensed, demanded, “Young man, do you know who this is?” The trainee replied, “Yes. Do you know who this is?” Clough told him he did not. Trainee: “In that case you can definitely f*** off.”

Posted in acting, Cinema, Coronavirus, Football, Music, Opera, singing, Sport, Theatre | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coronaclassical 3: Keeping Going

There’s a story about the first shadow cabinet meeting after the 1997 UK General Election which has popped into my mind a few times over recent weeks. After eighteen years in office, the Conservatives had just been dealt a thorough drubbing at the hands of the electorate, and met to discuss their strategy options against the newly-formed Labour government. There were a few new faces around the table, brimming with ideas and urgent enthusiasm about how to cut Tony Blair’s lot down to size. After a few of them had finished breathlessly brainstorming, Michael Heseltine stretched out his veteran legs under the table, leant back and crooned “Ladies and gentlemen – I suggest we all calm down and pace ourselves. We’re going to be here a long time.” *

Several articles this week have bravely grappled with the concept of socially-distanced theatrical performances, and how they might work. There’s particularly good back-of-the-envelope work from Zach Finkelstein here, and others have reached roughly similar conclusions via various configurations. To sum up, you would probably do well to get anywhere near 50% of a regular audience into the usual auditorium space – in reality, something closer to 25% is much more realistic. 

That means you’d need to quadruple your ticket prices to hit the same break-even as before – or perhaps you’d only need to double them if you could halve your costs, somehow. If you found yourself in optimistic mood, you might approach the relevant authorities, or a sympathetic sponsor, to subsidise the shortfall. 

Even then, for most venues, serious health and safety issues would remain. However successfully we configured the performing and listening space, you’d still need to be able to evacuate people safely in the event of a fire, and show that even without such an emergency, the normal process of getting in and out wouldn’t cause any dangerous sub-2m bottlenecks. 

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra have just bitten the bullet and given their first post-lockdown socially-distanced performance – but note that there was no live audience. One of the things that makes this possible for the BPO is that they have a well-established paid subscription channel, which taps into last week’s discussion.

There remains the question of what is a safe distance, and as we learn more about how this virus transmits itself, the news seems to be anything but good, especially for singers and wind players, with revised estimates of safe distancing ranging from 3m to 5m to there being no safe distance at all. The German approach to re-opening churches made particularly sobering reading for my lot, involving an effective ban on singing altogether.

I have no desire to pull the rug from under the huge amount of innovative thinking that’s going on – a blank canvas approach to our current challenges can only lead to good things in the long run. But we need to be realistic. As Michael Volpe of Opera Holland Park this week put it with characteristic directness: “Whatever it does, opera (and other art forms) would be best advised not to try to find a way to continue doing the same things in the same way based on half the audience. I guarantee that won’t work.”

In other words, for all their invention and ingenuity, the various responses to socially-distanced performance are short term solutions at best. Even if they could be made to work financially, under current conditions there would remain a fully justifiable reluctance among many of our audience members to put themselves at risk. What live performance art needs in order to get back to normal lies largely on the medical side of things: better treatments, a reliable system of testing for immunity, and ideally and most importantly, an effective and widely available vaccine.

Now the good news, or grounds for cautious optimism at least. There are signs that even the most sluggish governments are grasping the urgent necessity for widespread testing, and that the technology for reliably doing so is developing quickly. The understanding of effective treatments is deepening all the time. The evidence seems to be moving away from the idea that the virus mutates rapidly, at least to any significant extent (bad news if we were hoping for a miraculously benign mutation, but good news in the hunt for a vaccine), and South Korean researchers seem to have found an explanation for repeated positive tests which doesn’t involve the possibility of contracting the illness more than once.

While progress is being made on vaccines at a historically unprecedented rate, we do need a dose of realism about the timescale. Even if an effective vaccine were developed tomorrow, some aspects of the research into potential side effects can’t be rushed – for example, there’s no way of knowing how it might affect pregnant women in under 9 months – and the process of manufacturing and distributing a vaccine to billions of people in a short space of time has simply never been tried before.**

What the medical scientists have already achieved is staggering, but we need to take on board that they need time, and that is what our lockdowns are for. The sacrifices we as professional performing artists, as with many other walks of life, are being asked to make are huge. On an emotional level we’re being denied the activity which keeps many of us sane, and the financial safety net for most of us is minimal, or in many cases non-existent. 

But spend ten minutes talking to any healthcare professional working on a Covid ward and you’ll know why we’re doing it. Every day they watch their patients – not to mention their colleagues – suffer and die, trying desperately to work out why. They come home every night broken. And every morning they put themselves back together and return to the front line. 

Every day we can keep going through this buys them the time to save lives. It might well be a while yet. But let’s keep going.

Originally published 3rd May 2020

 

* – Admittedly a paraphrase rather than a direct quotation. I’m also deducing it was Heseltine, since the account I read didn’t name him – but I distinctly recall him sitting directly facing me in the front row of a Nelson Mass I once sang at the Houses of Parliament, and he adopted that exact pose. He has very long legs.

**- Consider also the question of universal uptake of a vaccine. Let’s say we establish the infection mortality rate of the virus at around 1% for most groups, as currently seems likely – that’s 1% if you catch it. You’re then asked to weigh that risk against a yet-to-be-established level of risk of as-yet-unknown side-effects from a rapidly-developed vaccine, for you and your family. It could well be a far from a straightforward decision.

 

Posted in Art, Coronavirus, Opera, Politics, Science, singing, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coronaclassical 2: Giving It Away

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear – they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

What Disney in fact did was to keep producing their new content, increased their marketing, and heavily promoted an attractive offer of around 12% off for early subscribers. Speaking anecdotally, it was more than enough to make me sign up, with the prospect of several weeks at home and a lot of spare time suddenly looming.

Disney already had a viable business model for home entertainment set up, and so they were well-placed to cash in on a newly captive audience. And it’s to mutual advantage: subscribers can stump up £5 a week or so, knowing that their contribution will lead to more of the content that they enjoy. It really doesn’t take much – one or two flagship shows in most cases. I’m happy that my contribution to Netflix will help finish Better Call Saul, and similarly with NOW TV and Westworld.

So where did I get that nonsensical example in paragraph one? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

I’m combining separate examples for dramatic effect of course, although there are a few companies who have reacted in pretty much all of these ways. Elements of this response are apparent across the industry – freelance artists have been instantly laid off with minimal or no compensation, the cap has been passed round to the usual long-suffering and endlessly generous supporters, and most bizarrely, vast archives of digital content have been put online for free.

Now, if we are to assume that the current crisis will last a matter of a few weeks, and that we’ll all be back to normal by the beginning of the autumn season, this approach might make some sense. With strong hints over the last few days from the UK and Scottish governments, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and others, that realistically we need to think in terms of months and years rather than weeks – in other words, well into 2021 if not beyond – the penny should be beginning to drop that the wait to get back to “normal” may be a far longer one. There is even a non-negligible chance that this could be a permanent new “normal”.

For companies, a theatrical lockdown which reaches into next year means a long time to go without ticket income, or to rely on audience generosity with nothing to offer in return. For individual artists, it would take most of us beyond the period for which we had confirmed contracts, leaving us without even the support those might have offered, and truly out on a limb.

What then for an industry which has over the last few decades, rightly or wrongly, put all its eggs in the basket of live performance?

This business of releasing digital content free of charge was not without a certain logic, after all. The idea (I infer) was to treat it as a loss leader, to drum up interest (albeit often via a mechanism which was so vague that one suspected it didn’t necessarily exist in any genuine detail at all) in buying tickets for live performances – some of which might, with a bit of luck, turn out to be profitable.

But there was always a flaw in the reasoning here. A video recording of a live performance is, in itself, an artistic product, and there was really never any reason why, with some marketing legwork, a viable paying audience couldn’t have been built up for it over time. The era when people were used to getting movies and TV shows (as opposed to music – that’s a separate set of problems) online for nothing is very much over. If you’re not a Disney+ subscriber, and decide you want to watch Return of the Jedi on YouTube this evening, it’ll set you back £6.99. Would it really take much for classical music audiences to undergo the same paradigm shift? Almost all of the freelance artists we’re watching in those classical broadcasts are currently unemployed and trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the next couple of years. Most of them will not be being paid for these broadcasts, and many would have received next to nothing for them in the first place. Would it be too much to ask that we take the opportunity to invite current viewers to contribute to their livelihoods? In fact, had we already done the work to establish the principle of paying for getting classical music on your TV screen, this could have been a genuine boom time for the industry.

Let me give you a concrete example. My YouTube channel contains a song recital playlist, which I made at my own expense a couple of years ago and which, between the various tracks, now has over 10,000 views. While I make no comment on the singer’s performance, the quality of audio and video is high, and at, say, 49p a view I could not only make a decent profit, but more to the point have the financial capacity to produce similar content once or twice a year at least – even under the current restrictions on social distancing and so on. However, the reality is that my huge, and in many cases hugely subsidised, competitors have set the going rate for viewing online classical music content at precisely zero. So I make a loss, and viewers are denied the ongoing production of new high-quality content. It’s the artistic equivalent of burning fossil fuel. And as with the boar seller in Asterix and the Cauldron, everybody loses.

asterix1

This moment in history could be an opportunity to think about the most fundamental basis of how our industry works. Without going into the personal details of the Placido Domingo affair and similar recent scandals, a business which sets itself up such that it relies on huge corporate and individual donations, and therefore needs to give them in return, among other things, some special sort of privileged access to “stars” which it is then obliged to create and place in positions of unassailable power, has created an almost-inevitable problem for itself. We lean on subsidies so that a proportion of our tickets can be sold below cost price, allowing the entire industry to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude to the fact that ours is an expensive product to make. At some point it’s surely not a moral outrage to ask those who consume it to pay for it. What might a truly egalitarian opera industry – where audiences are invited to make a grown-up decision to pay for what they’re getting – look like? 

And let’s think again about that expense. Our productions are expensive – but on the scale of television and cinema budgets, not impossibly so, especially if we begin to apply ourselves seriously to the idea of a potential global, at-home paying audience.

When we come to live theatrical performance, there’s no getting away from the challenges presented. If we’re honest, theatre was already approaching something of a watershed regarding audience expectations of mutually acceptable behaviour and how to share a space in the modern world. Will we need to rethink venues entirely – around a comfort-based individual experience, rather than cramming ‘em in? Will theatrical boxes make a serious comeback? Stuart Murphy’s latest brainstorm for ENO, touting the idea of drive-in opera, raises more questions than it answers. But at least it’s a sign that the industry may be willing to go back to first principles, which is surely the least the situation will demand – and this is not to mention how we might configure our singers and orchestra members at a safe distance from each other. Perhaps it’ll be like the post-AIDS porn industry, and we’ll need medical certificates before we can perform together without protection.

Let’s take the worst-case scenario, and say that the idea of staging a show in front of a live audience of thousands is a thing of the past. We’d all take a moment to mourn that loss. But as grown-up professional artists, our job is to imagine these scenarios, and prepare to meet these challenges. Opera and classical music on video has almost always been hamstrung by the limitations of pointing cameras at a stage, filming something with the pace and scale of theatre and concert hall rather than cinema or TV. It may be time to revisit seriously what we might be able to achieve by designing pieces from the ground up for screen rather than stage. 

Being restricted by the parameters of works designed for theatrical audiences two centuries ago is a choice we make, and other routes are available. If the ideal material to take advantage of a home broadcast format is limited or unavailable, we have a vast number of hugely talented composers, librettists, directors and designers who could produce it afresh. Acting styles might need to adapt, but they always have done in response to the dramatic tastes of the day. In addition, the quality of video and audio equipment people have at home is, in general, unrecognisably superior to what was available when these questions were first being addressed half a century ago. How do we make opera relevant to now? Making it now, for now, is always a good start.

This thing caught us all unawares. We’ve had a chance to grieve for the art that we’ve already lost. Take another moment to do so if you need it. But at some point we either choose to give up, or to get our thinking caps on and embrace this grimly terrifying, weird, and yet potentially wonderful new world, and ask whether it holds a place for those who seek to make viable, sustainable, profitable art. Are we up for it?

Posted in Art, Cinema, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Theatre | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Coronaclassical 1: Waiting for Thanos

“We’re allowed to play but we’ve got to be careful about the Coronavirus. It started in somewhere called China. A boy ate a bat and got ill. One time at school I vomited in the classroom.”

The playground in Tooting Gardens is currently teeming with 5-year-old epidemiologists. It’s a sunny mid-March afternoon, I’ve just had news of another two contract cancellations, and I’m babysitting. I watch M. as she chattily gathers new friends in her habitual carefree manner, at the same time keeping half an eye on my phone as the latest daily updates on the impending COVID-19 catastrophe filter through.

Sitting there, it feels eerily like the dream sequence in Terminator 2, where Sarah Connor imagines herself screaming a warning at a similarly frivolous playground, unheeded and too late as a nuclear attack arrives and obliterates them all.

On closer examination, that’s not quite what this is. A history-changing devastation is about to hit us, seemingly inevitably claiming millions of lives worldwide. Round here they’ve dubbed it the Thanos Virus. And yet, as far as we can see up to now at least, SARS-CoV-2 has a far less egalitarian approach to the souls it chooses to snap away. Whatever the latest measure of the overall mortality rate, it is clearly heavily skewed towards older people, leaving the under-19s almost entirely unscathed. An Angel of Death which passes over the children.

All lives are valuable, of course they are. In the UK the debate rages about the logic of keeping open or closing schools. The received wisdom in other countries seems to be to shut them now, and deal with the consequences as we go along. Every argument in favour of that has validity, as far as I can see.

But this whole thing is a hideous, planetary-wide Kobyashi Maru test. There is no right answer, no winning outcome. Merely a card deck of atrocities to be dealt out. A population must consent to be governed, as any teacher who has stood in front of a class of Year 10s knows better than anyone. Telling 7 million teenagers to stay indoors for 4 months sounds a lovely, straightforward idea in theory. The practice, I suspect, would be rather different.

And really, who could blame them? For years these same kids have been begging those with wealth and power to act on their behalf, to secure their futures and the future of humanity itself, most obviously on climate change, but also on social inequality, job security, house prices, quality of healthcare, and so on – to be told that they don’t understand the real world, it’s not possible, how could we afford it, calm down and stop being hysterical. Now that their own lives are on the line, those very same adults are making, in an instant and at any cost, many of those previously-impossible changes, and demanding immense sacrifices of every member of society, as usual disproportionately for their own benefit.

Sending a child to their room for a couple of hours is a punishment. At other times, get outdoors we tell them, you need to live a full and healthy childhood. Now they’re being asked to put that childhood on hold, for weeks, months, who knows how long. It’s not an insignificant sacrifice. Before we feel shocked at any apparent teenage nonchalance about what they’ve tagged the “Boomer Remover”, we might pause to take a broader view while standing in their shoes.

For those of us who are slightly less invincible than the average teenager, an antidote to the incomprehensible stress of all this can be found during an hour or two being lectured by some 5-year-olds.

“Do we need to be scared of the Coronavirus?”

I reply to M. and her new friends that they need to take care and wash their hands properly, but that as children they’re very safe and they don’t need to worry. Just for once, it’s nice to be able to say that without it being a white lie.

Posted in Cinema, Coronavirus, Politics, Science | Tagged | 1 Comment

Trigger’s Missing Brooms

What’s it like being a singer? A lot of it is impossible to explain. If you happen to be reading this on crowded public transport, in a state of mild paranoia about contracting COVID-19, bear in mind that this is how it feels for us all the time. And you wondered why we’re all a bit loopy.

Two weeks ago, back in the days when Coronavirus was still a distant problem on the other side of the world, two of my bags were stolen in London – one where I keep my laptop and most of my other electronic equipment, and another where I keep the day’s music, usually including my iPad, which is I assume what caught this thief’s eye.

The remarkable thing about modern electronics is how instantly replaceable they all are, the cost being almost purely financial. When I spilled an entire cup of steaming hot coffee over my previous laptop, the swift migration of its brain to its replacement (the memory chips having by some miracle survived the 100% Arabica deluge) was so comprehensive that, when I switched it on, its first question was: Your last session was interrupted. Would you like to continue where you left off? (Nice of it to leave out “you clumsy oaf”.) Even more seamlessly, my new iPad only required me to place my iPhone beside it to get up and running as if it had been a family member for years. 21st Century computers are Ships of Theseus (or, according to taste, Brooms of Trigger), but even more so, being replaceable in their entirety at one stroke and yet within moments becoming indistinguishable from their instantly-unlamented predecessors.

That’s less the case with some other things. A couple of items (including the music bag itself) were gifts from dear friends. And the three vocal scores… perhaps only a singer can really understand what they contained: not so much the printed content, but what had been painstakingly added to them. A Rake’s Progress with notes from the first outing of the David McVicar production. Stephen McNeff’s The Burning Boy, with personal contributions from the composer ahead of its world premiere. And most painfully of all, my bog-standard, dog-eared Schirmer economy edition Rheingold. Notes from when I first dabbled in some casual Donner over a decade ago, through to some far-more-serious Wotanning over the last couple of years. Insights and anecdotes from John Tomlinson and Willard White. Tempi and dynamics from Tony Pappano and Anthony Negus. Thoughts and interpretations from Keith Warner and Julia Burbach. Language notes, performance advice, stylistic tips, advice, input, support from hundreds of hours of rehearsals and coaching sessions with world-class colleagues, many of them among the greatest living experts on this repertoire. Worthless to pretty much anyone else; priceless to me.

It makes me wish my burglars had been smarter, realised this and contacted me with a ransom note. I can’t even imagine what my bottom line would be, but it’s almost certainly more than they got for the iPad at least. Only a few months ago I’d had my four Ring scores hardbound, with the idea that they should last me another twenty years at least. As I relinquished them, the bookbinder noticed me getting slightly dewy-eyed, and she said “Don’t worry – we’ll look after them. We understand better than anyone how much they must mean to you.”

I suppose that if the Ring cycle teaches us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get too attached to things: however precious an object might seem to us, when our time with it is done, we need to let it go. When I was still training as a singer, a director once challenged me about the fact that I don’t take notes in rehearsal. I replied that, since I can’t take a notebook out on stage with me, if I can’t remember a note then it’s no use to me, and if I can remember it there’s no point writing it down. (I often miss that younger version of me, with his much more elastic brain, not to mention his largely unfounded overconfidence.) And having now performed the role of Rheingold Wotan, the important, the useful stuff is in my head, and anything I’ve forgotten, by implication, wasn’t worth retaining. If it had been my score of Walküre, which I start rehearsing for the first time in a full production just over a month from now, I’d have been in much deeper trouble. And I’m physically unharmed and healthy, I still have a roof over my head and a dry floor under my feet. There are people with far worse problems, coping with losses infinitely greater than mine.

A further silver lining came in the shape of a Rheingold score from a second-hand bookshop. The advertised description bore so many uncanny similarities to mine that I thought and hoped it might turn out to be the same one. In fact, it’s a distinctly superior version: a beautiful vintage Schott edition, bound in an almost identical way to mine, with unmarked, pristine pages. (It seems originally to have been the property of James W Marshall, organist of St Cuthbert’s Church in Darlington and founder of Darlington Choral Society. But rather intriguingly the edition was first published in 1899, three years after his death.) I’m very happy to have made its acquaintance, and at a bargain price. 

There’s also an argument that leaving some (literal and figurative) baggage behind isn’t an entirely negative process, especially with a character who gets under your skin and inside your head as insidiously as this one inevitably does. At the end of Scene 2 of Rheingold, Wotan (the way I play it at least) comes to realise that he didn’t need Freia’s apples after all – his strength and energy come from elsewhere, from within. Sometimes it’s only by losing something that we learn how much we can do on our own.

But having said all that, I would love that old score back. Here’s a picture of it, at the bottom of the now-lopsided pile of four. If you could keep an eye out for it in charity shops and second-hand bookstores while you’re out and about, I’d be very grateful. And if you could remember to sneeze into a hanky and wash your hands regularly while you’re at it, that would be even better.

Posted in Books, Music, Opera, Travel, Wagner | Leave a comment

Why Tosca Dies

When opera gets criticised, as it often does these days, for killing its sopranos, Tosca is almost always at the top of the list. A virtuous, beautiful, talented, charismatic heroine, manipulated and tormented through no fault of her own, and forced by her scriptwriters to end it all every night of the week in a fatal leap from the top of a Roman landmark. Why? What’s the point being made here?

As I’ve written before, we need to take care when addressing this soprano-killing question. To recap: the death of a character is not the same as the death of the singer playing the character – in fact, death scenes are some of the most rewarding to act, and dying on stage should come at no personal risk to the actors involved; and the climactic death of a character very often greatly increases her importance to the narrative – contrast Tosca’s death with that of Cavaradossi, or even more so, with poor old Angelotti’s.

Having said that, Tosca’s death does seem particularly brutal and unjustified. One could end the show after Act 2 and have a very different, and perfectly satisfactory, story, with a different moral to be drawn. Act 3 arguably seems to subvert the idea of a moral entirely – it feels like a bleakly amoral story, with an almost nihilistically hopeless conclusion.

In fact, even the far-from-faint-hearted Puccini balked at Tosca’s death. His preference was for an extended mad scene, Cavaradossi’s execution pushing her over the edge mentally rather than architecturally. It was Sardou, author of the play on which the opera is based, who dug his heels in and insisted that only a suicidal denouement would do the job as intended.

Tosca is essentially a story about the clash of the contrasting world-views of its three main characters. Cavaradossi: a Voltairian, anti-religion, anti-authority, free-spirited, liberal. (In Dungeons & Dragons we’d have labelled him Chaotic-Good.) Scarpia: brutal, authoritarian, willing to turn the machinery of State and Church to his own ends of maintaining order and increasing his own personal power. (D&D: Lawful-Evil.) And caught between them, Tosca herself: pious, law-abiding, altruistic. (D&D: Lawful-Good.)

I’ve just arrived in beautiful Inverness, where we’re touring Anthony Besch’s classic 1980 production of the piece, which updates the action to the summer of 1943. Scarpia and his henchmen are black-shirted, jackbooted fascists, in case anyone was in any doubt whose side we’re supposed to be on. The updating was innovative and not without controversy when Besch and his designer Peter Rice first deployed it; by now it seems a familiar idea. But having said that, this time around (this being the third revival I’ve been involved in since I started my professional career here with Scottish Opera in 2004) there seems to be a certain added energy and edge to the concept, and to the audience reactions. At first we wondered why that was; I suspect at least part of the answer might be found by opening any current newspaper.

One of the many remarkable things about this piece is the tautness of its construction – Act 2 in particular hangs together with the undeviating tension of a piano string. Scarpia and Tosca initially meet in the Roman church of Sant Andrea della Valle, where in this production Rice made sure that the mural of St Andrew being crucified in saltire formation is unmissably upstage centre. A canny piece of subliminal wooing of his Scottish audience, perhaps. From that first moment, Scarpia zeroes in on two aspects of Tosca’s personality – her piousness and her jealousy – to manipulate her into unwittingly leading him to the hiding place of the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Given that he is being concealed by Cavaradossi, Scarpia also concocts a plan to use the latter’s legal predicament to blackmail Tosca into granting him sexual favours.

This plan is essentially watertight – during Act 2, Scarpia even gives Tosca a tour of the various strands of his spider’s web, demonstrating to her that she is comprehensively snared. He fails to identify her one viable escape route – the one she eventually uses – because he assumes that, being a devout and orthodox Catholic, she won’t murder him (even if he believes her physically capable of such an act in the first place), since in her mind it would undoubtedly condemn her to Hell. He thinks nothing of abusing her piety against her, but fails to appreciate that her relationship with God is far more direct than the average Roman’s, and that she feels He might be willing to bend the rules in her case. In fact, the clues are there in Act 1, when Scarpia chides her for swearing in church, and she replies that God will make an exception for her. For Scarpia it’s a fatal and uncharacteristic oversight, but presumably his mind is on other things at this point. Either way, he underestimates her.

If we’re to get to the bottom of this story, it’s crucial to recognise the nature of Scarpia’s power. He is not superhuman, is not physically stronger nor necessarily more intelligent than his opponents. What he does have is the entire machinery of State and Church at his disposal, and an absolute lack of any moral or ethical restraint in using them to satisfy his own desires. On an individual level, Tosca does find the physical and moral resources to defeat him, and if we ended the opera after Act 2 we’d go home thinking this was all that was required. But the moral of the story, if we choose to look for one, is this: it’s not enough to depose, imprison or even kill a tyrant. It’s the system that gets you, and an individual can’t fight an entire tyrannical system and win.

And so, as we face a generational struggle with the question of authoritarian tyranny and how to oppose it, Tosca tells us that while it’s tempting to focus on the individuals at the top of their authoritarian trees – that, after all, is what their egos demand of us – if we are truly to defeat them, we need to take care to restrain, reform or even dismantle the systems which put them there, and which they would use to keep us under their tyranny.

Let’s not allow her nightly deaths to be in vain.

Posted in acting, Art, Music, Opera, Politics, Religion, singing, Theatre | 1 Comment

Summer opera? Pray for rain.

It’s summer in the UK, which means lots of black-tie picnics in muddy fields. The British attitude to rain is summed up by the fact that we buy more roofless convertible cars than any other country in Europe, despite, logically speaking, having the least cause to do so.

Stiff upper lip aside, there’s another reason why you shouldn’t get too downhearted if the weather is gloomy on the day of your opera-going, and that’s that you might well end up getting better singing as a result. Here are three reasons why.

Sound travels further in cold air

Although sound actually travels slightly faster through warmer air, the effect is so slight that it would normally be imperceptible to most human ears. On the other hand, in cold weather refraction will often cause sound to travel further – good news for those of you with the cheap tickets at the back.

Moisture keeps the voices lubricated

The typical human body is around 60% water, and singers will spend a lot of time pre-show making sure they’re fully hydrated. It’s not my specialist subject, but I’d hazard a guess that anything more than 60% air humidity should help singers stay hydrated during a show, assuming that it’s not coupled with high enough temperatures to make dehydration from sweating an issue. Furthermore, sound travels faster in moist air, so you should get a bit more ping when it’s a bit damp out there.

Rain keeps pollen levels under control

Air pollution and especially pollen levels are a problem which, anecdotally speaking, is proving increasingly irksome to many singers. A spell of wet, cold weather with fairly low wind levels will help minimise the risk of mid-show vocal conk-outs, and of course in an outdoor arena the lack of wind will help the acoustics too.

Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 12.22.22

Local honey – an important ally in the battle against air pollen

So there you go – the ideal summer singing conditions are probably a coldish, damp, wind-free evening. Reasons to be cheerful as you wrap yourself in a blanket, crack open your Thermos and enjoy the season’s offerings.

Posted in Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Home Truths

There’s a moment in Mike Volpe’s stunning documentary Hip Hop to Opera where his group of teenage schoolkids from south London get treated to an aria by Simon Shibambu – the first time that most of them have heard an opera singer live. (Six minutes in if you click on the link, but take the time to watch the whole thing if you haven’t seen it already.) They’re asked for their reaction, and once the initial shock has settled down, the first thing they want to know is, how did he end up standing there in front of them as a professional opera singer at the Royal Opera?

Down the road at English National Opera, their new chief executive Stuart Murphy has been giving the industry a public self-flagellation on its lack of diversity in casting, promising to redress the balance via some positive discrimination. For some reason he appears only to apply this principle to the company’s singers, no mention being made of a similar policy being applied to the orchestra, technical staff or administrational team – perhaps his offer of resigning in favour of a BAME chief executive went unreported – but I’m sure he didn’t intend to give the impression that the important thing is that the company is seen to be diverse, rather than actually being so at every level.

Unfair of me to pick on Mr Murphy – at least he’s been brave enough to raise the issue. So let’s be just as courageous and bite the bullet: is the UK opera industry racist?

First things first. If you’d stood here in 2015 and told me that British society in general had reached a hermetic state of benign enlightenment, then if you’d happened to catch me in an optimistic mood I might well have been tempted to believe you. After the ongoing events of the last three years, maybe less so now. And it would be a brave soul who claimed that the opera business is somehow immune from the malaises of society as a whole.

That broader topic is for another time though. Apart from society’s prejudices, and those of individuals in positions of power within it, what is it about the opera industry in particular which places barriers in the path of Black, Asian and other non-white Minority Ethic (BAME*) singers?

Talking to British BAME colleagues, those barriers very often seem to point back to something else, which tallies with my own experience of the business: class.

In that scene from Hip Hop to Opera, Simon Shibambu answers by saying that he started singing at 8 years old at home in South Africa, with choirs as a boy soprano. He says there were challenges – that in South Africa classical music is not something many families would want their child to start singing. “Same here” replies one of the south London lads.

“Same here.”

The thing is this. Now more than ever, with the current state of the education system in this country, I find it easier to envisage a black South African 8-year-old ending up twenty years later as a professional opera singer than I do an innately talented 8-year-old at a typical British state school. That’s not directly to do with ethnicity – although I’m taking the liberty of assuming that if I put on a production of Dido & Aeneas with an entirely BAME cast, and it turned out all of them had wealthy parents and had studied at expensive private schools and St John’s Cambridge, you wouldn’t be congratulating me on solving our problem.

At the same time as demanding more young people from less privileged backgrounds climb the long, steep ladder which leads to a professional opera career, we’re hacking away at the bottom rungs of that same ladder by cutting back, and often cutting altogether, the provision for music education in state schools. Anyone who is serious about tackling this issue as anything more than superficial virtue-signalling will surely be looking at that end of the process first and foremost, and, given that developing opera singers properly takes at least 20 years, will be setting goals for diversity which are long-term – that is, a process over decades rather than months.

That’s not to say that more immediate steps can’t be taken, and if UK companies are minded to back the many excellent British BAME singers they already have available to them then that can only be a positive thing. In terms of providing inspiring role models to future generations, if that’s what we’re after, a home-grown singer surely carries a lot more weight than one who grew up abroad, since their answers to the question “How did you end up here?” have far more chance of being directly relevant and applicable. Opera companies the world over are notorious for being inclined to import solutions to their casting challenges, but there are rewards in the short and long-term for those notable exceptions who strike a balance by investing in local artists too.

Last week I raised the need for UK companies to back home talent in general, especially given the current perfect storm of uncertainty facing UK artists hoping to work anywhere abroad in the near future (not to mention the need to minimise carbon footprints). The hackles of some non-UK singers were immediately raised. There’s an instant assumption that more work for UK singers means less for others. Need that be the case? Must we always be a bunch of bald men fighting over the last comb? Backing home-grown singers could mean devising new, additional projects, perhaps addressing Britain’s cultural relationship with the rest of the modern world – Lord knows, we could do with examining that somehow. I recently workshopped Guto Puw’s new piece for Music Theatre Wales, written in Welsh for two singers and a 12-piece orchestra – hardly prohibitive in budget allocation, therefore – and it’s one of the few times where I’ve felt part of an artform embedded in my own culture, that the concept of ‘Welsh opera’ meant something significant and tangible, in the way that Italian, German, French, Russian singers must presumably feel every day.

“Same here.”

There’s something fundamentally important in this process of producing new works in the overcoming of the cultural barrier which stands between British state school kids and traditional opera. Singing ability is, to some large extent, transferable between genres – is it legitimate to insist that, for instance, a talented young black vocalist sings music written by dead white male foreigners, rather than something with a far more direct connection to her own life experience? New music has a critical role to play in bridging that gap – or could have, if we assume that we’re interested in producing new pieces that are genuinely useful to contemporary society.

Let’s raise another factor, which is that training as an opera singer continues to become ever more eye-wateringly expensive, even compared to other forms of higher education, while the potential financial rewards of the career at the end of it decrease in both size and stability. My sincere advice to anyone thinking of pursuing it as a career, unless they are of independent financial means and/or have a passport from another EU country is: think again, much harder. We’re turning what was the most working-class field in classical music into a rich kid’s pastime, and no-one seems to be lifting a finger to change that.

A word of warning too for young singers who have managed to make it through to the professional world. The opera business is a machine which is more than capable of chewing singers up, spitting them out, and forgetting about them. And the time to be most on your guard is when the industry decides that it needs you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take advantage when it does – we’re the ones who sail the boats, and assuming they’re seaworthy we’d be foolish not to launch them whenever we find that the tide is in our favour. If, in the interests of ‘authenticity’, the machine were suddenly to decide that Mr Gedge the vicar had to be played by a middle-aged Welshman, I’d have my diary open before you could say “but you’ve always hated Albert Herring”.

In actual fact what you should be saying is “are you sure that’s the right role for you vocally?”, because these days it certainly isn’t. Experienced colleagues won’t need me to tell them this, since they’re best-placed to make the call themselves, but younger singers should be wary: don’t assume that because you’re offered a role, you must be capable of singing it right now – in practice, it’s not a casting director’s job to be the impartial judge of what’s in your long-term interests.  The industry has suddenly decided that it needs non-white faces on stage – that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean you’re obliged to damage your long-term career and vocal health by pushing your voice into things it shouldn’t be doing. Look after yourself, take care, and good advice from a handful of people you trust. You don’t owe the machine anything.

Let’s leave Mr Gedge to one side for now and consider the role of Otello. Ever since Shakespeare’s version of the character became largely – and quite correctly – the preserve of black actors, there’s been a clamour from the industry and outside for the same principle to be applied to Verdi’s.

The problem isn’t that the role that Verdi wrote isn’t singable by a black tenor – it’s that it isn’t really singable by a mortal human being: it’s a notorious voice-wrecker, and if a tenor can avoid singing it they probably should. But the machine is desperate for a black Otello, and so any young black tenor immediately has this burden of expectation thrust upon him as soon as he sets foot on stage with a degree of promise – even when he might well be a more suitable Cassio or Roderigo in the same piece. Being a tenor is hard enough as it is, or so they tell me, persistently and loudly.

For the time being the machine has, it seems, decided to solve the problem by casting non-ethnically-specific Otellos, without any hint of “blackface” make-up. Since Verdi’s opera is really far more about jealousy than race – much of the subtlety of Shakespeare’s treatment of the latter subject is lost in the inevitable contraction that happens when a long play is adapted as an opera libretto – it’s probably a legitimate solution of sorts. That only leaves us needing to find answers to the issues presented by Aida, Butterfly, Turandot, Carmen… Perhaps we’re going to need a bigger boat.

A colleague recently recounted to me that, when about to appear as Wotan for the first time, he’d received some pretty intimidating correspondence objecting to the idea of a black man portraying a character based heavily on Odin. (Who was, it seems, unambiguously Aryan. I suppose man creates all sorts of gods in his own image.) Humanity being what it is, we need to take care about well-intentioned initiatives – it rarely takes much for less benign souls to pick them up and use them as a stick with which to beat their customary targets.

Diversity on British stages. Let me return to two questions, both of which boil down to equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity.

If, as a quick fix to diverse casting, the non-white singers on stage are all imported, does that solve our problem? In the context of British opera, how inspiring is a cast of – for example – Americans, Chinese, and Oxbridge choral scholars in terms of laying the foundations for future generations? Ethnicity is a factor in relatability, sure – but if the message we’re sending is that BAME singers can make it in opera, as long as they’re not born in Britain, then are we any further along a road which leads anywhere useful?

Even more importantly: any competent casting department could quite easily put together an ethnically diverse team from current British talent for most standard operas. That might well inspire a new generation of youngsters to pursue training in classical music. But if we then send them back to schools where we are at the very same time removing most, and in many cases all, of the already inadequate training in that very field, is it not just another example of us asking young people why they aren’t climbing a ladder which we’ve already chopped up for firewood?

 

* – I’m using this term for want of a better one, while being aware that its use is not without its controversies.

Posted in Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre, Wales | 1 Comment