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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: roh.org.uk

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

Harry Styles performing in London on April 11. Photo: Hélène Pambrun
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How Harry Styles’ European tour was transformed into a LGBT-positive safe space

And all thanks to two fans, 50 volunteers and 28,000 pieces of paper.

After 21 dates, 20 cities, 19 suits, 14 countries and one kilt, Harry Styles’s European tour came to a close last night in Dublin. Some of his most dedicated fans attended a handful of dates in a row, organising their own queuing systems, and arranging tributes to the Manchester terror attacks. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” Styles said at every gig, always bringing an LGBT flag on to the stage as he performed. As ever, his shows were a always collaboration between artist and audience to create a safe space for teenage girls and LGBT fans.

On this tour, two fans in particular went above and beyond to create a visually striking, affirmational statement. Ksenia, 17, and Luna, 20, came up with the Rainbow Project, a labour-intensive and involved plan to invite those attending the London dates of the tour to participate in a giant rainbow running around the circumference of the O2 Arena. The project involved distributing 14,000 pieces of differently coloured paper and instructions each night to different seat sections: fans were then invited to put the paper over their phone torches during the song “Sweet Creature” to create a rainbow light effect.

Ksenia and Luna tell me they have been fans of Harry's since his One Direction days: in 2014 and 2012 respectively. “We are really proud of how far he’s come,” Luna explains, “from being afraid of what people thought of him, to confidently pulling off wearing a dress!” The two say they were inspired by Harrys support of the LGBT community: “We just wanted to do something for him.”

Such fan projects aren’t new. As the writer Aamina Khan explains, One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – have been organising fan projects around the rainbow flag since 2014. As the presence of such flags became more and more visbile, Styles in particular started engaging with both the symbol and its message: draping flags around him speaking of love and equality to the crowd. Last year, fans brought hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter signs to Harry Styles concerts.

But Ksenia and Luna’s project seems by far the most complex and challenging so far. “It took us three months to prepare the project,” Luna explains. “We had a group of about 25 volunteers for each show who helped us to hand the colours out. Almost everyone in the arena got a colour, so we made 28,000 pieces in total for the two days.”

Aside from the hours and organisation needed to produce, print, cut out and distribute close to 30,000 small pieces of paper, they both feared that the strict security teams at venues like the O2 wouldn’t take too kindly to their plan. “Obviously you are scared that what you planned doesn't work out,” Luna explains. “But we were pretty optimistic.”

“The venue sadly did take 5,000 pieces away from us on the first night, as we needed permission to do the whole thing – which we didn’t know. The next day, the O2 and its venue manager Rachael reached out to us, and we were happy to have official permission. That night everything worked out perfectly and we’ve never seen something more stunning. It left us speechless.”

“Harry creates wonderful safe spaces each night he steps on stage,” they tell me. “We think we speak for everyone when we say that we’re thankful for that.”

Luna says that the inclusive feeling of Harry Styles concerts is a collaboration between both audience and artist:  “He brings a message, and we as fans chose what we can identify with or look up to. The combination of that creates the feeling at a concert.”

The Harry Styles tour has left Europe, but it’s far from over. As it moves on to Australia, Asia and America, more creative fan projects are undoubtedly on the way.

All photos by Hélène Pambrun.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.