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.

Grimeborn
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 It’s a genre peopled by princes and prostitutes (and nothing in between), whose stories are as outdated as its ageing audience and whose tunes offer a mawkish and anachronistic soundtrack to contemporary life.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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge