If we downplay opera’s theatrical priorities we rope it off into an even more moribund corner of our cultural discourse
I became obsessed with opera – and so decided to study music at university in the hope that it would give me a life as close as possible to the art form and its associated musical siblings – when I stumbled upon a live television broadcast of Handel’s Theodora from Glyndebourne. That’s the little opera house in Sussex which has found itself at the eye of this week’s storm concerning whether it’s right, appropriate, intelligent, kind or even dignified to describe a stage portrayal in a review as ‘a chubby bundle of puppy fat’ (a question I won’t attempt to address here beyond a mildly caveated and generalised ‘no it isn’t’).
That TV relay of Theodora on Channel 4 poleaxed me, and when I dragged my unwitting family away from Coronation Street on the bigger downstairs TV, it poleaxed them too. We sat and watched the rest of the opera (OK, ‘oratorio’) in the box-room on a small television set with mono sound. What was the singing like? Knowing precisely zero about vocal technique and operatic (let alone Baroque) stylistics back then, I had no idea.
But what I heard through the single, tinny speaker was music of a shape and human beauty that I’d not encountered before. And what I saw in Peter Sellars’ production – updated to contemporary America in which Theodora and Didymus were executed by lethal injection while the Glyndebourne chorus looked dutifully on as witnesses – was a physical and theatrical realisation of that music which convinced me, in that moment, that Handel’s music was a treasury of wisdom and entertainment that might well be worth a bit more investigation.
What did that – pure and simple – was the ‘theatre’ of it: Sellars’ score-born tendency to physically nail, through his cast and chorus, the psycho-dramatic complexities and revelations of Handel’s music. I was completely sucked in, and it proved the start of a journey which has become the most significant of my life (my family got into opera, too – so all round, quite a result).
Most of us seem to agree that some of the terms used by those five male critics to describe Tara Erraught’s appearance in Glyndebourne’s Der Rosenkavalier were unnecessarily hurtful – whether intentionally or not. But the backlash (under the guise of a counterargument) that has emerged among some corners of the operatic community seems determined to put opera back a good few decades – to a time when convincing stage performances were an added bonus and revisionist productions were met with a mixture of suspicion and scorn.
The mezzo Alice Coote – whom I’ve had the privilege to see bring characters so vividly to life with her body and her voice in a few productions, including a devastating Hansel & Gretel directed by Richard Jones (who directed the controversial show in question) – wrote a passionate ‘open letter’ to critics in which she argued that opera ‘is not about lights, not about costumes, not about sets…but ALL about the human voice.’
Well not from where I sit – even if I’m listening on CD. And not, I believe, from where the increasing number of people who are coming new to opera sit either. Opera is theatre. And yes, the ability to manipulate a staggeringly powerful, flexible and beautiful human voice to make it so is at the heart of the endeavour. If, like me, you’re drawn into the world of opera through its powerful sense of drama as much as its hard-hitting music, you may well go on to develop (as I hope I have) a more cultivated understanding of how voices can contribute to that sense of theatre and its layers of psychology most successfully.
But as hard as it might be for some singers to stomach, theatre isn’t created by vocal brilliance. It’s created by vocal brilliance coupled to intensity of atmosphere and acuity of physical performance that come from exceptional directors working to effective concepts (and that concept can even be a purely sonic one, as in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Charles Mackerras’s Decca recording of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová which preps-up the magnificent vocals). Would I rather watch a ‘lesser’ singer with a real ability to act/portray a character in detail participating in a convincing production than, say, a park-and-bark from the likes of the gobsmackingly-voiced but physically stilted Pavarotti? Absolutely I would.
Once you’ve got your head around the dramatic thrust, implications and residue of a particular opera, then of course you may turn into a borderline obsessive, start listening to endless recordings, begin to argue with yourself (and other dubious individuals) as to the particular sonic and often vocal qualities of various performances. But those arguments are not the priority for many of the thousands who wander into theatres around the UK and beyond to experience poleaxing live opera like that Glyndebourne Theodora.
Yes, opera has to do its utmost to get those vocal qualities as right as possible – and from Stoke-on-Trent to Covent Garden it mostly gets those things right to a remarkable degree. But its priority must be storytelling through compelling theatre. That includes a focused handling of the available (and preferably high-quality) voices, of course. But in these visually stimulating and dramatically superlative times, it needs a lot more besides.