Bliss, Brett Dean’s opera on Peter Carey’s novel, opened in Sydney amid a tide of patriotism for Australia’s most important operatic venture in decades. The opera, put online by the ABC, could not be accessed outside Australia so I am forced to reply on the views of those who were there.

Amid a flush of generally heated reviews, the careful Peter McCallum, in the Sydney Morning Herald, put the question that was on everyone’s lips: was this really, at last, possibly, the Great Australian Opera? Whether it earns that crown is for posterity to decide (wrote McCallum). Bliss is a significant work and unusual in operatic terms for the amount of plot detail that (librettist Amanda) Holden works into the narrative. Further pruning may be in order but the work holds the attention to the end, sustained by Dean’s wonderful score. To his well-known skills as an orchestral composer, Dean has added an under-utilised empathy for the voice.

Some of that empathy was put to the test by such lines as (look away if you are under 18):

“stick ’em up your arse”,

“a fucking elephant sat on my fucking car”,

“no golden showers”,

“I’m an ambitious bitch”.

It cannot have been easy to set those texts to agreeable music and more than one musician told me they found the opera charmless and, at certain points, revolting. The third act opens in an insane asylum with a psychotic patient masturbating beneath a digital sign that flashes: ‘No Fucking’.  There is also sister-brother incest and threats of a police gang-bang. 

Edinburgh is no longer a prim place and these excesses may well pass with no more than a collective sad sigh at the way the world’s going, ‘m’dear. But the festival director Jonathan Mills looked (I am told) several degrees paler than his ebullient self after the final curtain, having booked the opera’s European premiere sight unseen for the coming summer.
I am keen to see Bliss. Brett Dean, former principal viola player of the Berlin Philharmonic, knows how to make an arresting sound and I am interested to see if Peter Carey’s 1981 portrait of advertising hell can endure in the epoch of Mad Men. First reactions to Bliss have been reported by Tim Cornwell in The Scotsman, under the headline ‘XXXX-rated Australian opera comes to Edinburgh’. There may well be a festival row over it.
Mills has taken a considerable risk in booking Bliss, knowing that if it provokes too much adverse comment and too few ticket sales he will be blamed for advancing Australia fair at the expense of Scottish and British composers. Personally, I believe he has done the right thing in bringing Bliss to Edinburgh, but all will depend on how the opera goes down in a less supportive environment than the Sydney Opera House – and whether the much-touted cuts in the text are made before it arrives.

Courtney Love, widow of the late Kurt Cobain and supposedly ‘the most controversial woman in the history of rock’, has a powerful interest in Sir Edward Elgar’s voyage to South America, in the New Economic Foundation, in Japanese pop music and in a movie about Lourdes.

That, at any rate, is what we are meant to believe from the statement that Courtney Love is the guest editor of the Film and Music section of today’s Guardian newspaper. These are the items that she chose for inclusion from the weekly pile of submissions.

Nothing, as anyone in newspapers will confirm, could be further from the truth. Ms Love lent her name to the Guardian, along with a portrait by Sam Taylor-Wood, in order to promote her forthcoming release, Nobody’s Daughter. She had about as much to do with the editing of the Guardian section as I did with the syntax of the Gospels. Her role in the newspaper process is pure make-believe – and newspapers keep wondering why they are losing credibility.

Not that The Times is any better. It splashes a front-page picture of Abba, the Swedish pop group, on the speculative hint in an interview that they might, maybe, who knows, have a one-off reunion. Here’s the quote on which the pull-shot is based:

“Yeah, why not?” said (Benni) Andersson, who now owns a farm where he breeds horses.

“I don’t know if the girls sing anything any more,” he added. “I know Frida was in the studio.”

He added later: “It’s not a bad idea, actually.”

And that’s a front-page picture story. Is there no depth of desperation to which a newspaper will not stoop in order to sell a few hundred extra copies?

When the meditative music of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Mikolai Gorecki reached western ears in the early 1980s, it was tagged by the modernist establishment with the derogatory name of Holy Minimalism. The amount of derision piled into that conjunction is almost incalculable.

‘Holy’ meant that the two composers were the agents of organised religion, making a populist comeback under communist oppression. ‘Minimalism’  suggested that any originality in their works was derived by imitation from the American simplifications of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Ohilip Glass – a trinity of anti-Christs for the Boulezian movement of musical progress.

Whichever way you looked at them in this light, Pärt and Gorecki were medieval throwbacks who had nothing to add to contemporary discourse… or such was the official line.

How wrongful and mistaken that analysis was is revealed in Simon Broughton’s remarkable new film on the two composers, which airs Friday night on BBC-4 and can be accessed online (UK only) through the BBC i-Player. Putting both men into their prior context with rare archive footage, Broughton shows how each emerged from a fixation with Boulezian modernism – forbidden in Communist Europe – to find their own voices, independent and largely ignorant of American minimalism.

Pärt had no relgious background whatsoever, either as a boy growing up or as an adult. His wife was Jewish, a device that enabled them both to escape Soviet-ruled Estonia in 1972. The meditative aspect of his music was the product of a two-year composing hiatus in mid-1970s Vienna, a block that was resolved by the slow rhythms of Fratres and Tabula Rasa.

Gorecki, a churchgoer all his life, wrote atonally in the 1960s and discovered simplicity chiefly as a means to protest at the destruction wrought by communist industrialisation. Living in Katowice, with the smokiest chimnies in Europe, his music had green elements as well as a stubborn faith in the power of Roman Catholicism to triumph over state atheism – a faith vindicated by the election of Pope John Paul II.

Broughton’s film is an important corrective to many of the misnomers about these two composers whose popularity and importance is increasing as modernism’s wanes. It also also affords us the very rare chance to see Pärt explaining his music.

Susana, widow of the composer William Walton, has died in the garden shrine she created in his memory at La Mortella, on the island of Ischia. She was 83.

Walton was twice her age when they met a press conference in Buenos Aires in 1948 and their marriage was neither equal nor easy. In her memoir, Behind the Facade, Susana relates that he introduced her to all his past mistresses when they reached London and forced her to have an abortion when she fell pregnant.

The act, illegal at the time, was performed furtively. She haemmorhaged and could have died, but never mentioned the episode again to her husband for fear it might distress him.

Composers’ wives are a special breed, the more so when they enter widowhood. Susana, after Walton’s death in 1983, garlanded his legacy in flowers.

The Sony label, which paid $3 million to snatch Lang Lang from Deutsche Grammophon a few weeks ago, has swooped again to sign the violinist Ray Chen, winner of the latest Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium.

Chen, 21, was born in Taiwan, raised in Australia and schooled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He is represented by the same CAMI management as Lang Lang and will play a limelight concert at the opening of the World expo in Shanghai, mainland China, this summer – much as Lang Lang did at the Olympics.

Ray Chen is, by all accounts, a highly promising young artist. But his signing confirms the general direction of Sony’s classical strategy. A label that shed all of its conductors and all but handful of instrumentalists is now headlined by Lang Lang, Yo Yo Ma and Ray Chen, three artists from the same country – which is the market the Japanese label is pitching for.

In a signing-day statement Ray Chen said: “I am very excited to become a Sony Classical artist and I am looking forward to this wonderful collaboration. Our joint mission is to capture the excitement, passion, and life in a performance of the finest quality and to bring them to the audiences worldwide”.



The death of Wolfgang Wagner, announced Sunday night, ends a post-war era at Bayreuth that was almost as unpleasant as the Nazism that preceded it. Wolfgang, with his brother Wieland, conspired in covering up the family’s collaboration with Hitler, which included the operation of a small concentration camp in the grounds of the Bayreuth Festival.

Any independent attempt to investigate Bayreuth’s history was stamped on by the sitting heir, who ruled the estate single-handed for half a century.

Wolfgang’s death, at 90, brings the possibility of fresh air into the stagnant festival, presently run by his youngest child Katharina Wagner and her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier in a diplomatic compromise that is unlikely to last the test of time. Wolfgang was a petty dictator, modelled on a brutal one. As a stage director he was risible, a regressive shadow of his adventurous brother.

For the best account of his regime, read Jonathan Carr’s book on The Wagner Dynasty. For news of the death, see Bloomberg Muse.

The Vienna Philharmonic has posted a tribute to one of its oldest friends, Franz Mailer, the supreme authority on three-four steps and the works of the Strauss family.

Mailer, who has died at the age of 90, attended the first New Year’s Eve Concert in December 1939 under the directorship of Clemens Krauss and a large swastika banner and hardly ever missed a show after it moved to New Year’s Day in 1941. For the last three decades of his life Mailer was responsible for helping the orchestra and its conductors select the sweetemeats for a beanfeast that is beamed to more than 70 countries.

He wrote several biographies and studies of the Strauss clan and established the Strauss Edition Wien to publish an authentic, complete anthology of the works of Johann and his sons. As far as waltzes go, Mailer was half-king, half-encyclopedia salesman. He lived apparently in modest circumstances, leaving the orchestra and the sugary likes of André Rieu to make a fortune from his researches.

It has often puzzled me why a man would devote his life to a comprehensive study of such transient trivia as steam train numbers, jukeboxes and Strauss waltzes but there must be a particular satisfaction in counting something that is both finite and innately frivolous. It may also be a Freudian escape mechanism. Mailer lived through a dangerous time in a parlous place. Maybe Strauss waltzes were his hidey-hole underneath the ballroom staircase.

In the second episode of my conversation with the strings world in The Strad magazine, I discuss what has been happening to musicians’ fees in this third season of recession. The trend, as you’d expect, is sharply down, but how, where and by how much is more than a little interesting.

The conversation is a private one and I am keeping it off-line. You can enter it by picking up a copy of The Strad in any music shop or subscribing for the longterm at Word seems to be getting around and my mailbox is filling with responses from fiddlers, cellists, luthiers, teachers, string quartets, and even the odd oud-player.

Two alarming new trends have come to my attention since I sent the present episode to print. At one famous venue, an artist was told that his date next season has been cancelled ‘due to reorganisation’ – meaning cutbacks. The curtness of the email and the absence of any of the usual bromides promising copious engagements in the unspecified future suggests a change of tone in the transactions between artists and bookers. 

At another venue, less famous, the cancellation iwas accompanied by a hint of reinstatement should the artist come back with a lower offer on an already modest fee. These are troubling times for many people but music has, in past depressions, managed to preserve an illusion of courtesy and respect. Those niceties, I suspect, are the first casualties of this recession.

Do let me know, in confidence, if you are an artist who has been the victim of rough handling. I will not hesistate to name and shame venues that treat artists badly.

Before you sit down tonight to watch the Oscars, you may wish to sample the latest in-depth analysis of one of the outside contenders.

A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ account of second-generation immigrant alienation in the 1960s Midwest has already been subjected to more second-hand cogitation than its essentially light narrative can bear – a topic I discussed here when it came out on first release.

But the film has now reached Israel and the critical responses there are not just confused and misplaced but personal, polemical and often preposterous. The title has been translated into Hebrew as ‘Yehudi Tov’ – or A Good Jew and amid all the post-zionist dialectical writhings of critics who are more used to reviewing teen frolics, there is a lead review in Haaretz which proclaims A Serious Man to be, and I quote with care, ‘most profound and most important statement that has been made in recent years on the subject at hand: What is Judaism?’ Read it here, and weep.

The Jewish religion, it is true, has lacked a leading exegetical voice since the deaths in 1993-4 of Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik and Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, but the notion that a pair of filmmakers – a brace of visual storytellers – could define the state of the faith in our times is so unbalanced that, once I’d got over the fit of giggles, I wondered how any fact-based newspaper could have allowed such piffle past its subs desk.

Art criticism has never been one of Israel’s stronger exports, but this has no bearing on any recognisable reality. A Serious Man, in Israel, has been spun to virtual insanity


The great English tenor, the outstanding Peter Grimes and Aschenbach of recent years, has succumbed to a rapid, aggressive cancer. He was 71.

The last time I saw him was in Harrison Birtwistle’s latest opera, The Minotaur, directed by Philip’s son, Stephen Langridge. The show was totally dominated by John Tomlinson as the raging man-bull, but Philip’s role as Hereus lives on in the memory as a perfect foil.

He was seen most recently at the Met as the Witch in Handel and Gretel.

Philip was the most professional of singers, a kind colleague, a sweet man.

Here’s a clip of him singing ‘Comfort Ye’ from Handel’s Messiah


and another from Rossini’s Donna de Lago


A statement from the Royal Opera House appears here.

Coming out of a premiere at the Young Vic last night, I overheard the following exchange between two of the attending critics, one of them a recent appointment.

Critic A: I know we shouldn’t share, but what did you think?

Critic B: You’re right, we shouldn’t.

Critic A: Still, what did you think?

Critic B: Magnificent.

This is not the first time I have heard critics confer during or just after a performance, but the blatant naivety of the inquiry struck a doomsday chord. The young man – I won’t name him, he knows who he is – was committing fraud, never a victimless crime. His victims were the editor who gave him the job, his readers and the venerable profession of criticism which has been rendered more vulnerable than ever in London by recent appointments. This man was being paid to form an independent opinion but, fearing he might step out of line, he stole one.

His naivety was inexcusable. The play was Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (Sweet Nothings) which has been doing the rounds since 1895. It is not a difficult or enigmatic work. The production was by Luc Bondy, who splits opinion wherever he goes. And the cast was made up mostly of ingenus. It should not have been beyond the wit even of a fledgeling critic to judge the show on the evidence of eyes and ears, not to mention the historic record. My own essay on the background can be read on the Young Vic website.

But we have reached a point where editors care so little about the function of criticism that they appoint general writers and amateurs to key posts. This morning, The Times launched a new arts section of irreproachable Hollywoodish dumbness. If the public trust in newspapers is falling, that may be because newspapers can no longer be trusted to think for themselves.

My latest instalment on the state of criticism appeared this week in the New Statesman under the perceptive headline, Notes on a Scandal. It is too soon to write an epitaph for arts criticism, but standards are sinking like toy boats. 

The tenor in Elixir of Love called in with a sore throat. His understudy went missing and no-one else in the world had memorised the new street-cred English translation of Donizetti’s village comedy. So they flew in a Lithuanian who sang Italian to the rest of the cast’s English and the results were so exhilarating that the audience left begging for repeat performances.

Here’s how it worked. Edgaras Montvidas, tall and brooding, had an afternoon’s walk-through of the main stage business in Jonathan Miller’s new production of Elixir, set in a 1950s Texas hamlet with the guys in stetsons and the girls in Elvis frocks. Flouncing Adina, nicely trilled by Sarah Tynan, wore a Marilyn Monroe wig with obtruding rump to match.

It’s lunchtime at Adina’s Diner and the guys are chomping burgers in the noonday heat when Edgaras comes on and sings a lovesick Quanta e bella, silencing the room as you’d expect when a guy in blue overalls hits his notes like the young Lucy Pav.

After that, it gets really interesting. Edgaras clearly does not know which way to turn but he responds well to nudges from the chorus and is soon the thick of the action. Someone sings ‘Per che?’ and he responds, ‘per che? why not?’ It’s the kind of linguistic porridge you hear every day of the week on the top deck of a London bus.

On comes Andrew Shore as Dulcamara, dispensing quack potions. When Edgaras nurdles up for a bottle of pick-me-up, Shore – who has sung Dulcamara at the Met and is a brilliant comic actor – comes right back at him in Italian. ‘You speakka my lingo?’ says the look on Edgaras’s face, bringing the house down in mirth. Andrew plays him both ways, sometimes Italian, sometimes English. Everyone recognises this transaction. It’s the kind of Babel chat we have with Polish and Rumanian builders in our kitchens and Iraqi drivers in our minicabs.

The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Cassado, very impressive in his first London run, manages to keep everyone on just about the same beat and when the curtain falls the eruption is louder than you hear on most first nights, the loudest cheers of all going to our brave, befuddled Lithuanian whose final clinch with Adina Tynan is so close and prolonged I thought it was going to take a fire-hose to prise them apart.

All in all, an unforgettable night at the opera – and one that has lessons for ENO which is stuck in a timewarp straitjacket of singing unnecessarily in English, when most of the audience can’t hear the words and are reading them off proscenium surtitles. It is not often nowadays that we see mixed opera casts singing in different languages, a situation that was common on many European stages until the 1980s. But the world has moved on and we live in polyglot cities. Why should opera not reflect the world around us and, in certain roles, allow plot confusion to be accentuated by a language gulf?

A Flying Dutchman in which everyone sang German except the sailor who sings in a Netherlandish dialect could be a distinct improvement. Katya Kabanova’s social isolation could be underlined by her singing Russian against the rest of the cast’s Czech. And why not, for heaven’s sake, not have a Carmen who sings gypsy Romish against a French and Spanish backdrop? I know quite a few singers who’d be keen to give it a go. Opera needs more thrills of the unexpected. ENO may have stumbled onto a gold mine.