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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:

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia