Article by Brian Sewell
The most snobbish thing ever said to me in any circumstance was Sir Jeremy Isaacs ‘condemnation of “wall-to-wall Tosca”. From an outsider with not so much as a toe in the door of any trustee of the Royal Opera House, he would brook no objection to his decisions there, no comment, criticism or observation from a common user of Covent Garden, paying its exorbitant ticket prices, but in his determination on the crushing soundbite put-down that would silence it, he also revealed profound contempt for his potential audience.
We who were outside the incestuous circle of those who sought to make the opera house a private plaything or a personal instrument of power, were expected to hold our tongues while those inside it, bored by Traviata and Boheme, revived operas curious enough for the concert performance but quite unfit for full-blooded resurrection, endowed minor works with the machinery of grand opera and, in an excess of wilful weariness with the familiar, succeeded in reducing Wagner’s Ring to boorish farce. No one wants a repertoire that never explores beyond the familiar favourites, that never ventures to look again at a forgotten and perhaps unjustly neglected obscurity, that never allows contemporary music its attempts to bring ancestral traditions into contemporary idiom, but to damn Tosca because it is familiar and popular is as foolish as casting the Mona Lisa, St Paul’s Cathedral and David Copperfield into Sadak’s Waters of Oblivion.
There is a deplorable one-upmanship in this preference for Leoni’s L’Oracola over La Bohème, much the same as arguing for an obscure wine from one small wild hillside in the Haute Savoie against Château Lafitte, for a weekend in Valladolid rather than a month in Madrid, in choosing the Bucciali V-16 as a car of finer vintage than the Rolls-Royce Phantom II. We disdain the familiar at our peril. In that disdain is evident either the untenable belief that a great work of art in any medium can be exhausted by over-exposure, or we demonstrate the Isaacs Theorem that any such work that has breached the barricades of philistinism and abandoned exclusivity for popular appeal is thenceforth fit only for perdition. No painting that has ever been reproduced on a biscuit box can be seen again in Islington, no novel read that has been turned into a television serial, no opera performed if from it an aria has been adopted by the football fan.
I have, I confess groaned at the publication of yet another popular book on Manet, Monet or Cézanne, on Impressionism or Post-impressionism, but that is usually because the publisher is lazily printing a pot-boiler for cash flow rather than serving the market well. This market is mainly the newly-interested in art, those who have been dragged unwilling to the Royal Academy for yet another Monet exhibition and, willy-nilly, had their eyes opened to beauty their curiosity aroused, and want both instruction and an aide-mémoire; it may also be for the intellectually lazy, for those who have discovered what they like and are content within that pale, but above all, this market includes the adolescent still at school, at the critical period of aesthetic arousal to whom such books should always be readily available, for they are the basic bricks of true education. Those of us who can still remember what turmoil we suffered at fifteen, how experience and impression crowded into our lives, how having seen or heard something that gave us an aesthetic lift we greedily craved for more, the profound importance of always ensuring that, whatever the art form, what to the Isaacs Faction has been degraded by being popular, is always at hand to the young, to whom it is new astonishing, uplifting and quite marvellous.
The first sight of the Mona Lisa may be, as it were, the dutiful worship of an icon, its reputation almost beyond understanding, but give acquaintance with it half a century of frequent looking and comprehension inexorably comes; it may be much the same with Parsifal – not an easy opera, perhaps more an operatic oratorio, it must be heard and heard again, but hearing it must be touched by other Wagnerian experiences, with Tristan and The Ring, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, even Rienzi, so that we sense the composer’s growth and the intellectual confusions driving him, must be touched by the Salome and Rosenkavalier of Richard Strauss, his heir, must be touched by what we learn from the orchestral works of Mahler, Bruch and Bruckner. In all the arts we are constantly informed, nourished and enriched not only by the first encounter but by the experience of revisiting and renewal without which we may never understand works as mighty as Wagner’s Ring and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
Such renewal should be offered in less serious areas of the arts too. It makes perfect sense to re-examine from time to time the paintings of such minor artists as Alfred Munnings and Stanley Spencer, not in the hope that we may rediscover them to be painters of Titian’s stature (though that often seems the prime intention of the associated propaganda), but to ensure that they do not become the victims of fickle fashions as was the case with the Pre-Raphaelites and Olympian Victorians. It makes perfect sense to rescue, as has the ENO, Gilbert and Sullivan from the stale customs of the D’Oyly Carte tradition and The Merry Widow from thee creaking ancestral production of the Vienna Volksoper. It would have made better sense for the ENO rather than the National Theatre to offer a fresh view of My Fair Lady, for Trevor Nunn’s production treats the film version as iconic and the music with contempt, piping the sound of far too small a hidden orchestra through the distortions of a London Underground loudspeaker, employing voices that have no musical calibre – Leslie Garrett, with her remarkable, unsnobbish and unpatronising ability to slip from Op to Pop and back again would never had made such a feeble hash of what is, when all said and done, music at least as good as Lehár’s in its way. If Lehár functions as an open sesame to grander opera, there can be no reason why Loewe should not function as at least an open sesame to Lehár.
The demand and the response are ever-present among those who throng the Albert Hall for Raymond Gubbay’s productions of Puccini’s operas, audiences who might just pluck up enough courage to go to the ENO but would never set foot in Covent Garden where wall-to-wall Tosca would suit them very well – but they are powerless to influence the panjandrums who, as it were, control from Covent Garden the official, the Ministerial, the Arts Council, the Islington perception of opera – arrogantly elitist in the worst possible sense but, since his departure to a television channel, now without the Isaacs honesty to say so. It is a source of wry amusement to the onlooker who belongs to none of these, to see that when the perfect example of exclusivity came to Covent Garden earlier this year with its 75th birthday production of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, its snobs deserted it and the Opera House was forced to offer free tickets to that popular entertainer Esther Rantzen in the deluded belief that the toothless denizens of a thousand rest-homes for the doting elderly would then flock to it in charabancs.
We should defend to the death the right, the duty too, of opera houses to expand our horizons to make us, as one very serious and enthusiastic critic of Boulevard Solitude put it, “think again about the balance between the visual, musical and dramatic elements of opera” – but this was a critic who also declared its music so “odd, angular, disjointed and sometimes downright ugly” that should not buy a recording and listen to it for pure pleasure. To deny Henze his hearing in the Opera House would be an intolerable form of censorship; by the same token, to deny the wider audience its wall-to-wall Tosca is censorship too. With Puccini as one’s first experience of opera one might well eventually graduate to Henze, but never from Henze to Puccini, for opera must surely be more than intellectual debate requiring “phenomenal concentration” from orchestra and audience if anything is to be made of it. “The music alone cannot carry the drama” is the worst possible condemnation of Henze’s opera, for it so evidently can when the composer is Wagner and the Covent Garden production aggressive contemporary crap; indeed, one might argue of Parsifal that the best performance many of us could ever have witnessed was as a concert in the Proms last year. That was pure music, with none of the inept abstract or literal staging with which production is encumbered and imagination thwarted, a performance by which a first-time hearer, not distracted by ludicrous attempts to make manifest the mystical, would feel drawn to Wagner’s more narrative operas.
Having sat through the wonderful semi-demi-staged presentation of Covent Garden’s Ring in the Albert Hall when the Opera House was being refurbished, I am inclined to say that the concert performance is the ideal introduction to Wagner and perhaps to every opera, and it is to be hoped that opera in this form continues to play an increasing part in the programme of the Proms, making available as it did last year with the Glyndebourne cast of The Marriage of Figaro voices that in the ordinary course of things, comparatively few of us can hear. One might go further and argue that the concert performance should be the preliminary of every opera considered for revival – had we heard Stiffelio and Semele before Covent Garden began work on their production, the Opera House would have been advised to leave them on the shelf, the gathered dust of centuries well merited.
Not for one moment am I suggesting that every opera should be subject to the first-time hearer and wall-to-wall tests, and only if it passes them be put into production, but as both Covent Garden and the ENO can only function on the millions given them by the Arts Council every year, I am inclined to remind both that the Council’s founder in 1945 Maynard Keynes, declared that year “the task of an official body is not to teach or censor… your enjoyment will be our first aim.” I wonder, if in my own case my first experience of opera had been Turnage’s Silver Tassie or Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten (of which one critic opined “it really would not matter if any member of the orchestra chose to play any note or instrument at whim in any combination, nor would it matter what any singer sang or screamed or gargled, as long as every voice and instrument is off-key and in constant opposition”), I would ever again have entered the Coliseum unless it reverted to the splendid pantomimes of my now distant childhood. I argue, of course, from particular experience, for my first-time opera was Bohème with nothing to prepare me for the emotional onslaught of music and the tears that welled for Rodolfo’s despairing cry of grief. I have since grown out of it, as it were, but it was for years one of the anchors to which I clung when disappointed by Menotti, Adams, Glass, Ligeti and Schnittke, in whose hands opera has invariably seemed to offer very rare, if any glimpses of anything other than pretentious tedium, tedious frivolity or deliberate offence – ideal for polenta-eating classes of Islington but no for the hoi polloi so despised by Isaacs and that ilk.
Brian Sewell is a columnist for The Evening Standard