Monday, 22 August 2011

The Guardian's How To Enjoy Opera

This weekend The Guardian published a supplement to coincide with the second of their live opera performance relays from GlyndebourneHow To Enjoy Opera is intended as a guide for the barely/un-initiated: key works of the repertoire; how opera has changed; basic ideas to scotch myths and prepare the listener for a first experience; and some useful tips on how to find affordably-priced tickets.

On the face of it this is a perfectly good idea. However my suspicions of the enterprise were quickly alerted by the video trailer the paper had produced to market the project. This involves three people on a typical, if comfortable urban estate discussing the appeal of opera by singing to one another. The music that is used to score the gimmick is that of The Barber Of Seville, jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable music. Inoffensive, like a scented candle - tempting, soothing, providing a temporary focus of meandering attention, ultimately pointless.

And this is the basic temperament of the whole guide: jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable. Consequently, we get lists. Lists are never designed to inform but as a reference point; 'ooh, I know that one' is the basic response, 'perhaps I'm not completely ignorant of this opera business after all' says the reader, wrapping themselves in a slanket of self-satisfaction. Fiona Maddocks, who compiled the 'Top 50 Operas' was vaguely apologetic about it on Twitter, saying
re lists my preferred heading wld be 'operas from the canon worth knowing about that happen to number 50'...
Quite. I would have preferred to see a generic list of operas ('these are the top political dramas, these great love stories, the best comedies are' etc.). This is often the way in which films are listed at the cinema or in DVD collections and today the analogy to be drawn between films and opera is closer than it's ever been. A chronological list, like this one, is stuffy and no longer pertinent in the director-led climate. Tim Ashley's modern composer list is more helpful as a discussion of styles. Certainly, the glossary that Ms Maddocks provides of operatic terms is utterly pointless. No-one needs to know a single one of these terms in order to engage with an opera, let alone enjoy it. Many people involved professionally in opera will only know a proportion of these terms.

Most infuriating is John Crace's How to survive your first opera. Like all these jolly, benign, vaguely recognisable pieces on anything its moderation is its weakness.
Here was art at its most sublime:
he says recalling his first, Damascene experience. What does sublime even mean? Does is mean a perfectly miscible blend of art forms that can access consciousness other art form cannot (objective)? Or is he using the term in the more common (subjective) manner of overwhelming, sense-saturating?
an overwhelming combination of music, drama and poetry.
oh, he means both. Is this article about to become have-and-eat-cake?

Sure enough, he begins to get glib. He notes that dresscode is now really only the preserve of Glyndebourne, which he also seems to think this is great fun,
For Glyndebourne I wear a suit without a tie and still feel like a tramp.
Well, clearly Mr Crace is still struggling with 'the prejudice in [his] own head' he notes in his opening sentence. Glyndebourne - opaquely - outlines the tradition on its website. However there is no obligation to wear anything specific. Read the terms and conditions of purchase. There is no mention of dress requirement as a mandatory adjunct for purchasing or using a ticket. As for Glyndebourne's fragile logic that evening dress originated out of respect for the performers, well not only is this unlikely but one suspects it had more to do with the original audience dressing in a period appropriate manner to attend a private performance involving dinner at a private home. Perpetuating a 'dresscode' is anachronistic nonsense.

What to see?
for your first opera stick to one you've probably heard of
More nonsense. Trying something new? Go and see something you think you might know. Crace's reasonable point is that you don't want to accidentally sit down in front of a four hour epic of slaughter and politics if you wanted to see a tidy tearjerker with perfumed tunes - so I return to my point about generic listing above. To that I'd add investigating the running time. These are the pragamatic facts of any sort of artistic experience over which an audience may have control and so of which one wants to be informed beforehand. However, trying to control what you experience once inside the theatre is missing the point of theatre-going.

Homework, writes Crace
You should be prepared to do a bit of background research before the curtain rises.
Bullshit. Sorry, I usually try to avoid this sort of language but this made me angry. If the show doesn't communicate with an audience coming to it cold, it has failed. Once again, trying to control what you experience in the theatre is missing the point of theatre-going.

Then, to close
A final word of warning. Wagner. Don't.
A lazy, crass line of text wasting everything he has written in the rest of his own piece.

There is a useful piece on how to deal with the pricing structure of major theatres and tips on how to find cheaper tickets, although these problems are by no means the solve preserve of opera. A related Guardian article from a few days back suggests that the current vogue for opera in fringe venues provides not only an affordable opera but also a more involving circumstance for its performers and audience alike. I might add that it also allows good singers - of which London has a few - who may not yet be the elite athletes of the art form required to fill the barn-like auditoria of the West End the ability to sing within themselves, thus doing justice to the art form. What How To Enjoy Opera does not do is justice.

Addendum: I was thinking about Lord Harewood, who died last month, and the publication for which he was famous, Kobbé's Complete Opera Book. It's an interesting book but not one I'd recommend to the newcomer as it is - for the reasons emergent above - rather dated. However it is worth noting that a man such as the Earl of Harewood was not by any means an ivory tower recluse interested only in lyric theatre in its snobbish postwar heyday, as he was also president of the FA in the 1960s.


  1. Interesting post ! I'm wondering aboutb the long term implications of the Guardian campaign. Notice, no streaming on Glyndebourne's own site. And cinemas are empty, which is not good news for the kind of small chains that do opera. Do we really want monopoly situations ? The Guardian might corner the market for online opera, but who really benefits, long term ? It may grow the audience but will that be the kind of audience that thinks dopey articles are the same as sensitive informed thinking ? Already people are beginning to expect everything cost free and effort free. Is that good for art ?

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    Presumably Glyndebourne decided to stream via The Guardian as The Guardian has a significantly larger, wider audience than they do - which is the main point of doing the streaming at all.

    I'm not sure quite what you mean by 'cinemas are empty'. However, it is the case that those showing the relays, especially, as you note, the smaller cinemas, do disproportionately well with these screenings. For example, on a tickets sold/screening ratio Picturehouses cinemas constantly find opera and theatre relays their most popular programmings.

    Certainly you are right to sound a word of caution concerning the nature of the benefit of the relay. The accessibility issue is unanswerably positive but the experience of hearing a performance live cannot be created or even conveyed via a screen or speakers. I think that 'dopey article' such as the jolly but misguided John Crace piece are probably seen for what they are; although it's not helpful to have an informative piece written with irony, one certain needs to retain that sense of equivocation to process and discuss any artistic experience.