Archive for February, 2014

Guerrilla Opera – A Manifesto

24 February, 2014 Leave a comment

Many Different Kinds Of Herring


Unlikely to be seen at the opera

Unlikely to be seen at the opera

It is a truth universally acknowledged that opera is in crisis.  We are beset on, the one side by journalists who, desperate for an easy way to pen two thousand words, produce a screed denouncing Opera as the play-thing of the elite, where the super-rich, the one percent of the one percent, go to show off their trophy girlfriends and splash on a bit of Bollinger by way of aftershave, while sleeping, stuffing themselves or shagging their way through the actual performance, a picture which we happy, sweaty, underpaid few who actually do things like squeeze ourselves into the astonishingly constricted things that ENO laughably call ‘seats’ for fun, find it hard to imagine, let alone see around us. After all the closest some opera goers get to putting on their glad rags would seem to be finding some clothes whose original colour has not yet been obscured by stains.  Many, indeed, give the impression of being unworldly souls, with minds on higher things, whose sole reaction on meeting a Jessica Rabbit lookalike would be to ask her for her opinion on whether it should be Don Carlos or Don Carlo.

My kind of diva

My kind of diva

And then, on the other side we have the ‘talented opera singers’, the Alfie Boes and Katherine Jenkinses of this world, who tell the world that their sub-Vera Lynn warblings are where opera is at, and explain their strange failure to actually appear on any operatic stage as being due to the fact that the world of opera is elitist, and you just can’t get anywhere if you’re a working class girl from somewhere in Wales with the mother of all boob jobs.  And we, the not-at-all elite cannot help but observe that Joyce DiDonato is more or less worshipped by most opera fans, and yet she is, in fact, a genuine bona fide farm girl from Kansas, about as unelite as you can get, and her figure is all her own.  And she actually sings the right notes in the right order.  And has been known to make daring observations along the lines that performers are, after all, merely the instruments that realise the composer’s intentions.  She is altogether too good for this world, and it would be a better place if it were she to whom the non-cognoscenti swore eternal allegiance.



And then, on, yet another side, we see those who argue that the whole problem is modern stuff. They observe, rightly, that many modern-style opera productions suck, and that the majority of modern operas are unspeakable trash.  This is, of course, true.  Unfortunately, they fail to observe that many traditional-style opera productions suck and that the majority of pre-modern operas are unspeakable trash.  Which is a shame, because, starting from a true premise, they arrive at a startlingly false conclusion.  They argue that, because modern music is garbage, and modern productions are awful, the answer is to go back to the 1860s, or 1780s, or whatever, and vow to never, ever, ever stage another operatic production that would not give Dame Felicity Lott the opportunity to appear on stage in one of her copious collection of pretty frocks.  Because, you see, it is the modern that frightens people away from opera.  And yet, and yet: Berg’s Wozzeck is modern; Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is modern.  Both were amazing successes at the time of their first productions, when they successfully filled to the brim any number of non-subsidised theatres.  And yet now they are seen as ‘difficult’, and apparently too much for opera goers to handle.

Her Tosca is legendary

Her Tosca is legendary

And I do not even want to think about the canary fanciers who appear to forget that opera is not, in fact, the institutionalised adoration of singers, but dramma per musica: a theatrical art form in which a drama is presented through music.  They are too much.

And finally, sitting lost and alone in a frozen zone, we have the unchurched: poor, sad people who occasionally remark that they’d like to go to the opera, but when they tried it, it was seven hours of people singing incomprehensibly at one another in a foreign language, with dramatic content that could easily have fitted into ten minutes or so, and the whole thing wasso artificial and out of touch with reality that is was a bit off-putting.

Beautiful Girls Wearing Nothing But Pearls


Now, in case you haven’t guessed, it’s this last group who we should actually concern ourselves with.  Not the canary fanciers, who can be left quite happy listening to their scratchy phonograph cylinders of 1893’s greatest hits.  And not with the traditionalists who want everything to be beautiful, grand, and, above all, frilly: their conception of opera has as much bearing on the real thing as a Mills and Boon Medical Romance has on daily life in the NHS.  And not with the Boeotian Yahoos: their natural home is in whichever theatre is tonight being made hideous by The Phantom Of The Opera.  And as for the financiers, well, I would love to meet a doxy whose perfect figure was covered only with diamonds, especially if she allowed me to remove them and carry them off to the pawn shop of my choice, but I fear that she and her kind exist only in the imagination of journalists who probably think Mamma Mia is an opera, because it has singing in it.

Better than sex?  Really?

Better than sex? Really?

So, whatever Bialystock and Bloom might have to say on the subject, we do not need beautiful girls wearing nothing but pearls at the Opera.  Or to be more precise, they have their place, because, after all, everyone likes to see shellfish excrement being toted round the stage, but if we are to mine the rich seam of potential operatic audiences that are the disappointed, puzzled and desperate for a chance to comprehend, then we need to connect, if only a very little, with their reality.  And it is not many of us who are blessed with the gift of a personal reality that includes jewel-adorned concupiscence in abundance; in fact, I imagine many Gulf Arab princelings would envy Mr Bloom.  No, these poor souls clearly want to meet with the opera, but if that meeting is to happen, it must come at least a little way towards them.  Let us be honest, an art-form in which people willingly subject themselves to hours and hours and hours of vile misogynistic drivel, in which four utter imbeciles are manipulated by two monsters into committing actions that even Lorelei Lee might consider unwise, and moreover where every forty-seven seconds the action stops dead while one or other of the characters sings a very, very long song in which they repeat the same nine words of what might be very poorly pronounced Italian several hundred times, and then proclaim it to be an artistic and intellectual experience of such magnitude that it probably beats managing to get a bloke to the Moon and back again for most impressing human achievement ever: such an art-form has problems when it comes to persuading those who inhabit something vaguely akin to the real world that it is neither a gigantic con job nor the product of some kind of highly specialised form of madness.

I’ll Tell You When We’re In Too Deep


You know - for kids

You know – for kids

So, what do we do?  I’ll tell you.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Well, in the spirit of Guerrilla Film Making, where film-makers who aspire to more than explosions and one-liners find finance and equipment wherever they can, using it to produce a deeply personal vision … which is very often no better that would have been the explosions and one-liners of the mainstream, very occasionally turns out to be a jewel of such magnificence that the only thing the world can do is ignore it absolutely, in the hope that it goes away and stops making them think: in that spirit, I say we need an approach to opera that cuts the crap, scrapes away the layers of accreted habit and preciousness and in-group dynamics and hyperbole and sheer, bloody-minded obscurantism, to reveal the precious grit that formed the core and basis of that dull, ordinary pearl.  Because, yes, opera sung in the original language, where we stop the action at intervals to clap a lot, or have encores, or insert random songs that the tenor happens to have managed to commit to memory, where characters do inane things for no reason, and yet we all assure one another that it’s very, very beautiful, and make the obligatory references to how the soprano’s rendering of those three notes in her fourth aria of act five compared with those of great sopranos through the ages, well, yes it can be fun.  But only fun if you’re so far into the in-group that you’re on the verge of creating your very own personal event horizon.  For somebody who’s on the outside looking in, it’s all a bit much, and it might just serve to make you think the whole thing was a bit silly.

  Why not:

  • Reach out to meet the audiences half way by actually singing the thing in English?  After all, we’re quite happy to go watch plays in translation, and, though I know this is heresy, I do not really believe that Lorenzo da Ponte’s verse, at its least awful, is quite in the same league as Shakespeare’s in Titus Andronicus.  So if Shakespeare in German and Goethe in English are AOK, what’s wrong with really rather mediocre verse in English?  Yes, I know the aficionados claim it makes the music sound all funny, but, let’s be honest, you need to have achieved quite high levels of opera nerdness to notice such things.  Added to which, if you start saying things like that, you are in danger of forgetting my next rule, which is:
  • Remember that the point of the exercise is not to marvel at the lovely music, or to admire the tenor’s perfect pointing of his top B flats, or to gawp at the soprano’s cleavage.  Opera is a dramma per musica: it is a drama and it should be dramatic.  You know, actually tell a compelling story in an exciting and involving way.  The moment you forget that, you have left real opera behind, and replaced it with a bizarre form of cabaret act performed on a huge stage with weird, and often ridiculous, costumes and sets.  So let’s actually try to make the whole thing an integrated drama, and not just an excuse to be the musical equivalent of wine snobs.
  • Think small.  Not all opera was meant to be enormous.  Rossini and his contemporaries wrote for small companies consisting of a fixed set of individuals, with their abilities and limitations, all with a shoestring budget.  And, of course, that is precisely what Shakespeare did.  Did he assume his works were going to be performed on a huge stage, and that people would insist on discussing his plays in terms of the glorious poetry?  No, he wrote to make sure enough people came that Burbage would be able to afford to pay him this week, and, when the company was on the road, they would play anywhere there might be an audience.
  • I saw Aida in the woodshed

    I saw Aida in the woodshed

    So why not stage an opera in a shed?  If we don’t need massive sets, or elaborate costumes, and if we accept that the drama can be represented equally well with a pared down production and reduced orchestration, and we accept that it’s about wowing the audience with drama, not acting like a bunch of luvvies, then doing it in a shed is absolutely the right thing to do.  If we make opera seem approachable and ordinary, then people are more likely to approach it and find it sufficiently alluring to want to approach it a bit more closely next time.

You Can Do It


So, if Guerrilla Opera is to succeed we must find the will to break free from what we think opera is, and to discover, perhaps, what it was and could be, as a living dramatic art-form, and not merely a coterie’s private pastime.  We need a few operas, full of drive, passion and drama, but operas that depend for their drama on interpersonal dynamics rather than spectacle, with productions that can work in more or less any small space with minimal adaptation.  And, most important, we need adventurous and brave young artists, willing to risk the derision of their peers for the sake of making the art live again.  Even if it does mean ending up playing Lucretia seduced by Tarquinius while reclining on a sack of manure.

The alternative

The alternative