Fin Kennedy has popped up a post admitting that he didn’t enjoy an opera (here it is). I have to say I felt similar when I recently went to see an opera (Jenufa at ENO). I read afterwards that it was a piercingly psychological production that broke new ground in realism, to which I can only say that I’m glad I didn’t see a previous production, because it seemed pretty skinny as far as psychological complexity went. I particularly identify with Fin when he says that the music and the stage action seem to get in each others’ way. Increasingly, as I sat there in what is an amazing auditorium, I shut my eyes and just enjoyed the music, which was frequently terrific, but I would always peek out after a bit in case something had happened. All too often, it hadn’t. I thought the plot was OK as it goes – slim, and where a dramatist might take you further into the detail of the emotional or state of mind of the character, the opera writers seemed to stand still and reiterate the same emotion. It’s not repeating really, more sustaining – but I still frequently felt “yes, I got it the first time”
Even more troubling for me was the singing. I understand this is the point for lots of people – isn’t it amazing that the human body can produce that extraordinary sound (and so much of it). So my question really is, isn’t it going to be more powerful if you use it less often? They seem to be belting out all the way through. I can appreciate that when the sentiment is almost inexpressible, you need to go there to convey it, but (in this at least) lines like “who’s that at the door?” were delivered in the same vocal style. I found it very distancing – and kept thinking about a different version which could include speech and singing in different registers – so that you came out having experienced the range of the human voice, not just its top end.
I feel like I should like opera. I love the idea of music and drama working together and as I keep saying I think musical structure is effective within drama. But here the story and character were obstructed by the music, and here the stylings of ‘opera’ sort of prevented the content being experienced effectively.
There often seems to be a movement to revive opera or reimagine it for a new audience. Tom Morris likes this idea (consequently his encouragement of Jerry Springer). There were all those Almeida Operas – I dimly remember seeing one of those – agin musically and visually exciting but dramatically distant. Latterly David Lan and the Young Vic are right behind it too, with Tobias and the Angel and their Christmas show The Enchanted Pig. I saw the Pig and I’m sorry to say it didn’t work for me at all. It had all the bad things I remembered about the Jenufa, with none of the splendid music. It’s as if the directors and designers (the usually excellent Dick Bird in this case) think you won’t be paying attention and so feel like they have to caricature and simplify everything in the storytelling and characterisation. But the inordinate slowness of development and reiteration of sentiment ensure you won’t be left behind. It seemed exceedingly cruel to propose this as an entertainment for children, who have a much higher rhythm of curiosity and must have done very well to keep from jiggling. Far more successful in blending music and theatre seem to be companies like the Clod Ensemble orHeiner Goebbels. I don’t know if you saw The Clod’s The Silver Swan in Edinburgh a couple of years ago – apparently nothing to it by Fin’s storytelling criteria, but beautiful and unforgettable. But these people call it ‘music theatre’. Even The Opera Group who made The Enchanted Pig studiously avoided the word opera in their publicity.
So it feels to me that the principle of opera is good – it’s just the conventions (and aren’t there plenty) that keep it remote. What’s behind this quest for a new opera? Is it worth it or is it a blind alley, and can we just get behind the music theatre?