I went to see Carmen at the Royal Opera House last night. It's only the second opera I've ever been to. (I don't count Jerry Springer The Opera.) The other one was The Magic Flute at the ENO, which I absolutely hated, even though it was directed by Nick Hytner and had got good reviews.
I'd heard good things about Carmen too and had high hopes that maybe this would be the one where I finally managed to understand what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I was again disappointed. It wasn't awful, just boring.
I did try. After the lessons learned on these very pages, I went along in a spirit of warm smiling generosity. Oh yes. I really wanted to like it. I liked the idea of opening myself up to other forms of performance, and seeing what their tricks were. I wanted to be able to sound all clever now and again by dropping in conversational references like "Of course in the 2007 Carmen at the ROH..." when talking to directors. (I've noticed directors seem to like opera.)
I was even in good company. I went with a very good friend who loves his opera, in a genuinely impassioned rather than ostentatious way. So I suppose apart from anything else I sort of didn't want to let him down, a bit like when my Dad used to take me to classical recitals. But I can't hide it when I don't like something. And if I'd lied he knows me well enough to tell.
We discussed it afterwards in the pub, and my main objection was that the story was simply rubbish. Apart from being rather a well-worn love triangle setup, the characters were little more than archetypes (and I'd argue that even that was crediting them with a complexity which wasn't really in evidence). Character development was so thin that at no point was there any chance to feel particularly strongly about any of them, nor care what happened to them. And to top it all, in a three-and-a-half hour evening there was really only enough material to justify perhaps one hour of plot. The rest of the time was taken up by everyone singing the same line to each other four or five times in a row. Sometimes, I wondered whether the surtitles had got stuck.
"But what about the music?!" I know, I know, it's all very impressive and they're highly skilled and world famous and train very hard and earn more per second than I do in a year. I could tell they were good at what they did, but that didn't make me like it. Again, I did try. It's partly a taste thing; I just find the sound of opera rather pompous and self-important. But I also found it difficult to concentrate on the music because I was so distracted by all the onstage comings and goings, like a real live donkey and a child doing backflips. All very impressive but no amount of smoke and mirrors can make up for a deficient plot.
"But it isn't about the PLOT!" Well, why have one then? If it's just a reason to write some songs and play them, why not just hold a concert? In fact, the few classical concerts I have been to I've actually preferred, and been able to concentrate on, precisely because there aren't any livestock or acrobats to distract me. I just don't feel that opera as a genre very successfully integrates stagecraft and musicianship. For me, they somehow seem to both detract from one another.
My friend and I eventually realised that perhaps my background as a playwright somehow precludes me from getting into the spirit of it all. He plays the piano to Grade 8 and so was coming to it from a different angle. Whilst he was floating on a blissful cloud of treble clefs and arias, I was down a dramaturgical pit fuming at the slow pace and poor characterisation.
Still, it was better than The Magic Flute, which was like a really patronising panto, replete with god-awful gags, huge chunks of appallingly bad dialogue, and a 'hilarious' man in a bird suit. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste. I don't like musicals either. But I can't help feeling that perhaps I'm a terrible philistine, or that I'm missing out on something amazing. But I'm not sure what else I can do.
That said, it's not a massive priority for the coming year. But if anyone else out there likes opera, I'd be interested to hear why.