Julietta and The Magic Flute

The English National Opera's autumn season opens with Julietta and the Magic Flute, both of which run until early October.

Something old and something new open the autumn season at English National Opera. Fairytales or cautionary tales, however you read them, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Martinu’s Julietta offer phantasmagorical visions that only opera would dare to dream. And with dreams this beautifully, disturbingly vivid, why would you ever want to wake up?

Twenty-three years old may be prime ingénue territory if you’re on the stage, but not if you’re a production. First seen in 1988, Nicholas Hytner’s The Magic Flute has since returned for umpteen revivals, many billed as the “last chance…”. We’ve been promised that this is positively-and-definitely the final appearance for this classic of the ENO repertoire, but watching a young cast (and even younger conductor) bring energy and charm to Hytner’s visuals, it’s startling how fresh it all still seems.

True, this has never been the deepest or most philosophically engaged of treatments. Jeremy Sams’s quicksilver translation dances its way through the German original, rendering it in rhyming couplets whose inevitability is only matched by its knowing glee. Bob Crowley’s designs likewise made a gesture towards the opera’s Masonic subtext with its ruined temples and generic hieroglyphs, but never really weaves them into any kind of coherent statement. Perhaps the genius of Hytner’s conception is precisely his willingness to allow the jostling inconsistencies and conflicting elements of this singspiel to co-exist, never attempting to corral them into a single reading.

Directed by Ian Rutherford and James Bonas this revival lacks occasional dramatic focus, but is carried by a strong ensemble of singing actors. Luxury casting for the Three Ladies includes Pamela Helen Stephen and Elizabeth Llewellyn (sparring deliciously over their duties), and is matched by smaller cameos from up-and-coming Rhian Lois (an enthusiastically Welsh Papagena) and the trio of excellent boy-trebles.

Sadly in this second performance of the run, Shawn Mathey’s Tamino seemed a struggle, tiring audibly towards the end and lacking any of the natural physical ease of Duncan Rock’s Papageno. Delivered in a broad Australian accent his pleasure-loving bird-catcher snatches the show out from under Mathey, and makes one long to hear his Don Giovanni. An efficient and vocally exemplary Pamina from Elea Xanthoudakis only lacks a little tenderness to be sublime, but even she couldn’t match the starry debut of conductor Nicholas Collon.

Best known for his work with the Aurora Orchestra, Collon’s work here maintained his characteristic lightness of touch, bringing out the pulsing offbeats of the Overture and bringing the same clarity of drama and swift pacing to the subsequent action.

While The Magic Flute provided a slick send-off to one show, a new production was christened in Richard Jones’s Julietta. Who better to direct Bohuslav Martinu’s surrealist opera than the often surreal and wildly imaginative Jones? It’s a pairing that amplifies the symbols and allusions of Martinu’s sprawling allegory while cleverly pushing past its more tired structural elements.

At its premiere in 1938 the resonances of a town of people condemned to live in the moment, denied the humanising capacity for memory, would have cut keenly to Europe’s political situation. In 2012 this opera has to work rather harder for its impact, wriggling out from under the crushing weight of the bloated “it was all a dream” concept and an elusive score.

The French influence on Martinu glistens through in the filmy orchestral gestures and textural abstractions. Vocal lines are forgettable (deliberately, surely) and are carried along by the orchestra’s surging moods. Jones’s brilliant cast of black and white grotesques find themselves silhouetted against the rich, almost oriental, colours of wind and strings, with the denatured glitter of tuned percussion never far away.

This is a true ensemble show, built around Peter Hoare’s ardent bookseller Michel. Questing ever more desperately after his beloved Julietta, whose love song (heard once on a visit to her seaside town) echoes perpetually in his head, Michel’s adventures turn ever more Kafka-like as he encounters the people of this town-in-stasis, and eventually ends up facing a desperate dilemma in the Central Bureau of Dreams.

Hoare’s tenor deploys its full range of colours, trying to bring life back to Martinu’s more ephemeral melodic lines. His full-blooded frustrations and emotions fight valiantly against the lulling malaise of the dream-world, with its temptress, Julia Sporsen’s richly-sung Julietta. A sequence of fine cameos comes from Andrew Shore (Man in a Helmet/Seller of Memories/Convict) and Susan Bickley’s Fortune Teller crowns the moving forest episode.

A triumph of totality, this Julietta is ultimately about the absolute integration of its elements. Antony McDonald’s designs call on Martinu’s accordion – the only sound that can awaken memory – building houses among its folds before reimagining them into the filing cabinets of the Bureau, which in turn inform the symbolist simplicity of Jones’s characterisation. Ed Gardner extracts all possible life and consciousness from a score doomed to subside into sleep and nullity. All these elements collide in a final tableau that might just transform this operatic dream into real-life nightmares for its audience.

The London Coliseum. Photograph: Getty Images.
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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times