More operas should end in riots, or at least the torching of suits

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

An opera singer performing in a Wagner opera. Riot! Photograph: Getty Images

The opening night of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 29 May 1913 has gone down in the aesthetic annals as one of the most exciting art riots of all time: the premier example of an aesthetically challenged mob baying for the blood of the innovators. As Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dancers circled the stage in wild khorovods, to the accompaniment of the atonal “The Augurs of Spring”, they trembled, shook, shivered and stamped.

According to Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, his history of 20th-century music: “Howls of discontent went up from the boxes, where the wealthiest onlookers sat. Immediately, the aesthetes in the balconies and the standing room howled back. There were overtones of class warfare in the proceedings. The combative composer Florent Schmitt was heard to yell either ‘Shut up, bitches of the seizieme!’ or ‘Down with the whores of the seizieme!’ – a provocation of the grandes dames of the 16th arrondissement.”

Shock and awe

All well and good but it hardly compares with serious civil disturbance, not when you learn that, by the end of the first week, The Rite of Spring’s entire run was booked solid. Stravinsky’s and Diaghilev’s shock opera had transmogrified into the contemporary version of Les Misérables. Rather more impressive were ructions outside La Scala a couple of years ago when the Italian government announced a 37 per cent cut in cultural funding – these featured smoke bombs, riot police and Daniel Barenboim. What’s not to like? The opening of the La Scala season has often been the focus for a bit of agg’ – however, it’s seldom got anything to do with what’s going on inside but rather represents a sort of distinctively Italian gestural elaboration on the idea of opera.

The Astor Place riot of 1849 took place outside the now demolished Astor Opera House in New York and certainly qualifies as an example of a crowd losing its head: at the end of the night of 10 May, 25 had been killed and hundreds injured. The proximate cause was the rivalry between two celebrated Shakespearean actors – Edwin Forrest and William Macready – but its real genesis was that whereas Forrest was a proud “nativist” American, Macready was a ghastly Englishman. Those who consider matters of cultural dispute to be the preserve of limp-wristed time wasters should study the Forrest-Macready bout, which has more in common with the battle between Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York than, say, a tussle between Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo Di- Caprio over who should have the fanciest trailer.

Belgian independence arguably owes its very fact to an opera – or to a single aria, “Amour sacré de la patrie”, sung at a performance of La Muette de Portici in honour of the Belgians’ Dutch overlord, William I. Ah, the 1830s! When even Belgium was an exciting place and a fine tenor voice could provoke a revolution. Now, the screaming death chants of the most frenzied shock rockers provoke entire stadia of narcotised face-metal-wearers to . . . buy merchandise.

But opera riots provoked by nationalism scarcely count – nothing could be more infra dig than the 1919 Times Square demonstrations- turned-nasty against a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which was staged despite the mayoral ban on German opera productions then in place. Servicemen and civilians battled the NYPD’s finest and the whole fracas was reported in the Los Angeles Times under the teasing headline “Crossfire of bricks”.

Cocktail hour

After all, if you want to riot against a Wagner opera, at least go for Parsifal or The Ring Cycle. I go to the opera quite a lot, almost always equipped with the makings of a Molotov cocktail in the hope that Bryn Terfel will spark it off and the scores of suits slumbering on corporate freebies will get torched but somehow it’s always a bit of a damp squib.

The one recent production that looked promising – from the riot point of view – was The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams, performed for the first time in the UK at the English National Opera in February. Adams’s opera, which deals with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, was accused of anti-Semitism after its first performances in 1991 and sidelined from the repertoire of the major companies. There was a lone protester outside the Coliseum but, inside, the audience sat silently through the show before applauding like the crowd of dutiful conformists that we were – how mad is that?