30 July 2015

The fat lady has gone

by J R Thomas

The opera, they say, ain’t over until the fat lady sings. But that was then, this is now. The fat lady, fans of Covent Garden may remember, is no longer acceptable on the Royal Opera House stage. As far back as 2004, Deborah Voigt, the distinguished American soprano, was fired from the role of Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos for being overweight, or (according to the ROH management) for being unable to wear the dress made for the role. We will not get into the wonders of haute couture or tailoring here, but merely report the happy ending that Ms Voigt slimmed down over the next four years and made a triumphant return to her intended role in 2008. Whether she returned to the intended dress, history does not relate.

But great opera directors of today have not just dispensed with fat ladies. They frequently dispense with the original script of the opera or great chunks of the libretto. Even if you get all the right words, they are “not necessarily in the right order” (to quote a great comedian).  Settings are changed, the sex of the protagonists reversed or obscured, and now it is a rare director who does not drop historicism for his own questing and searing commentary on modern times.

This trend began at the theatre, especially with attempts to make the works of one W Shakespeare relevant for modern school children. And often successfully, let it be said. In his early teens, your correspondent had grumbled and snoozed through endless classroom readings and explanations of Julius Caesar. But seeing it performed in modern dress at the Theatre Royal, York, changed the whole thing. Caesar as an aspiring Hitler made everything horrifyingly clear (as did a wonderfully raunchy version of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford with a practically naked Juliet).

Opera has never been so popular in Britain as it is today; or, rather, has never been seen by so many people (not quite the same thing). Any owner of a country house who wishes to gain respect for his cultural depths will run an opera festival at least every other year. (Unless the mansion needs a new roof or the local authority has again turned down the planning application for a wind turbine farm – in which case a slightly more lucrative approach might be a festival along the lines of Bestival or Latitude.)

Led by the very grand Glyndebourne, country house opera is the big in-thing – the example of the Christies of Glyndebourne being followed by Grange Opera in Hampshire with a very serious and impressive set-up in the ruins of Grange Park, by the Ingrams’s at Garsington (now removed to the safe keeping of the Getty family at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire), by the Cartwright-Hignetts at Iford near Bath and by the roving Pavilion Opera Company, founded and still run 34 years later by Freddie Stockdale. Pavilion roams the country houses of Britain, filling in for those bereft owners with no opera house of their own. Cowshed Opera (the clue to the location is in the name) entertains the humble folk of the Cotswolds, 500 at a time. At the other end of the architectural scale is West Green Opera, also in Hampshire, in the garden of the very operatically baroque West Green House.

For opera lovers, life is good and choice is plentiful. And what is more, country house opera is often much closer physically to its core audience than those two great opera houses stuck in the middle of London. Aficionados of the greatest music form of all can drive to the opera, park nearby and, weather permitting, take a wonderful picnic complete with family silver and their own champagne. Opera is not cheap but it is cheaper in the country, and you will meet your chums, all of whom will have seized this excuse to dress properly (long dresses and grandma’s jewellery; dickie bows and evening dress rescued from the moth). The booze is usually cheaper as well, when you have run out of your own – though it is best to agree first who is driving home.

That is all rather shallow stuff, but those of deeper cultural yearnings will also find satisfaction in rural musicality. The standard of orchestral play in Britain now is now very high, and there are plenty of musicians to provide good orchestral quality even in the most remote counties. On-stage, the standard of the cast usually ranges from pretty good to remarkable. Grange Park is especially proud of its reputation for attracting the biggest and best. Established stars very much like summering in the country, the divas and magnificos often finding themselves accommodated as honoured guests in the sponsoring country house. At Glyndebourne, the soprano Danielle de Niese even gets to live in Glyndebourne House – though to do so she had to marry the current Mr Christie and become chatelaine of the place. (We have no details of who sleeps where at Cowshed Opera.) Equally, young aspirants in the opera world and rising stars find employment and appreciation in the country opera business, and it is a great place for hearing those soon to be at the London houses at double the price. True, passing aircraft, sudden rainstorms and cows lowing nearby can provide distractions, but real opera buffs should be able to take that in their stride.

Maybe best of all for the traditionalist devotee of singing-and-moving-at-the-same-time, most country house opera is done in accordance with the concepts, music and libretto of the original writer, in dress of the period in which it was written and against magnificent sets appropriate to the era. So far, no country house has seen a reorganised and reset Don Giovanni open with the anti-hero copulating in a vandalised car, nor have any productions opened with the chorus seated in the open stalls of a public toilet.  Nudity and simulated rape might well put the country house audience off its coronation chicken and Pol Roger, and (so far) have been avoided.

The migration of the traditionalist audiences to rural opera, though taking at least some of the core ticket income from the Royal Opera House and English National Opera, has in many ways been a boon for the London houses and other city venues. Freed of a rich but conservative audience, the city houses have been able to experiment with new treatments and approaches in their old repertoire and to commission new works. Some of the controversial works of the twentieth century have been exhumed from the dusty vaults in which old operas are kept and have become big draws for a much younger, informal and more international following. Controversial though some productions have been, they fill the seats at the demanding prices which the running of a modern urban opera house needs.

There is concern amongst the board members of the great houses that too much controversy, coupled with a conservative Conservative government, might create problems in obtaining the large public subsidies needed to fund the buildings, sets and huge numbers of musicians, set hands, singers and management. Compared with the self-funding nature of rural opera, the huge costs of running urban opera is remarkable, and is generally seen as explicable given the short country seasons, temporary facilities, and minimal permanent staff. But so far there is no great noise to cut funding to the city companies, even though the elitist nature of opera is always an easy target.

Opera seems to be in that best of all possible worlds. Standards are high, there are many opportunities to enjoy it in the style and surroundings that best suit the audience member, and traditional treatments vie with the most modernist and shocking approaches. Adherents of each may grumble about the nature of the other, but there is plenty for everybody. So good are things, there is probably an opera to be made of this happy tale!


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