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“The fat lady sings no more”: inside opera's diva effect

Performances by Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann provide the perfect opportunity to reflect on operatic star power.

During a trip to Munich over Christmas, I visited the top floor of the Ludwig Beck department store, which houses one of the biggest collections of classical and jazz CDs I have ever seen. As I was leaving, rather poorer after several good finds, I caught sight of a poster showing the latest German classical chart. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann had an astonishing three albums in the top 20, each featuring a brooding, ­Byronic close-up image of his face.

Many opera devotees will protest that their love of the form is all to do with the singers’ vocal brilliance, but the history of opera superstars suggests otherwise. In the 19th century, the likes of Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti had their own devoted fans; these singers were celebrated for their performances but the public’s fascination with their beauty and private lives eclipsed their musical reputations.

Their modern counterparts – Kaufmann, Roberto Alagna, Renée Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Angela Gheorghiu – have built lucrative personal brands. Looks play a big part: critics increasingly review a singer’s appearance, too, and reports have been circulating for years of sopranos asked to slim down for starring roles. The fat lady sings no more.

Given this, the survival of Francesco Cilea’s frankly underwhelming 1902 opera Adriana Lecouvreur is not that surprising. Adriana, the central character in its baffling and overly elaborate plot, is loosely based on a real-life actress who figured at the Comédie-Française in the 18th century. Many distinguished divas down the decades have starred as the leading lady. In 2010, the Royal Opera House staged Adriana as a vehicle for the Romanian soprano Angela Gheor­ghiu, and she returns in this revival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her Covent Garden debut.

Gheorghiu is as famous for her long ebony curls, her fractious relations with directors and her tempestuous marriage to the superstar tenor Roberto Alagna as she is for her vocal performances. The couple were the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton of the opera world: newspapers reported on every twist and turn of their lives. Gheorghiu is perfectly cast as the doomed diva Adriana.

David McVicar’s production emphasises the meta nature of this opera – of the star playing a star. The stage is dominated by a vast wooden theatre that rotates, allowing the audience to see what happens both in front of the curtain and backstage. Gheor­ghiu is in her element, delivering a tender and nuanced version of Adriana’s opening aria, “Io son l’umile ancella”, and electrifying the audience with “Poveri fiori” during her bizarre death scene (Adriana dies after smelling a posy of violets that a bitter princess has infused with a mysterious poison).

For the 2010 production, Gheorghiu was joined by Kaufmann in the role of Adriana’s feckless lover, Maurizio, Count of Saxony. The chemistry between the two ­celebrities was palpable and is much missed in this revival (unable to match Gheorghiu for vocal subtlety, the American tenor Brian Jagde roared his arias straight into her face).

Kaufmann was away from the stage for months after he burst a blood vessel in his throat last year, putting his voice at risk. He has returned, tentatively, in the past few weeks, and his recital series at the Barbican was an important test of his vocal condition. The first programme of Schumann, Duparc and Britten songs (4 February) required barely 70 minutes of singing but it also left him with nowhere to hide. His nervousness was evident: he asked the audience to forgive him for using an iPad as an aide-memoire for the lyrics, as he had been away from recitals for “too long”. The crowd, dominated by diehard female fans (“Kaufmanniacs”), applauded him indulgently.

“The world’s greatest tenor”, as he is sometimes labelled, seems to be back on form, though his tone wasn’t always suited to the intimacy of this chamber repertoire. Many of the songs were delivered with an unremarkable, monochrome consistency and several attempts at quieter moments high in his register – as in Schumann’s “Stille Liebe” and “Stille Tränen” – lacked power. However, once he reached the final instalment of Britten’s Seven ­Sonnets of Michelangelo, the charisma reappeared. After a beautiful unaccompanied section at the start of “Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede”, he rose triumphantly to a brassy, fully operatic climax. Perhaps he isn’t just a pretty face, after all.

“Adriana Lecouvreur” runs until 2 March. For more details, visit: roh.org.uk

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder