This festival, with a name that apparently puns on a more famous festival I’m not opera-savvy enough to be aware of, has been running some years and is a really cool idea. The Arcola, a Fringey Dalston space that does a lot of good work, put together a season consisting of 16 opera offerings. If you bought the festival Passport you could see five productions for a tenner each, which really isn’t bad—less than the cost of a movie in London, unless you’re getting a special deal. This is about the only way I was ever going to be able to see enough live opera in a concentrated spurt to actually decide whether I liked the medium.
Ultimately, I’m still ambivalent. Despite the insights into the phenomenon of opera-crying offered by Thomas Dixon’s excellent Margaret Are You Grieving? A Cultural History of Weeping, the phenomenon remains unfathomable to me at a fundamental level. When I cry about art it is almost always because of a conceptual source of sadness. I cried a lot during War and Peace, for example when the young Rostov boy dies, because he is so young and so undeserving of this and was only the night before offering fellow officers his treats to get them to like him and trying to come off as such a grown up. He was a baby, and his death is so stupid and worthless. It’s not him I’m sad about precisely, nor is it exactly Margaret I mourn for, my own death in his. It’s the whole idea. This isn’t said to big myself up because I virtuously find Great Art sad: as a child I also cried when Qui-Gon Jinn died in The Phantom Menace, and all the intervening years have not cleansed me of this sin. When a certain friend of mine cries about art, it’s because a character is thwarted, made unhappy. As with opera crying, I don’t understand the form of identification or empathy that enables or forces her to cry because a character is rendered miserable. And I have also known real-life opera-criers, capable of being pushed to the edge not by an idea, but by a vibration. The world is SFFnal: this is true, and yet it is as fantastic to me as faeries.
This suggests to me that, for some people, opera has a ready way in. A Royal Road and all that. I love a lot of music very much indeed, but I don’t have a physical or acculturated response to it that enables me to be moved to tears by the beauty of sound alone. I relate to opera like I relate to plays and songs and musicals, and end up judging it by some mixture of the demands of those categories. I lack familiarity with the form, and I always find it difficult to engage with and be moved by something I don’t understand. I’d say ‘so does everyone’, but I’m not sure about the universality of my feelings, given that apparently sounds make people cry, but not me.
My feelings on opera are still vulnerable, unusually determined by the strength of the production I’m watching at a given moment, the last thing I saw. I still dimly remember, though, learning to watch plays. Up until maybe eight years ago, I think I’d seen perhaps 15 plays in total, which doesn’t sound so bad until you think about how many films you’ve seen or books you’ve read by 22. Take it back to ten years ago and the number drops lower, to perhaps ten, baring the handful of student things I’d been in. I was almost invariably cast as old women in these. If there was a battleaxe grandmother, I was she. I don’t exactly know why. The world/Rock Bridge High School was apparently not yet ready for my cross-cast, played-gay Hungarian linguist in Pygmalion, I guess (though I maintain that was a good audition).
I might be selling this short. My mother, always anxious to assure herself and everyone else that her children were impeccably provided for, prepared for their launch into adult life like royal yachts, would probably credit me with scores. But I’m don’t think I’m underselling it by much. My family was relatively privileged and my mom sometimes bought me tickets for touring productions of things that came to Jesse Hall, the university venue in my hometown. But the offerings in our then-smaller, then-poorer town were far more limited than they are today, and they were and are nothing whatever in comparison to those of a bigger city. Theatre is expensive in America, and to us it was a pretentious luxury item. As a family we were weirdly both ‘interested in culture’ and totally not. My mom had acted a little in local amdram as a younger woman, but she also never read a book, other than out loud to me (I think primarily for child development purposes, but perhaps that’s being uncharitable), either for information or for pleasure in my entire time living at home. It’s really remarkable to think how precious the worst Jeff City amdram Shakespeare in the Park was to me. I was David Copperfield levels of enthused about anything. I knew so little, I relied so much on crumbly old VHS recordings of Phantom and ancient records of G&S. I was the only person I knew, baring my mother and grandmother, who know what the hell they were. I was so stupid, and so hungry.
Learning what the fuck I was looking at with plays took watching them, again and again and again. Thus I understand the possible necessity, and am prepared to do the work, of learning new rhetorics for opera. I think I’d need to, so that I can come to love it as I do plays: with an abiding faith that underlies even the worst productions, with a trust in the medium. When I review a bad book, I still know War and Peace exists, and so do Jane Austen Book Club and Bridget Jones’ Diary and everything else worthwhile in the world. I know what this bad book is saying about books full-stop and what if isn’t. I know the lines between the production and the play and the medium (if you’re about to make a Marshall Mcluhan sort of point about how that is not possible to absolutely know, the door is to your left). I could get there with opera in time, but I’m not sure the medium and I are well-suited enough for me to grow into that relationship with it. I’m still looking for other things in opera—for the dialogue of a good play, and the music-staging of a competent West End piece, and the accessibility of a song.
So there are all your caveats before we begin.
An opera takes a long time to cover basic plot occurrences. I’m aware this is probably a really facile thing to say, but there it is. The first scenes of Tosca take ages, and the pacing kicks up dramatically in the second half.
Tosca’s big selling point for me is the titular character (Natasha Jouhl), a singer who’s jealous and perhaps too-easily moved by others’ suffering, especially if she cares about them. By that same turn, she’s great-hearted and capable of drawing on reserves of inner strength. Her plan in this story, which is good but not quite good enough, her successful attack on her would-be rapist and her song about how she’s always lived decently and been devoted to her art and doesn’t deserve the big slice of bullshit she’s being served right now are all involving. Her political painter boyfriend Cavaradossi (slight shades of B/A fic here) doesn’t have much to do besides get tortured, but he too doesn’t deserve this crap.
Scarpia, the lascivious sadist antagonising her, is, alas, fairly recognisable. He’s well-played in this production by a malevolently-grinning Freddie Tong, whose tight-held, military-uniformed body exerts a force of weight and menace. Tosca’s final remarks on how she knows her business as a singer and will tell Cavaradossi all about how to pretend to die in order to escape his captors are pert and cute, right up until they’re a sad joke at her expense. Because of course Cavaradossi actually gets shot, which Tosca ought to have guessed might happen (she’d made a bargain with the untrustworthy Scarpia, which Scarpia never intended to honor). She was fairly stressed out by dealing with her boyfriend’s torture, her own sexual assault and stabbing Scarpia to death, however, so you can see why Tosca wasn’t thinking that clearly. The scene where she and her lover discuss the murder and Cavaradossi insists she’s not to blame for any of it, nor has she been befouled by her actions, and they move past it together shows that they have a strong relationship to lose. Yes, Tosca is jealous and histrionic and comical, and she’s less able to withstand pain endured for a good cause than her lover, but that doesn’t diminish her fuller personality, or her capacity for serious moral action. I like the opera’s matter of fact treatment of her sexual agency.
There was a particularly good aria (If that’s the term I want? I think so, but it might not be quite correct.) at the beginning of the second act (?), one of Tosca’s I believe, but overall the music wasn’t a chief selling-point for me here. The staging ranged from ‘fine, but nothing to write home about’ to slightly awkward (Cavaradossi’s friend’s dead body lies immobile on a little raised platform for the whole second act). I could have done with a bit more Gareth Thomasy rebel charm from Cavaradossi, but again, the script doesn’t allow him that much scope. Glancing at Wikipedia, I find that “[t]urning the wordy French play into a succinct Italian opera took four years, during which the composer repeatedly argued with his librettists and publisher.” I might have preferred it if he’d left more meat on those bones, personally. Further, “[w]hile critics have frequently dismissed the opera as a facile melodrama with confusions of plot—musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker”—the power of its score and the inventiveness of its orchestration have been widely acknowledged.”
It is, perhaps, difficult to access the full force of the score and orchestration via the quite small group of players the space admitted. I’m sure they performed well (the more trained people with me voiced no complaints on that score), but a smattering of players isn’t a full orchestra. Perhaps it works well if you know Tosca, and are bringing that knowledge of the full score to this small rendition. It’s possible that via this exposure, I’ve sort of bypassed one of the major draws of the piece. I liked Tosca, but feel I ought to have liked it better than I did.
MOZART & SALIERI
Well, this was a mistake. Hauled ass across town for some little 45 min spit of an opera, clumsily translated into English and modernised in that jokey way I hate, where the fact that they mention Dalston is somehow inherently hilarious. ‘We could go to the Turkish place.’ What larks. In part my not wanting this is my own fault. I should have read the program better (forty-five minutes). I’d been curious about how they’d adapted such a short play into a full piece, too. Answer: they didn’t.
I liked the effort at meta-theatrical staging, though this looked really gestural compared to the National’s treatment of Amadeus a couple months later. This should have been absolutely my thing. The premise starts queer and the execution got well gay. But even that couldn’t save it.
The acting lacked particular conviction or charm (especially on Salieri’s part), both of which one expects given what the filmic Amadeus has done with this story. This is an operatic setting that renders even the encysted Mozart fairly lifeless, which is dangerous business considering that this play is predicated on artistic jealousy. The poison element comes across as fairly comic. Why did Salieri’s dead wife give him a poison ring? Which he now keeps about his person at all times? ?? Questions.
I first encountered the original play in uni, when I also read Schaffer’s play because I was obsessed with Amadeus the film and had an idea of doing something with the story myself. It’s been eight or nine years so my memory isn’t crystal clear, but while I remember finding it a little nothing, I don’t think it left me with the total ‘…oh’ reaction this did. The play script had a weird, humming, sexualised energy slightly reminiscent of Wilde’s Salome. I thought the opera’s lyrics clunky and the plotting feeble. So does the fault lie in the operatic setting or in this translation thereof? The only moment the opera sort of falls into place for me is in the two men’s final pre-poisoning conversation about admiration. The finale, a soft thunk of ‘can geniuses be murderers?’, needed some editing. I don’t care if some of these problems are inherited from the original, you can and ought to fix things in subsequent layers of adaptation (and this has two).
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
I had a terrible migraine and so sat out the first half of this, crumpled in the lobby. I had seen a Figaro before at the ENO, home of shite productions, and not liked it all that much. This Figaro was probably better, or at least I enjoyed what I did see of it significantly more (my partner assures me the first half worked similarly well). This was the most fully staged of the productions we’d attended thus far, with the biggest cast, the most complex plot, and I believe the most complicated orchestral arrangements. It enjoyed quite a solid English translation, the sort that almost makes you see the point of opera translation in a world with good surtitles. It also featured competent singing, and I think possibly still-better acting. The emotional through lines made sense and the whole was imbued with energy and fun. It stood up well as a farce, though of course Figaro lacks the thundering majesty of really good Mozart, sitting more in Mozart’s Casiotone plinky-plink music box range. Don’t @ me.
(It might be worth mentioning that I have awful classical music tastes, probably. I really like huge, lush, romantic Brahms and Tchaikovsky and shit, which means that the studied precision of Mozart at his most Period isn’t ever going to do it for me, because what I find affecting is in some ways a reaction to the tradition the over-neat, studied, mathematically precise portion of Mozart’s output epitomises. Again, I don’t know much about classical music, and I prefer any Mozart whatever to such post-Stravinsky chromaticism Benjamin Britten business as goes on in avant-garde opera that isn’t like, Brecht. I don’t think I’m using the right terms. I remember distinctly that there was atonal shit I fucking despised at the end of music appreciation, but not the language or the name of that awful German? Russian? East European? thing. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck? I think it might be!
“Wozzeck is generally regarded as the first opera produced in the 20th-century avant-garde style and is also one of the most famous examples of employing atonality (music that avoids establishing a key) and Sprechgesang. Berg was following in the footsteps of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, by using free atonality to express emotions and even the thought processes of the characters on the stage. The expression of madness and alienation was amplified with atonal music.”
That. I fucking hate that. I’d apologise for my pedestrian and conservative taste, but I do get the feeling that if I knew better I’d consider this music in about the same light as I consider high Modernism. Which is to say, I’d think it largely pointless, self-absorbed, butch titwank that is considered and, what’s worse, thinks it is more experimental than it ever was—certainly more boundary pushing than it actually is in a modern musical context.)
I quite like that there are a few plays and operas set in this universe. I didn’t know before this that Marriage was sort of a sequel to Barber of Seville (though the plot of the subsequent play sounds like a hot mess).
THE DOWAGER’S OYSTER
The program said ‘like G&S and Agatha Christie’, but what you got was a bad Fringe show that was really not ready for professional public airing in any forum, in any capacity. Actually, a miscommunication between partner and self led me to believe this would be an adaptation of a Christie book. That would certainly have resulted in a better plot structure and a better treatment of queer themes (JC Bernthal’s Queering Agatha Christie could argue the later contention better than I could).
The libretto was painful, the plot incoherent and dull (and a cosy murder mystery plot’s under a special obligation to function, in order to enable the puzzle to work), the characterisation vacuous and confusing, and the music was badly sung and not strong to begin with. I’m sorry to be awful, but there it is. This piece simply was not ready.
The casting doesn’t really work for the murderers, but past that the acting wasn’t all that bad. Everything was earnestly and energetically acted dull crap, like Sleepy Hollow without the strange charm and good visuals. The investigator brought some life and comedy to the piece, but I felt bad for everyone involved while watching. This ought to have been high camp comedy (that’s not the only way to handle the prompt, but it’s a way that would have worked), but it’s played too straight. Which is ironic, considering.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this was written by a gay man with a vague taste for the period, who wanted to get a bit of the old Gay Representation in there. As a gay lady with similar susceptibilities, I can’t really bitch on that score. There’s something of a Talented Mister Ripley, Hitchcock vibe between the romantically-involved male murderers. Lord knows I’m fairly easy for that shit, but drawing those comparisons makes this sound better than it is. Basically, because he needs money, a gay man has gotten engaged to a woman he’s not interested in (which reminds me, I should call my gay dad back, I said I would two days ago).
Fatal Fiancé’s also living the high life, chasing waterfalls that are a bit too much for his gay partner’s tastes rather than sticking to the rivers and the lakes and the boyfriend that he’s used to. But this thread is sort of lost when the murder plot kicks in. Because, via a weird series of events the audience could know nothing about (that’s Knox’s Rules and the audience’s intellectual engagement with the plot out the window), our lovebirds came to the island the fiancé and her mother are staying on and set up the mother’s murder. Why not wait until after the marriage, when the men’s claim to these funds was better established? I don’t remember any indication that they could have known where the mother would be eating lunch that day, gotten oyster-poising materials in order to spring upon this contingency and controlled which oysters she would consume at this restaurant. How will this death facilitate the lovers’ plans, exactly? What even are those plans? Murder, ???, Profit! Eh.
Essentially this is a reboot of a retro Lavender Menace plot. We get a word about the cruel society that restricts these men’s love, but in-story it doesn’t seem to be restricting it (they’re off lavishly sampling the delights of Morocco bath houses in the first half and no one even suspects them of impropriety) so much as not just gifting them with boatloads of cash for nothing. And it’s hard to feel that much sympathy when their oppression and specific needs aren’t made palpable here, and when they are the murderers of an annoying but largely unconnected-to-them woman (like a crap Crime and Punishment).
The flat, ungenerous but textual reading of the piece is thus ‘oo, those devious queers, they’ll deceive you and kill decent people as soon as look at them, anything to feed their immoral desires!’ I mean the thing is too inchoate to quite register as evangelical propaganda, but we move from an after school special ‘love is real’ ballad I can’t take seriously to the balladeers getting hauled off to prison. If there was a sly, playful, sexy reworking of queer crime/suspense traditions in the works here, that didn’t come through.
With a full, Sunset Boulevard level re-write, the idea isn’t awful. I could probably edit this and turn something out, given that it’s a musical play, a form I’m very familiar with, and not an opera, a form I’m not. Not that I mind much, but I think technically this was a musical rather than an opera. It might have been good for that to have been made explicit in the advertising materials. But this is the least of the show’s problems.
GIANNI SCHICCHI / PAGLIACCI
These were my favourite of the bunch. This was a short-piece double bill in a different, smaller space than the main theatre that had hosted the others. The cast shifted a bit between these two, but there were some holdovers. The first piece was translated, the second wasn’t. (Is it still called an opera if it’s one-act? I guess.) In the climactic final scenes of Pagliacci the surtitle machine broke, but one got the gist and I looked the lyrics up after.
Gianni Schicchi is a simple ‘wily old trickster’ story that worked elegantly. A rich man dies and his greedy family discover, to their comedic dismay, that he’s left his money to the monks instead of them. The best of the lot suggests they call in Gianni Schicchi, a man without great wealth or familial connections who is, nevertheless, the father of the girl he wants to marry. He is also, the young man claims, the cleverest man in the city. He’ll be able to sort this out, if anyone can. And so Schicch does—to his own advantage, for the most part, though his machinations also enable his now rich daughter to marry the lover who would have taken her when she was poor.
The music was excellent, and the Florence aria (which I gather is The Famous One) was superb. Given that this piece was translated, she sang that aria again at the end in the original (something of a money shot for opera fans, I think, that they might have been sorry to miss out on the received version of). The translation, acting and singing were all successful. The wonky mid-century set design reflected the family’s claustrophobic, wonky relationships and priorities. Actually the set felt as designed as they were designing. A simple evocation and reflection, but an effective one. If anything it was a bit too dark for the piece, which isn’t that black a comedy, but that’s a slight complaint. This was a lot of fun.
The second piece of the night was the most consciously ‘staged’ of any of the operas we’d seen, with an easy to follow but non-literal opening that gained resonance when the play finished and the cast returned to this configuration. In watching it I realised how comparatively basic a great many of the previous operatic stagings had been, and the degree to which they’d felt old-fashioned or under-worked to me as a result of this, without my quite identifying the cause of my disquiet until now. Is this typical of opera staging, or did I just happen to see four productions in a row that hadn’t done that work? The former feels more likely, to me? Maybe part of the reason I had trouble connecting with these is that the visual and structural language and work I expect to encode and convey meaning aren’t present here in the ways I’ve come to rely on them being. We’re back again at the introduction’s point about the relationship of expectation, understanding and enjoyment, I guess. But also, possibly opera staging needs to git gud.
Pagliacci was musically gorgeous, though the plot (revenge on a cheating wife, ‘Is life art?! I’m not for saaaale, maaaan.’) was in some ways more annoying than that of the previous piece. Even I knew the big ‘I am a sad fuckboi’ aria, and it’s great, if too ‘about a sad fuckboi’. The spectator-chorus ranged along the back wall did good work. The meta-theatricality of the play-within-a-play was interesting, and even though I’ve slagged them off the themes did more for me than any of the others. There were bigger questions being asked, and explored in a decent way.
The characters were decently drawn and their relationships fairly compelling. (Poor benighted ‘let’s just put on this fucking show’ guy.) Cross-casting a woman as the cringing, brutal, Snidely Whiplash-ish clown lusting for the heroine slightly reminded me of Dowager’s Oyster’s underworked Lavender Menace thread, but it didn’t bother me much in this far more solid and self-aware production, where the clown’s lust and the menace characterised her more specifically than her orientation. Her desire exerted a compelling, rare force. You see so few lesbian stagings of anything.
If I had to pick a total favourite, perhaps it was this one.
* Fuck knows what I feel about opera, but I like good opera better than bad opera, and staging matters more than one might think, affecting one’s perception of material in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. ‘Duh’, but true, and often I do forget it, or half-entertain some fantasy that I can access the material in a purer way than that. With a medium I know well I can to a fair extent, but the less familiar I am with a mode the less I’m able to identify its elements and guess what’s working and what isn’t.
* Throwing in gay elements doesn’t automatically make your story Queer Positive. I’m not asking for twee, rah-rah depictions of queer people and desires across the board, just a considered approach that doesn’t accidentally replicate and reify harmful tropes. Including queerness to be Provocative often comes off as condescending and stupid. Being queer yourself is not a perfect protection against making a poor show here.
* Translating opera into English can work well and may especially help comic opera, but on balance I don’t think it’s a great idea in terms of the music. It especially lays bare any repetitious passages.
* The repetition and banal lyrics in some quite well-regarded opera can drive me mental, as can the thin plots.
* It seems less easy to do good opera with a bare minimum of people and on a tight budget than it is to do good theatre with the same resources.
* I would still rather see a decent play than a decent opera, I suspect. Possibly it’s a phase, possibly it’s just me, or possibly opera is culturally-cathected as an elite art form over and above its merits.