An obsession with composers' birthdays is turning our orchestras into state-funded tribute bands

2013 was an easy one for festival programmers. Wagner, Verdi and Britten all have major anniversaries this year. But doesn't organising a festival around something as arbitrary as a composer's birthday undermine the fundamental value of the work?

The men and women responsible for deciding what’s performed at our major classical music festivals, opera houses and concert halls must have had a glint in their eye when they saw 2013 coming. This was the year to kick-back, relax and use up some of that that surplus annual leave: this was the year that would programme itself. All the artistic directors had to do was draw up lists of the most obvious works by the "big three" anniversary composers – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – then spend a few weeks deciding who should sing/direct/conduct what. So, pretty much what they’ve been doing every other year of late, only this time with an even shorter list of composers to worry about.

Nobody was looking forward to Wagner’s bicentenary year more than I was. I love Wagner, I need Wagner and I can’t imagine life without Wagner. But I haven’t had to imagine life without Wagner for the last ten years, because his operas are so good that they’re performed all the time. What I’m really hoping for in the two-hundredth year since his birth is for someone to rock my understanding of Wagner’s art to a significant degree; to show me something so profound or extraordinary about him that it alters the path of his music into my body and teaches me something new about life.

As much as I’d like to think it will – and I’m still holding out some hope – I’m not sure seven of his operas performed just as the composer wouldn’t have wanted at this summer’s Proms (in concert, un-staged) will do that. At least in Germany they’ve got a national conversation going. The Rheinoper Düsselforf’s Nazi-themed Tannhäuser (not, contrary to most reporting, a particularly iconoclastic starting-point given opera directors’ frequent dalliances with Nazism) was pulled and hey presto, Wagner got the birthday present he deserves: a passionate, unbridled and often dirty discussion about the value and message of his work that simply wouldn’t have come from a concert performance, however musically revelatory.

Verdi and Britten are outstanding and endlessly nourishing composers, too. But that’s precisely why their operas are performed year-in, year-out all over the world. If we’re to celebrate their anniversaries this year (200 and 100 year respectively) we need to think imaginatively about what those milestones mean and what opportunities they present. There have been well over a dozen separate production runs of operas by Benjamin Britten in the UK in the last five years, so clearly opting to "put on a Britten opera" doesn’t cut the mustard as a celebratory act unless it brings something profoundly new to the table.

In truth, I worry that our increasing reliance on composer anniversaries is rooted in something even more dangerous than chronic lack of imagination: an umbilical obsession with the past. You can hardly get through a morning on the classical radio stations these days without hearing a piece composed by someone "who was born on this day in 1847". Fascinating. Now try telling us something about the music that’s actually relevant to our lives in 2013 – about those feelings of frustration, fear, paranoia, community, love and hope that have fuelled great art for centuries and that commute daily through the minds of the 21st-century beings who flock in large numbers to see new art, new theatre and new film. If we’re insistent on programming an organic art form via arbitrary milestones – which composer birthdates usually are – we undermine the relevance of the works themselves. That, and our performing institutions will become curiosities: state-supported tribute bands knocking out ‘old favourites’ for the sake of nostalgia and remembrance.

Contrary to my flippant opening paragraph, of course, we all know that programmers face treacherously difficult tasks. We also know that a concert performance of Parsifal or Götterdämmerung can be an overwhelming and provocative experience (though the last time the Proms presented the latter opera, a mere 6 years ago, it certainly wasn’t).

And there have been illuminating projects this year – Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh; ENO’s scintillating shortened La Traviata which got the heckles of this magazine’s music critic up; and just last Friday a lesson in how to illuminate Wagner with revelatory anniversary context from the pucky, revisionist little orchestra Aurora. You have to admire Welsh National Opera, too, for opting to stage a (relatively) new work in Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream for its Wagner celebrations. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think these examples are the norm. The norm, in fact, has been operatic revivals, operas in concert, and orchestras playing remarkably similar selections of orchestral works.

So here’s a thought. While those bold projects focussed on the biggest names should in fact be happening every year we continue to hold their creators in such high regard, maybe we should turn our anniversary obsession in the direction of those composers who are crying out for rehabilitation. At classical music marketing school I was told that an anniversary is one of the best sales tools available. Splendid, let’s use it to big-up those birthday composers who we don’t hear about in any other year.

Paul Hindemith, Witold Lutosławski, Francis Poulenc and Kenneth Leighton all have anniversaries this year and they all wrote music that’s fascinating, relevant (mostly), highly-crafted and which often spiked the creative status-quo as dictated by their more conventional colleagues.

The Proms is having an admirable stab at Lutosławski this summer – great news, given the festival’s unique communal atmosphere that’s such a lubricant to critical reappraisal. But there’s only one piece of Poulenc and there’s not a jot of Leighton nor a hint of Hindemith to counter the 1627 minutes of Wagner. If the arts exist ‘to ameliorate our fear of the unknown’ as the baritone Thomas Hampson eloquently suggested they do in a recent interview, it’s these figures we should be putting on a pedestal for one year only, not the ones who are there the rest of the time anyway.

An institution like the Proms risks becoming a state-sponsored tribute act if it fails to innovate. Photograph: BBC Pictures.
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Annie (1982): a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America

Featuring bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. 

Thirty-five years ago this summer, the movie Annie was released. Thirty-five years later, it still makes absolutely no fucking sense. It is a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America with bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. Are you ready, children? Then we’ll begin.

We open at Hudson St Home for Girls. We know this because there is a sign that says Hudson St Home for Girls.

Annie is leaning out of the window, singing sadly and sweetly about her imaginary parents. Her childish ideas of what adults like – “Bet they collect things like ashtrays and art” – is actually very touching. A strong open for Annie.

We do, however need to urgently talk about her hair – a strange combination of Pippi Longstocking, Bowie’s Starman-era mullet and Tom Jones curls.

Despite this misfortune, Annie seems to have absolutely bags of confidence – first singing loudly about her living parents as the only non-orphan in the home while all the other bereaved children try to peacefully cry themselves to sleep, then threatening another child three times the size of her with tiny, angry fists and cocky walk. Look at her, swanning around like Billiam Big Balls.

Annie gives no fucks. Until Dahlesque villain Miss Hannigan enters with a comedy-sized bottle of gin and a frankly iconic silk robe. She immediately threatens to outright murder all the children, and also does that high-pitched Stop copying me! mimicking voice, so there’s really nowhere more villainous for this character to go. She’s peaked.

Now for the cleaning montage: where every child reveals themselves to be a secret Olympic-level athlete.

This girl is cleaning the staircase with every single limb.

Everywhere in this orphanage is dirty, falling apart and miserable. Seemingly hundreds of girls are under the care of a single, drunk abusive guardian and get all their sustenance from a meal called “mush” (served hot and cold!). You might be thinking, Wow, seems like what this children’s home needs is some good ol’ fashioned taxpayer funding increased state intervention and government regulation! But apparently you’d be wrong!

At the end of their cleaning montage, Annie sneaks out of the home in a laundry thanks to Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry. A man so aligned with his small laundry business that he seems to have been predestined for it in a striking incident of nominative determinism. Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry is a stand-up guy who protects the orphans by sending them out into New York City, alone.

Annie spies her enemy: men.

But as soon as Annie is out in the world she runs into the ultimate evil: the meddling state. She just manages to escape a stern looking policeman, in order to beat up six scrawny boys with her tiny, powerful fists – a touching feminist scene. Just look at those Why I Oughta fisticuffs!

Don’t mess with the bad bitch.

After she has joyfully hurt the boys, she barely befriends a cheerful dog before the New York City Pound tries to rip it from her warm embrace. Then the stern-looking policeman is back, and Annie is frog-marched back to the home. And she would have got away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling government agents! Just look at these badge-wearing wankers.

But who is this classy broad?

Another meddling state official? The New York Board of Orphans sent her? Miss Hannigan goes into a tizzy – but never fear! The woman, Grace, insists, “I am the private secretary of Oliver Warbucks.” Yep, you heard it here, kids. Johnny Big Dollar! Geoffrey Moneybags! Hilary Capitalism-Is-The-Only-Equaliser! She’s his secretary. And private secretary at that – none of these public secretaries for millionaires.

She wants an orphan, for one week, to make Mr Warbucks look good. Annie persuades Grace to pick her, and Grace persuades Miss Hannigan to let her go. So Grace runs off with Annie to the Warbucks mansion. Oh, boy! It’s beautiful!

Pause for the awkward Inexplicably Magical Ethnic Minority stereotype. His name is “Punjab”. He doesn’t speak, but does often spontaneously dance, and can seemingly make inanimate objects levitate, control animals and fix injured body parts. This is a truly and deeply racist portrayal.

Annie is asked what she wants to do first – and thanks to years of trauma and abuse she assumes they mean which thing she should clean first. The staff chuckle warmly at these symptoms of a horrific and exploited childhood. Then they all sing about how nice this luxury mansion is and how Annie will never have to lift a finger in this house, the most soothing musical number I think I’ve ever heard. This is my safe space. Wait on me, Drake!!!

It’s also in this scene that Annie reveals she used to sleep “in a tomb”, which is pretty fucking dark for a cheerful movie musical.

Daddy Warbucks arrives and Grace runs him through his messages. “President Roosevelt called three times, sir, this morning, he said it was very urgent.” “Everything’s urgent to a Democrat!” he spits back because THIS MAN IS CLEARLY A REPUBLICAN. We get it, Daddy.

This is also the scene in which Annie asks Daddy Warbucks to “hang me in the bathroom”, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical.

Cut to Miss Hannigan drinking water from a vase and making out with a radio, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical. She launches into an amazing, three-and-a-half-minute song about how horny she is. Cool. Normal. Fine.

Her brother Rooster turns up, and maybe I’ve just been watching too much Game of Thrones, but I get extremely strong incest vibes from the pair of them. I’m convinced this film can’t get much stranger.

In the ensuing five minutes, back at the Warbucks mansion Punjab disposes of a bomb, left by a “Bolshevik” singing The Internationale. Warbucks “is living proof that the American system really works,” Grace explains to the audience Annie, “and the Bolsheviks don’t want anybody to know about that!” I love capitalism!!

Next up is a scene taking directly from my subconscious: Annie takes her dog to the movies, gets overexcited, falls asleep & is carried home by a billionaire. Everyone sings about how great it is to go to the movies with your dog and your billionaire. Suck it, La La Land.

Deep depression / What do we care? / Movies are there! The dancers sing, which is also my personal life philosophy.

Anyway, they go to see Camille (1936) which has a MESSAGE about LOVE and MONEY or something. The next morning, Grace suggests Warbucks adopt Annie. “I’m a businessman. I love money, I love power, I love capitalism, I do not now nor never will love children!” “You know, they’re never going to love you back,” says Grace. Warbucks has a sudden awakening and decides, actually, he loves Annie more than he loves money. (But he still really, really loves money.)

In one of the weirder moments of the film, Grace celebrates Annie’s adoption by singing She makes you relax / Like a big tax / Rebate! Did you even see the orphanage, Grace?! Maybe a little less rebates would mean a little more basic provisions for orphaned children!

Warbucks goes to formally adopt Annie and Miss Hannigan sings another three-minute song about how bloody horny she is. Gotta respect that level of horn. It does include lyrics about her “very wet soufflé”, but she doesn’t call him Daddy even once.

We learn Daddy Warbucks was born very poor in Liverpool but “decided” to be rich when his brother died of pneumonia as a child. By 21, he was a millionaire. The American dream works! USA! USA! USA! He says that not having someone to share his life might almost be as bad as being poor. Luckily for him he has bought the affections of a ten-year-old, so one has really led to the other. USA! USA! USA!

Annie says she’d rather find her real parents than be adopted. The hunt begins!

But first, a totally arbitrary diversion to watch the recording of a toothpaste advert. Obviously. It’s cute though.

Once that’s over, it’s obviously time to go to Washington (?!?!) to see the President (?!!). Warbucks and President Roosevelt debate 1930s New Deal Programs to create jobs for the unemployed. The President asks a ten-year-old to help him devise this social welfare programme. She responds by singing a song because, hey, she doesn’t understand the Civilian Conservation Corps, she’s ten!

Everyone sings and thinks about how great and progressive America, and centrism, are around a big oil painting of George Washington.

Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan and her brother are flirting outrageously about concocting a plan to impersonate Annie’s parents (dead, we learn) for the reward money.

Annie’s parents (Rooster and his girlfriend) turn up, collect their reward money, and take her away. Miss Hannigan gets in the car too and Annie catches on. The ragtag bunch of orphans run and tell Daddy Warbucks what’s up. Meanwhile Annie escapes from the car and we’re in that classic movie trope: car chasing orphan on railway drawbridge. Miss Hannigan suddenly seems to care for Annie’s wellbeing when Rooster starts trying to kill her, and Rooster suddenly hits his sister and knocks her out, which is pretty fucking dark for a children’s movie musical. Annie and Rooster climb extraordinarily high on the raised drawbridge.

Deeply uncomfortably, the climax of the action comes when Punjab rescues Annie from a helicopter by unwrapping his turban and using it as a rope to swing down and grab her.

With all that behind them, Annie and Daddy come together to sing about how amazing their rich lives together are. Warbucks has gone on an amazing journey of discovery to learn that money isn’t the most important thing. (The most important thing is actually money AND orphans.) I don’t need anything but you – and the enormous private circus hosted in the garden of my stupendous mansion with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance! I’m rich as a Midas! Warbucks sings happily.

God Bless America!!!!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.