Performers onstage during Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" at the English National Opera. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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Classical music has a serious communication problem

Until state-funded arts organisations like the Royal Opera House can advertise their work to people who don’t already love their art form, they will never attract broader audiences.

It’s pointless arguing with Harriet Harman’s assertion in a speech yesterday that state-funded arts organisations like the Royal Opera House should work harder to ensure a representative slice of the taxpaying populace is experiencing their wares. But that didn’t stop the classical music establishment having a good go. Sections of it, at least, were frothing defensively by mid-afternoon. One of the central planks in their counter-argument was that opera and classical music simply can’t be elitist or patrician because state subsidies keep ticket prices low. Right. Sure. So it’s just a cosy coincidence that the Royal Opera House is generally populated by well-manicured and educated white folk. . .

This week, in fact, the Royal Opera House will again open its doors to a group of homeless people. They’re not in the foyers and bars, but on the stage, performing in a production of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites conducted by Simon Rattle. Next month the Royal Opera’s orchestra and chorus will join the communities who live around its production hub in Thurrock for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Engagement and “the public good” are priorities for even the most grandiose of arts institutions like never before. So why is the opera audience proving so stubbornly socially stagnant? I’d point at least one finger in the direction of an unlikely villain that has never really been properly dragged into the elitism debate: the total ineffectualness and inappropriateness of large-scale classical music advertising.  

Two years ago the British-Egyptian actor Fadi Elsayed claimed he’d never seen an advert for opera, ballet or classical music in London, a comment to which I responded with the facetious retort that he should have gone to Specsavers. But looking back, I can see exactly why Elsayed said what he did. The only instrumental ensemble in London with the financial clout to enjoy a sizeable brand presence on the Tube is the London Symphony Orchestra. But you can forgive Elsayed for thinking their ads – featuring unrecognisable individuals dribbling speech-bubble pleasantries under the industry-speak acronym “LSO” – were promoting a low-interest bank account.

Ads for opera range from the totally unfathomable – as in English National Opera’s recent poster for its Cosí fan tutte which won’t tell you a thing if you don’t know the opera (or, even, if you don’t know that opera is live theatre in which characters sing out their feelings with beauty and rawness over a live orchestra) – to the borderline conceited – as in the Royal Opera’s pre-Christmas poster for Carmen emblazoned with a strapline that was both smart-arse and vague while also managing to give the story’s ending away (presumably born of a belief that the three million people who use the tube really should be familiar with the narrative layout of Bizet’s opéra comique).

What opera needs is a new audience intake, people who aren’t on the mailing list and don’t have the CDs at home. These are the people to whom mass-media advertising should be attuned – the eight million in London who won’t think “ah yes, Terry Gilliam directing Berlioz’s outlandish and traditionally maligned Benvenuto Cellini, that’s bound to be interesting” because they don’t know who Berlioz or even Terry Gilliam are. But that’s what too much opera advertising does. It follows the industry’s favourite communicative norm: conceived by people who already love the art form for people who already love the art form.

In his speech to the Association of British Orchestras conference in January, the journalist Paul Morley urged the classical music industry to embrace its radical brilliance and begin to take pride in the fact that its offering is arguably more thrilling, shocking, emotionally overwhelming and (if you want it to be) intellectually nourishing than a lot of the other stuff on stage in the UK. Instead of endlessly telling people that they can now wear jeans to watch opera – wow! – we should be picking up Morley’s mantle and attempting to communicate what a poleaxing experience that opera can be. In the cutthroat world of big-city advertising, any attempt to achieve “cut-through” needs to be unpredictable, shocking, or possessed of some sort of compelling micro-narrative. Put the raw ingredients of any opera in front of the creative bods charged with making insurance companies and airlines appear so rhapsodically tantalising on tube ads, and they’d have a field day.

As hard as it might be to stomach for those of us who believe in the universal power of the art form, if we think opera’s audience in London is representative of the city’s populace then we’re living in a parallel universe (or maybe Kensington and Chelsea). Arts education and artistic relevance – not marketing – will ensure opera thrives in this country in the future (things look pretty good for the latter, not so much for the former). But in the meantime, our state-subsidised orchestras and opera companies must start telling the public that they have the capacity to move, scare and pin them to their seats whatever their current level of understanding. Only then will we persuade more taxpayers to reap the extraordinary rewards of the tiny investment that’s made on their behalf.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution