Grimeborn and Tête à Tête: Is opera still alive and kicking?

The facts are all in opera’s favour but that doesn’t solve its persistent image problem, writes Alexandra Coghlan.

Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival
Arcola Theatre, London E8
Riverside Studios, London W6
Opera is dead – we all agree on that, surely? It’s a genre peopled by princes and prostitutes (and nothing in between), whose stories are as outdated as its ageing audience and whose tunes offer a mawkish and anachronistic soundtrack to contemporary life. And don’t even get me started on the ticket prices.
Sarah Montague put these objections and more to the opera singer Thomas Hampson in a recent BBC News Hardtalk interview. Protests flooded in, an open letter to the BBC went viral and opera lovers closed ranks. But was the outrage justified? Can opera, famously pronounced dead when Tosca leapt from the battlements back in 1900, still make a convincing case for relevance?
The question is how it could fail to. Last year roughly 7.5 million people experienced work by the Royal Opera House, London.
They attended live performances at Covent Garden, watched them in cinemas and on outdoor screens across Britain, or caught them online, on television or on radio. ROH cinema relays alone reached 900 venues in more than 32 countries – figures nevertheless dwarfed by those from New York’s mighty Metropolitan Opera. Audiences for English National Opera hover between a healthy 70 and 80 per cent of capacity, and in 2012 Glyndebourne was at over 96 per cent.
The demographics are equally gratifying. Last year 40 per cent of guests in the Royal Opera’s audiences were under the age of 45 (at Opéra de Lyon, a startling 25 per cent are under 26) and under-thirties schemes at ENO and Glyndebourne are thriving. Even prices, that fallback argument for any opera naysayer, don’t live up to the hype, comparing favourably to West End theatre and cinema prices, tickets to pop concerts or football matches. You can get a decent seat for under £30 anywhere, often for much less.
The facts are all in opera’s favour but that doesn’t solve its persistent image problem. Two festivals are doing their best to change this. Taking a sly poke at the preconceptions surrounding Glyndebourne, Grimeborn (30 July to 31 August) is east London’s annual answer to the supposed elitism of opera. Founded in 2007 and now based at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston (as alternative a venue as any revolutionary opera fan could wish for), the festival hosts a handful of fringe companies each year, offering up-close productions of new, traditional and forgotten works with none of the black-tie trappings.
This season you can try a “silent” production of a Monteverdi classic – where individual headsets allow you to control your sonic experience by combining live and prerecorded elements – experience the myth of Eros and Psyche updated to the 1950s, or risk a saucy reworking of Petronius’s Satyricon in a new opera called Viagron.
Over in west London, Tête à Tête (1-18 August) is less worried about opera’s social trappings than its repertoire. Although just a tiny percentage of new works makes it to the Coliseum or Covent Garden because of the commercial risk (though the latter has recently commissioned 15 new works, including four full-length operas for its 2020 season), Tête à Tête stages only new operas at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.
The result is risky and varied: among the subjects this year are Jade Goody, a sequel to Madama Butterfly, and the end of the world, while the performers include 120 homeless people who make up the cast of the filmopera The Answer to Everything.
It’s all terribly innovative and exciting on paper but does it deliver in practice? This year, Tête à Tête has found a treasure in Vivienne – a monologue-opera for mezzo and piano by Stephen McNeff. Andy Rashleigh’s witty and endlessly allusive libretto gives Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot (the first wife of T S Eliot) a voice beyond her husband’s verse, trying on musical styles and dramatis personae for size and incorporating these into a sung, solo monologue – like Eliot’s Waste Land does in verse. The work was elegantly performed by Clare McCaldin and the pianist Elizabeth Burgess, and deserves a rich concert life after this. The Garden by John Harris offered another take on opera’s future, with a more fluid music-drama that slipped freely from speech to song while stripping the accompanying music back to purely synthesised sounds.
It was a failure, however, that spoke loudest at Tête à Tête this year. So determined were the creators of Mme Butterfly that their hero should speak Japanese, deliver extended spoken monologues and perform a fan dance that they forgot that the essence of opera, past or future, is its music. Opera is nothing more nor less than the telling of stories through song. It’s an ageless concept, as true for Monteverdi or Mozart as for operas about Jade Goody or Anna Nicole Smith. As long as stories live and song lives, so will opera. We can all agree on that, surely?
A performance of Viagron. Photo: Claire Shovelton on Flickr, via Creative Commons

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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The world's worst therapist in Gypsy had me reaching for the off button

How did this Netflix series, with its portentous Seventies vibe and implausible plot, come to be made?

In Gypsy (30 June) Naomi Watts plays Jean Hollo­way, possibly the world’s worst therapist. You should see the notes she makes while she is with her patients. “Boundaries,” she’ll write, glasses perched on the end of her nose. Then, for ­emphasis: “BOUNDARIES.” In her Manhattan consulting room, the interior of which resembles the lobby of a uniquely unexciting boutique hotel, she communicates with patients using a grisly combination of 21st-century cliché and self-help ­mumbo-jumbo.

“It’s a process,” she’ll tell the lightly ruffled types who find themselves on her books. Or: “You were in a serious codependent relationship.” Usually, this kind of thing works a treat. Should it fail to do so, there is always her gently whispered last ­resort: “This is a safe space.”

But there is more. Jean has a creepy habit, which is that she likes to dabble in her clients’ lives. Call her a stalker at one remove. Her latest adventure, in which she calls herself Diane and poses not at all plausibly as a journalist, involves a young woman called Sidney (Sophie Cookson), whose drippy ex-boyfriend Jean has been counselling for some weeks. It started with a coffee – Sidney is a barista – and proceeded swiftly to a warehouse party, where Jean danced uninhibited alongside hipsters half her age.

I thought her Eighties moves might have been the result of the Clonazepam she kept swallowing, pills she mostly filched (why?) from the bathrooms of friends. But I was wrong. The disco hands were supposed to be a sign of her burgeoning liberation. Sidney, moreover, found them really hot. Later, the pair of them snogged like teenagers.

What on Earth is Gypsy about? Its creator, Lisa Rubin, has said that she thought it would be interesting to write a series in which a fortysomething woman is portrayed as both desirable and desired, “because the world is full of these women, and yet we so rarely see them on television” – a statement that sounds vaguely laudable in the abstract. But along the way, a car has crashed and left a mess all over the road.

I understand that Jean is suffering from a bad case of first-world ennui, what with her gorgeous lawyer husband (Billy Crudup, struggling manfully with the banalities his character must utter), her charming young daughter and the awful Connecticut soccer moms she must deal with whenever the aforementioned kid wants a play date (though one does wonder why, given that Jean has what purports to be a career, she doesn’t just opt out of the mommy race and hang with women more like herself).

And why shouldn’t she have a little extra-curricular sex with a younger woman, if that’s what floats her perimenopausal boat? What I don’t get is the pseudo-stalking and the stealing. I’m not sure that Gypsy’s somewhat antiquated feminist message – is Rubin aware that Betty Friedan has been dead for a while now? – works in a context in which her behaviour also dictates that she should be struck off.

According to Rubin, Sam ­Taylor-Johnson, who directed the first two episodes, was “really important for establishing the language of the show”. And what a language it is. So easy to learn! Taylor-Johnson fell out with E L James when she directed the film of Fifty Shades of Grey, but you would have to be blindfolded (red velvet, black lace) not to see that this series comes with a powerful whiff of that film. Its aspirant soft-focus gaze cares as much for status refrigerators (the size of a ranch) and winter coats (think Jil Sander) as Jean’s masturbatory fantasies. When, in one inexplicably drawn-out scene, she asked an assistant in an upmarket store whether it stocked Chance by Chanel, her voice was so earnest that she might as well have been asking for the selected écrits of Jacques Lacan.

How did this series, with its portentous Seventies vibe and implausible plot, come to be made? I guess the ravenous maw that is Netflix must be fed somehow. A more interesting question, as you reach for the off button, would be why so many ostensibly intelligent women have come, in 2017, to confuse feminism with shopping and a particularly mindless kind of self-love. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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