New Statesman, Nov. 1977
After a blameless lifetime devoted to lieder I happened to stray into the opera house. The reception was rousing, in all senses. Careful comparison shows that solo song is innocence and idealism for introverts, whereas opera is passion and perfidy for paranoiacs. Even its etymology is deep‑rooted in earthy reality: “labour, pains, work produced”, says my dictionary, obstetrically. But its themes regularly range far beyond the plain facts of birth and death into highly-coloured fantasies of sex and violence; it's a way of yelling blue murder.
No wonder it began where speech already borders on song or mime – in Italy: home of long vowels and short tempers. Singing actors rarely need to inquire whether it is a dagger that they see before them; it's either that or else one they don't see, behind them. The entire cast is at imminent risk of being punctured in mid-roulade and expiring in a dying fall. Let them escape the blade or the bullet and the alternatives are just as dire. Syphilis, saucily symbolised as Mother Goose, is inseparable from The Rake's Progress; no doubt it is also euphemised in the hellfire that consumed Giovanni, Or the TB of such cases as Violettaand Mimi. Sexuality is now freely simulated on stage, as well as in the pit. All this is liberally irrespective of colour, creed, or even class. Wordsworth was an opera critic when he wrote:
From low to high doth Dissolution climb
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes…
On the facts, we might have expected a more spirited protest from our campaigners against staged, filmed or televised sex and violence. In America, even soap opera has just been cleaned up; over here, no one minds the real thing — no doubt because it remains so very far from real, in the British tradition. Earlier Puritans saw to that; and since their time, only comic opera has been taken seriously. The grand variety is so remote from everyday life that we might as well try to censor or evaluate our dreams. All we can do is wallow in them; or, if we can afford it, have them analysed and discussed by specialists for the good of our psyches.
There are several bad reasons why serious opera still stands aloof and privileged. So does its public, for one thing. It began as a patrician ritual, and its modern following (including any element of camp following) tends to be rich or otherwise subsidised by society, like the art-form itself. Admittedly opera critics are a poverty-stricken tribe: see for example the harrowing current account of spiritual profit and financial loss in this autumn's Author. That, must be why we get free tickets and programmes from a benevolent administration. But the general rule holds: no hand-out, no opera. It would be interesting and perhaps profitable to mark the public money and see where it mainly goes, as the course of underground streams can be traced by dyeing their sources. The springs and even the beds (to continue, not change, the metaphor) may before long become dried up and empty. If so, opera is now rightly protected, like any other rare, beautiful and endangered species. Meanwhile a more clement and propitious environment is clamorously called for. It would surely help if opera were to set its own stately houses in order, and throw them open to a much wider public.
What keeps music-lovers away from such great works in such vast numbers? Not the prices, disconcerting though they sometimes appear. Not the substitution of song for speech, for that is the basis of all popular music. Not the general standards of vocal or instrumental performance, or of scenery, costumes, lighting, production or direction – each of these facets is usually polished and often brilliant. The main deterrent, I think, lies in the deadening traditions and conventions that still dominate the operatic scene, despite the century-old protests of such great critics as Wolf and Shaw.
The chorus still stands around in allegorical postures vividly evocative of listless indifference, especially when being exhorted to work even harder, or fight yet more bravely. That might be ironic realism, of course: but somehow one doubts it. One actively disbelieves it when recent corpses leap through the curtain waving and grinning, in quest of floral and other tributes. Heroes and heroines still sing “I love you” to the audience and not to each other, thus not only spoiling the work but giving the game away. Inaudible words are even worse, in a verbo-musical art-form; people might as sensibly pay to hear inaudible music. For balanced clarity, conductors must renounce their ultimate resonance, and singers must pronounce their final consonants. Lastly there is audible nonsense, which can be worst of all. Modern opera translations usually avoid such legendary absurdities as “outraged parenthood in me pants”. But all translation entails heavy losses of some kind. To trade authenticity for expedience, real fruit for wax, must be a bad bargain, especially at Covent Garden; how could a great international opera house have countenanced Les Troyens in any English translation, let alone Dent's (a good maxim), as if Berlioz were a form of Berlitz? And might not the English National Opera now reconsider its name and its policy? A London firm publishing foreign novels in translation would need uncommon nerve to trade as English National Literature.
Opera needs all the realism it can get, whether of words or attitudes, if it is not to fall into the hands of claques and cliques. Already there are danger signs. Thus among currentLondon productions (about which more later) the inveterate opera-goer may well feel disposed to eulogise Euryanthe as interesting and stigmatise Salome as routine. As characters and as music, the former is innocence personified and the latter depravity incarnate. The broad view must prefer the base to the apex, as being not only much more like opera as I see it but infinitely more like popular entertainment as everyone sees it. Support wild life in London: visit Salome.