Sunday, January 28, 2007

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.


jmc said...

It's a shame you've had such bad experiences at Operas. I'd say that I learned huge amounts about the musicality and rhythmic quality - the rise and falls of energies and the shifting of gears - in stage writing from watching Operas. And the dynamics of character relationships, and the mythic qualities of the stories, are so up-front that regular Opera-going can provide you with a thorough anatomy of how to geometrically shape plots and relationships in theatre. The operas you've seen are both quite conservative (to modern tastes, they weren't in their day). Perhaps you might like some contemporary operas more: for example, Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre or Penderecki's The Devils of Loundon are visceral, jagged and disorientating works, and there's experimentation in form and style aplenty in much 20th century opera. Also, the productions you've seen weren't the best - I'd suggest that you might not have liked The Magic Flute not "despite the fact it was directed by Hytner" but rather because it was - it's a very meat and two veg production, takes no risks, serves things up solidly but stolidly and has very little sense of moving the piece along musically. Try to catch some work by Peter Sellars or David Alden - they're making theatre which leaves most contemporary stage directors standing in terms of space and the movement of figures through it. Of course, essentially you've got to like the music, and I am a little surprised that the awesome sound of the Queen of the Nights' arias in Flute or Carmen's great celebrations of Life (it became Nietzsche's favourite opera) didn't get you in the gut, heart and mind, reeling.

Fin said...

Thanks for the tips J. I have wondered about modern operas, because I'd always take a modern play over an old one so perhaps they would appeal to me more. I'll keep an eye out.

As for the music, don't get me wrong - both had their moments which I appreciated. But maybe the emotional reaction is an acquired one. I think perhaps I just find understatement in art and music more emotionally powerful than pomp and circumstance. In my defence, I would say that Allegre's Miserere and Debussy's Clair De Lune have both moved me to tears on occassions, so I'm not a total philistine. (But then neither of them are operas.)

I suppose I'm an indie kid at heart. Give me The Verve, Jeff Buckley or Mojave 3 any day. (Maybe I should take my opera friend to those sorts of gigs. I don't expect he'd like them, but then, that's why we get on.)

Anonymous said...

Understatement? The Verve? You what?

Fin said...

Yes alright. I had Debussy in mind for that bit.

Anonymous said...

Would you dismiss all theatre if you'd only seen two dodgy plays?

Fin said...

Yes I would. I'm very impatient like that.

Anonymous said...

Poor you. Just think of what you would have missed had your first few experiences at the theatre been rubbish.

Fin said...

Actually, plenty of people's first few experiences at the theatre ARE that rubbish and it does put them off forever. Generation after generation of schoolkids are put off theatre year after year because of being dragged along to duff shows. So much of what they see is dictated by a dry, traditional English syllabus written by closeted academics totally out of touch with modern theatre; a syllabus stuffed full of ancient dead plays in a language which excludes young people, about a world they feel is only relevant to 'posh grownups'. I know because I spend half my time in schools picking up the pieces trying to convince them that theatre IS worth bothering with, when actually what they feel about it is pretty much what I feel about opera. Even my undergraduate classes say that the ratio of bad shows to good which they see is 75%-25% in favour of the bad. Non-theatre industry friends and relatives who work long hours in the private sector tell me how they've given up bothering with theatre because it is so often a disappointment, and that's the last thing they want when their free time is so precious.

So the question isn't 'Would you dismiss all theatre from seeing two dodgy plays?' because for millions of people across the country the answer is of course yes. The question we should be asking is why is exciting theatre so difficult to make? And what can we do to change that and ensure healthy audience levels for the future?

I'm taking my current students at Mulberry along to see every show on my Hot Tips of 2007 list published here previously, and I'm hoping that might do the trick. Watch this space...