Hot out of the sacred music cauldron in Fez, I came home to the heart of the opera debate. Last night, I contemplated the future of opera on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves with ENO artistic director John Berry and ex-Arts Council chair Christopher Frayling. Tonight, I’m on BBC4 in a repeat of David Thompson’s excellent film Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias.
What hope is there for an art whose creative ferment ran out in the 1920s when Puccini and Janacek died? Since then, fewer than a dozen new operas have become popular fixtures. As a result, the art tries to reinvent itself in ever more bizarre deconstructions.
In Germany, the trend of staging arias among the trash cans has become so extreme that booing is frequent, especially at Bayreuth, and the conductor of the Komische Oper Berlin, Carl St Clair, has quit in protest.
Few other cultures go to such extremes, though Calixto Bieito managed to outrage Spain and subseqeuently half of Europe by opening Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera with the king and his court sitting on toilets, pants around their ankles. Die Fledermaus, in his Cardiff production, was – he said – ‘all about prostitution’.
At ENO, John Berry has eschewed the wilder shores of radicalism and placed many of his shows in the hands of tested theatre and film directors. Critics mostly hate these prespective-shift rereadings of classic situations but the audience, which has rejuvenated dramatically over the past 2-3 years, is generally enthusiastic. The Directors Cut is working for ENO.
What’s more, Berry is extending the repertory with works like Ligeti’s Le grand macabre, Saariaho’s L’amour de loin and Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers. Adventure is payng off for a house that receives £10 million less than stolid Covent Garden.
Yet I argued with John that this is not enough to bring opera back to life as a cultural compulsion. Commissioning new works and backing them to the hilt – as ENO and the Met did with John Adams and Doctor Atomic – is the essential first step. But opera also needs to engage with 21st century technology, with screens and multimedia, with interactive flexibility. What was the last technical development in the opera house? Surtitles – and they are 25 years old.
How long, in recessional bite, can we afford such extravagance? Frayling was keen to know. You can hear the discussion here.
As for Pavarotti, what we have learned since his death three years ago is not just that the big man himself is irreplaceable but that the role of Great Tenor may no longer be tenable. With Domingo on his last legs and Rolando Villazon a sad burnout, there is no king pirate on the high Cs. That era could be over. How does opera replace the black magic? You tell me….