An obsession with composers' birthdays is turning our orchestras into state-funded tribute bands

2013 was an easy one for festival programmers. Wagner, Verdi and Britten all have major anniversaries this year. But doesn't organising a festival around something as arbitrary as a composer's birthday undermine the fundamental value of the work?

The men and women responsible for deciding what’s performed at our major classical music festivals, opera houses and concert halls must have had a glint in their eye when they saw 2013 coming. This was the year to kick-back, relax and use up some of that that surplus annual leave: this was the year that would programme itself. All the artistic directors had to do was draw up lists of the most obvious works by the "big three" anniversary composers – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – then spend a few weeks deciding who should sing/direct/conduct what. So, pretty much what they’ve been doing every other year of late, only this time with an even shorter list of composers to worry about.

Nobody was looking forward to Wagner’s bicentenary year more than I was. I love Wagner, I need Wagner and I can’t imagine life without Wagner. But I haven’t had to imagine life without Wagner for the last ten years, because his operas are so good that they’re performed all the time. What I’m really hoping for in the two-hundredth year since his birth is for someone to rock my understanding of Wagner’s art to a significant degree; to show me something so profound or extraordinary about him that it alters the path of his music into my body and teaches me something new about life.

As much as I’d like to think it will – and I’m still holding out some hope – I’m not sure seven of his operas performed just as the composer wouldn’t have wanted at this summer’s Proms (in concert, un-staged) will do that. At least in Germany they’ve got a national conversation going. The Rheinoper Düsselforf’s Nazi-themed Tannhäuser (not, contrary to most reporting, a particularly iconoclastic starting-point given opera directors’ frequent dalliances with Nazism) was pulled and hey presto, Wagner got the birthday present he deserves: a passionate, unbridled and often dirty discussion about the value and message of his work that simply wouldn’t have come from a concert performance, however musically revelatory.

Verdi and Britten are outstanding and endlessly nourishing composers, too. But that’s precisely why their operas are performed year-in, year-out all over the world. If we’re to celebrate their anniversaries this year (200 and 100 year respectively) we need to think imaginatively about what those milestones mean and what opportunities they present. There have been well over a dozen separate production runs of operas by Benjamin Britten in the UK in the last five years, so clearly opting to "put on a Britten opera" doesn’t cut the mustard as a celebratory act unless it brings something profoundly new to the table.

In truth, I worry that our increasing reliance on composer anniversaries is rooted in something even more dangerous than chronic lack of imagination: an umbilical obsession with the past. You can hardly get through a morning on the classical radio stations these days without hearing a piece composed by someone "who was born on this day in 1847". Fascinating. Now try telling us something about the music that’s actually relevant to our lives in 2013 – about those feelings of frustration, fear, paranoia, community, love and hope that have fuelled great art for centuries and that commute daily through the minds of the 21st-century beings who flock in large numbers to see new art, new theatre and new film. If we’re insistent on programming an organic art form via arbitrary milestones – which composer birthdates usually are – we undermine the relevance of the works themselves. That, and our performing institutions will become curiosities: state-supported tribute bands knocking out ‘old favourites’ for the sake of nostalgia and remembrance.

Contrary to my flippant opening paragraph, of course, we all know that programmers face treacherously difficult tasks. We also know that a concert performance of Parsifal or Götterdämmerung can be an overwhelming and provocative experience (though the last time the Proms presented the latter opera, a mere 6 years ago, it certainly wasn’t).

And there have been illuminating projects this year – Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh; ENO’s scintillating shortened La Traviata which got the heckles of this magazine’s music critic up; and just last Friday a lesson in how to illuminate Wagner with revelatory anniversary context from the pucky, revisionist little orchestra Aurora. You have to admire Welsh National Opera, too, for opting to stage a (relatively) new work in Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream for its Wagner celebrations. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think these examples are the norm. The norm, in fact, has been operatic revivals, operas in concert, and orchestras playing remarkably similar selections of orchestral works.

So here’s a thought. While those bold projects focussed on the biggest names should in fact be happening every year we continue to hold their creators in such high regard, maybe we should turn our anniversary obsession in the direction of those composers who are crying out for rehabilitation. At classical music marketing school I was told that an anniversary is one of the best sales tools available. Splendid, let’s use it to big-up those birthday composers who we don’t hear about in any other year.

Paul Hindemith, Witold Lutosławski, Francis Poulenc and Kenneth Leighton all have anniversaries this year and they all wrote music that’s fascinating, relevant (mostly), highly-crafted and which often spiked the creative status-quo as dictated by their more conventional colleagues.

The Proms is having an admirable stab at Lutosławski this summer – great news, given the festival’s unique communal atmosphere that’s such a lubricant to critical reappraisal. But there’s only one piece of Poulenc and there’s not a jot of Leighton nor a hint of Hindemith to counter the 1627 minutes of Wagner. If the arts exist ‘to ameliorate our fear of the unknown’ as the baritone Thomas Hampson eloquently suggested they do in a recent interview, it’s these figures we should be putting on a pedestal for one year only, not the ones who are there the rest of the time anyway.

An institution like the Proms risks becoming a state-sponsored tribute act if it fails to innovate. Photograph: BBC Pictures.
Photo: Warner Brothers
Show Hide image

Why superhero films should follow Wonder Woman’s lead and have female villains

Bring on the bad.


In films, as in real life, the villain is rarely a woman. There are several reasons for this. One is believability. Women just don’t commit heinous crimes as much as men, so a film has to work very hard to convince the audience that a female baddie could do whatever terrible things we have no problem believing men capable of. There’s no such thing as a bogeywoman because society isn’t afraid of women. As Gillian Anderson’s serial-killer-hunting detective Stella Gibson says to her colleagues in the BBC’s crime thriller The Fall, “is anyone in doubt as to the gender of the killer?”.

A recent Empire Magazine piece entitled The Greatest Villains of All Time featured just one woman out of twenty evil characters, Nurse Ratched from 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The article gleefully quotes Jack Nicholson’s character calling Ratched “a c*nt”, but doesn’t stop to analyse why the sole woman in the list (no, I don’t count the Alien xenomorph) is so bad. She, along with Misery’s Annie Wilkes, are popular villains because they betray a heavily gendered caring role. Around 90 per cent of nurses in the UK and USA are female, so Nurse Ratched’s subversion of her woman’s work - her female caregiver duties - is one of the worst lady crimes Western men can think of.

When women are allowed to be baddies, they’re usually one of a handful of female archetypes. The sadistic nurse, the crazed mother, the vain witch, the jealous lover, or the black widow. Rarely are female baddies allowed to be motivated by something other than the emotional or personal, while male baddies are obsessed with power, money, sex or politics, or just plain evil for evil’s sake.

Another reason filmmakers (93 per cent of whom are male) shy away from the female villain is because the hero is usually a man. To defeat a female antagonist, at some point our hero dude is going to have to punch her, shoot her, explode her, or drive a stake through her evil black heart, and most people are uncomfortable with that even when she really deserves it. Indeed, if the main baddie is a female, she’s often presented as victim herself (think Dredd’s Ma-Ma, Kill Bill’s O-Ren-Ishii, Audition’s Asami Yamakazi, or Mama’s’ But most female baddies are sidekicks, afterthoughts to the main man, to be dispatched by her equivalent female hero sidekick in a setup so common, it has its own TV Trope, the Designated Girl Fight.

This trope is seen frequently in comic books and therefore superhero films, but only because those films are way ahead of the curve in terms of female villainy. Superhero films have no duty to reflect real life. Superheroes can be anyone, from the underdog nerd to a billionaire, and so too can their nemeses. Superpowers are an equalising force. It’s okay for Toad to fling Storm through a glass display case in X-Men, because Storm is a superhero with mutant powers.

But still, these are supporting characters. Female leads even in comic book films are rare. One major exception is of course 2017’s Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, whose protagonist is both exceptionally well trained for combat, and endowed with a few handy supernatural abilities (plus a gadget or two to help out in a plot jam). She’s a badass, and deserves an enemy just like her.

The main antagonist in Wonder Woman is of course a man, first fiddle to a female supporting character, Dr Maru, a sadistic chemist who straight up wants to kill as many people as possible, Nazi-style. She is played with chilling grace by Spanish actress Elena Anaya (in contrast to her comic book counterpart who was originally depicted disguised as a man, to better fit in with her evil allies. Baddies skew male, remember). But to truly belong to women, Patty Jenkins’ world shouldn’t be afraid of the big bad female. And so it isn’t. This weekend, Patty Jenkins announced that the main villain, the “big bad” of Wonder Woman 2 will be the Cheetah, played by Kristen Wiig. In the comics, the Cheetah has always been Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, part of the original canon. Her most popular incarnation is as alter-ego Dr Barbara Ann Minerva, a brilliant archeologist, although we don’t yet know if that’s the version of the character we’ll get for the film. Two evil women with PhDs in a row, can Hollywood be that progressive?

But still, however the Cheetah’s character plays out, this is a big deal. A female hero and a female baddie in a mainstream blockbuster film. It’s no coincidence the film is directed by a woman. More female filmmakers means more female characters and fewer lazy stereotypes, motives and archetypes. Those baddies who break the mould are often the brainchild of women. Kingsman 2’s psychopathic drug lord Poppy Adams is the co-creation of screenwriter Jane Goldman, Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge, representing the banal evil of unchecked authority, is of course the creation of JK Rowling, the screenplays of Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland were written by Linda Woolverton. A new study by digital movie network Fandago shows that 82 per cent of cinema-going women are more inclined to see a movie with dynamic female characters, and 75 per cent want to see more female ensembles. MPAA data shows women are consistently 50 per cent of moviegoers, and in 2016 were even slightly in the majority. The market is there, and we want our representation.

When women are involved in a film, female characters are allowed to be complex, including in villainy. It may sound like a weird feminist goal, to be allowed to express the full range of evil characters alongside the good ones, but when it comes to superhero movies, where anything is possible and art is escaping life, rather than reflecting it, there really is no excuse. Bring on the bad.