ENO's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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Topped in translation: two new London operas make a case for English-language productions

The English National Opera’s  The Mastersingers of Nuremberg and the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo show that translated music-theatre can be exceptional.

Death and taxes may be life’s inevitables, but in opera it’s the embattled question of English-language productions. Every year the issue returns, provoking heated debate for a few weeks before some more pressing matter pushes it to the bottom of the pile again. Does opera sell itself short in translation? Do we lose more than we gain? What’s interesting this time round is the new scope of the discussion: English National Opera’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg may be in the frame, but so too is the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo. Both are exceptional pieces of music-theatre – joyous, giddy comedies that touch as well as tease. This is an argument that has never been closer to a victory.

It’s curious that the Royal Opera’s new venture into smaller spaces has coincided with an unprecedented new approach to translation. No attention has been drawn to this shift in policy, which has slipped through as part of a wider attempt at accessibility, at reinventing opera for the youthful audience of the Camden Roundhouse (with the recent Orfeo, also in English) and the more theatrically-inclined audience at the Globe. If experience teaches us anything though, it’s that comedy is always a more natural fit in translation; the immediacy you gain usually outweighs what you lose in linguistic colour. Tragedy (especially if it’s by Verdi or Donizetti) tends to lose gravitas, teetering dangerously close to Gilbert and Sullivan in an Italian accent.

But a piece like Cavalli’s L’Ormindo – a sparkling piece of baroque frippery – works wonderfully well, as the Royal Opera proved in 2014 when they premiered Kasper Holten’s production. Less than a year later and the show is back, the jewel in the gilded jewel-box that is the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There’s a reason that an obscure opera by a minor composer is selling out every night: drama. The audience is rarely closer, more embraced in theatrical action (sometimes literally) than in this space, where the ‘stage’ extends up into the balconies and out into, and onto, the crowd. It’s irreverent, naughty, and entirely charming.

The original young cast all return to romp their way through Christopher Cowell’s witty translation, keeping tongue firmly in cheek for a story that’s more lust than love, following the endless romantic complications of Susanna Hurrell’s coquettish Erisbe and her various men. Ed Lyon and Samuel Boden reprise their roles as rival lovers – two young tenors with personality to match fine voices – and soprano Joelle Harvey stills the theatre once again with her ravishing lament “Chi mi toglie al die”. Anja Vang Kragh’s period-costumes-with-a-twist ensure we take nothing too seriously, gilding period comedy with contemporary wit. This is as much fun as you can have at the opera – a miniature miracle of a show.

Over at the Coliseum opera is happening at a rather larger scale this month with over 100 singers and almost as many orchestral musicians involved in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Richard Jones’ production debuted at Welsh National Opera in 2010 and is now seen in London for the first time at ENO – a spectacular way to celebrate the director’s 25-year relationship with the company.

Spreading out across the full scope of the Coliseum’s vast stage, filling London’s largest theatre with Jones’ trademark colours and patterns, this is as generous and wise a comedy as we’ve seen in a long time – an ensemble show that makes a case more persuasive than any number of op-ed articles for the necessity of ENO as a company. Meistersinger can be an awkward beast, with its long running time and bizarre Fatherland-exalting epilogue, but here it flourishes thanks to direction sensitive to every detail of this vivid score, and big, characterful performances from an almost entirely British cast. At the heart of it all is Iain Paterson’s Hans Sachs – a singer who fills the cobbler’s shoes with almost unbearable humanity. He masterminds not only the comedy but the near-miss tragedy of Wagner’s opera, aided by some wonderful interplay with Andrew Shore’s Malvolio-esque Beckmesser, and some unexpected tenderness in his dealings with Rachel Nicholls’ glowing Eva. It helps that his voice – at the lighter end for this role – finds unusual lyricism at the top of the range, balancing out a lack of beef at the bottom.

Gwyn Hughes-Jones makes an ardent Walter – older and more grizzled than many, which only adds to the pathos of failed lovers Sachs and Beckmesser – crooning his way through the Prize Song as easily as a three-minute pop song. He gets some serious competition however from Nicky Spence’s David – new power amplifying his trademark purity – and add James Cresswell’s Pogner to the mix (not to mention Jonathan Lemalu in the tiny role of Hans Schwartz) and you have an embarrassment of riches.

Holding together the action in the pit is Edward Gardner, directing ENO’s orchestra in a performance that’s high on energy and matches Jones’ visuals for colour. The brass are radiant in the spotlight of the Act III opening and the strings catch their burnish, mellowing it with new warmth. A chorus bursting with extras brings the show to its climax with heart-tugging beauty, and a final dramatic gesture from Jones that threatens to turn brimming into gushing. A singular achievement, and one of so many reasons why ENO must survive.

L’Ormindo runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until March 5th. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg runs at the London Coliseum until March 10th.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.