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 It’s a genre peopled by princes and prostitutes (and nothing in between), whose stories are as outdated as its ageing audience and whose tunes offer a mawkish and anachronistic soundtrack to contemporary life.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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Potato and Juliet: how Mark Rylance makes children like Shakespeare

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences which can be used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. 

How young can you learn Shakespeare? A rare repeat of a 1998 programme presented by Mark Rylance (27 April, 6.30am, rebroadcast 1.30pm and 8.30pm) asks the question. Not yet a superstar incapable of resisting a part in the new Christopher Nolan film, Rylance was then the artistic director of the Globe Theatre. Just an Abrahamic guy in a silly hat (most likely), sitting all mystical in a class of six-year-olds and asking things like what the word “Romeo” makes them think of.

“Potato,” someone decides. “Now, girls,” giggles Rylance, “would you fall in love with a boy called Potato?”

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences that can then be cast into solid chunks and used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. When Rylance talks about hoping that children recognise Shakespeare as a “playful friend, rather than someone they are going to meet on a forced march to an exam”, the unpreening lightness of his delivery suggests one, unscripted take. “He wrote for the ears,” the director went on. “It just sounds interesting. His words have body and form.”

I suppose the question is not so much how young you can teach Shakespeare, but how young you can teach any (great) poetry, because children instinctively take to it. For instance, a big-screen adaptation of T S Eliot’s Cats has been announced. In the fantasies of my friend James, this adaptation will feature Channing Tatum as Rum Tum Tugger and Lady Gaga singing “Memory”, and will be produced by the team behind The Incredibles. In short, a poem with children in mind while the adults sit there thinking: “What the f*** is this? There’s no plot at all!”

Instead, the upcoming Cats will be directed by the sombre Tom Hooper, doubtless brought in to “study” the text. Give me Rylance’s six-year-olds any day, imagining what things Henry V might have noticed the night before the Battle of Agincourt. “Wolves howling,” breathes one. “Bats flapping,” gulps another. Then finally – and this suggestion couldn’t be bettered – just before Henry steps out to claim “. . . I think the king is but a man, as I/am”, he possibly spots “a mouse rolling on his bed”. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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