The Nation's Favourite Aria

English composer wins Radio 3 title.

BBC Radio 3's poll to find "The Nation's Favourite Aria" came to a rather unexpected conclusion last week. Knocking Mozart into second place, 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth" -- often known simply as "Dido's Lament" -- from his opera Dido and Aeneas was named the winner. Not bad for a nation once described by Mendelssohn as, "the land without music".

Launched back in May, the competition was entirely driven by listeners, who nominated their personal favourites, creating a shortlist which was then put to a final vote.

Despite nominations from an astonishing 15 of his operas (15 more than Purcell ever composed), Italian opera favourite Gisuseppe Verdi failed to break into the top ten. He was in good company however, with Bizet, Rossini, Handel and Beethoven also failing to make the grade, and even Puccini only edging into fourth place with "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca.

The shortlist was described by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph as, "quite highbrow", and is disproportionately dominated by works from the more obscure outreaches of the repertoire. Coming in at number nine is Mozart's "Ruhe sanft", taken from the early and obscure singspiel Zaide -- an unfinished work only rarely performed. Also among the top ten are arias from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila and Dvorak's Rusalka -- none of them exactly core operatic repertoire.

With a dedicated slot on Radio 3's Breakfast Show, the competition seemed to signal yet another attempt on the part of the BBC to emulate rival station ClassicFM, with its often interactive, listener-driven programming and accessible tone. Just a few months ago Radio 3 launched their first ever classical chart show, a clear response to pressure from ClassicFM's ever-growing audience figures.

Voting with their feet -- or ears -- however, Radio 3 listeners have here emphatically declined a move into populism. Keeping football anthem "Nessum Dorma" firmly out of their line-up, they have shored-up the station's reputation for highbrow obscurity with their choices, even championing the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde -- a piece that stretches the definition of "Aria" well beyond its elastic limits with its organic through-composed conception, and goes some way toward undermining the bleeding-chunk mindset of the competition itself.

At first glance the list looks like the result of audience over-compensation; a charitable interpretation might see it as the result of well-informed listeners keen to share their little-known favourites with a wider audience, while less well-disposed commentators might equally justifiably see it as a public exercise in showing-off.

Either way, Radio 3 executives take note: your audience have spoken and while they're undeniably fond of a good tune, they'd rather it didn't come from Carmen. Geek-chic has officially leapt off the catwalk and onto the airwaves. Perhaps now is a good time for the BBC to halt their ClassicFM-style makeover, and return to the earnest, challenging, good-quality programming that they do so well.

Watch top three arias here:

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge