Opera going south

A Peckham production of "Dido and Aeneas" is not quite bold enough

Dido and Aeneas, Bussey Building, Peckham. 7.30pm Thursday 10 January 2013

Although still more synonymous with knife-crime than culture, Peckham is enjoying something of a sea-change at the moment. Last year saw the Royal Court venture south for a series of performances in their new “Theatre Local” project, and for one night during the summer a multi-storey car-park became the unlikely stage for a remixed performance of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Rite of Spring. The hub of the action is Peckham’s Bussey Building – a venue best-known for its raves, but now developing an alter-ego as the progressive arts venue of choice south of the river. But while the Royal Court’s brand of contemporary theatre is a major step, how much greater a leap is the venue’s latest project: 18th century opera.

In many ways Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the perfect opera for today. Tate’s English libretto may have the odd metaphorical flight of fancy, but is otherwise straightforward and easily understood, even without the help of surtitles. The themes – love and betrayal – are classics, and the whole cycle from infatuation to despair and death takes just under an hour to run its course, leaving plenty of time for a drink and debrief afterwards.

So why did I leave Opera In Space’s performance so confused?

It’s always going to a challenge performing opera in unusual spaces. I’ve attended performances over the years in warehouses, office-buildings, pubs, gardens, boats and even a nightclub, and each unusual venue only makes me more grateful for the classic opera house, with its controlled acoustics and excellent sight-lines. While the promenade elements of this Dido give everyone a fair shot at seeing at least some of the show, a directorial preference for on-floor writhings means that large chunks are completely obscured, and the traverse-style setup in the main staging area effectively prevents a third of the audience from seeing all but the merest glimpse of the action.

The concepts too are decidedly unclear, not aided by some rather gawky tableaux vivants by way of “overture”, juxtaposing bursts of African drumming with blandly symbolic stage-pictures. Spoken text is also rather unnecessarily included later in the show (which exists in that generic no-time, no-place of contemporary theatre), adding little by transforming the Carthaginian Queen and her ladies into schoolgirls chattering about their A level studies. If director Richard Pyros had a coherent vision for the piece then he kept it concealed.

Pasticcio was a favourite genre of the 18th century opera house – essentially stitching together the best bits from various composers’ works into a single dramatic work – and Opera In Space make a clever nod to this in their interpolation of jazz songs into Purcell’s score. But I would have loved to see smarter choices than the unambiguous “Misty” (in case we hadn’t realised that Dido was smitten with her charisma-free Aeneas) and Jerome Kern’s “All The Things that You Are”, which suffered from an awkward arrangement and uneasily low key.

There is much to like here though. The singing is generally solid, with the cast led by Carleen Ebbs’ polished Belinda, singing elegantly and idiomatically in ensemble with Marie Degodet (Second Woman) and Sylvia Gallant’s Dido. Gallant is at the higher end of mezzos, which lends her despairing queen a youthfulness but also a lightness that Purcell’s writing happily accommodates. Adam Kowalczyk did his best with Aeneas, but struggled to make much impression dramatically in the space of his limited music.

There is a saucily revisionist take on the Sailors’ “Come Away” that works beautifully, and some effective atmospherics for the Sorceress and her lair. But the chief delight though is the instrumental work from harpsichordist Katie de la Matter and her skeleton band. Not for nothing was Purcell the master of the ground bass (a riff, by any other name); his music has such excellent bone-structure that even when you strip away all the usual layers of colour you are still left with something beautiful, especially when stylishly articulated here by cellist Poppy Walshaw and violinist Eleanor Harrison.

It’s hard to leave Opera In Space’s Dido and Aeneas and not feel like you’ve just had an evening of cut-price Punchdrunk. The promenade setup and venue are great, and cry out for something just a little bolder, a little less politely safe. There’s an uneasy compromise here between traditionalism and experimentation which hasn’t quite found its balance. Would I return for another production? Absolutely. But on current form it may take a few more tries to make this worthy and interesting project the enjoyable experience it could so easily be.

An image from Opera in Space's "Dido and Aeneas". Credit: Sally Neville
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage