Oooh! *sharp intake of breath* The Guardian is having some fun today at the expense of opera. Or rather, over the expense of opera. Critic Robert Thicknesse shreds the art form for, well, all the usual, tired old reasons, while classical supremo blogger Tom Service detects a well-placed tongue in Thicknesse's cheek and parries with a spirited counter-attack. Responses are invited on their site.
Perhaps I'm getting old and jaded, but I seem to have heard it all before. In fact, with Tony Pappano's Opera Italia on BBCTV garnering rave reports from operatic novices (if you're in the UK you can watch the opening episode on the iPlayer), plus the recently introduced broadcasts from the world's great lyric theatres into cinemas and via the internet, there's never been so much opera about in easily accessible form. Funny how people still forget about the internet when writing such things.
I don't like bad opera either, and I've seen plenty. I've walked out of Covent Garden (a non-press seat) on hearing a soprano who simply couldn't sing her leading role in Simon Boccanegra. I fled Maazel's 1984, desperate for a dose of mingled valium and whisky to put me out of my misery. I'd have dearly loved to walk out of the Mariinsky's Ring Cycle last summer, a production so atrocious and sung for the most part so poorly that the audience really should have demanded its money back.
But bad opera isn't all opera, any more than bad movies should drag down good movies by association, or bad modern art should be permitted to lend its dubious name to the fabulous Anthony Gormley. Any art form has to chance ending up in the depths in order to achieve the heights, and every art form has both good and bad examples on offer at any time. There's no good art without taking risks.
When the quality is up to scratch and word gets round, things sell out - and as Service remarks, we need more opera houses, not fewer, if enough people are to have the opportunity to experience the highs that good opera can induce. For these, try - if you can get in - the much-loved summer seasons now kicking off at Holland Park, Grange Park, Garsington and Glyndebourne (the target of much of Thicknesse's ire, despite the fact that it receives ACE funding only for its touring and none for its festival, which is where you'll find the smoked salmon...).
But as for Thicknesse's remark about 'what's the point of opera?' - well, what the point is, please, of football?
Yes, football. The dear old British pastime that consists of the unholy spectacle of a bunch of grown men getting covered in mud for the sake of kicking a ball into a net. For some reason, thousands of people think the arrival or otherwise or said ball in net is a reason to jump up and down yelling and screaming, sulk for days if "their" team misses target, spend a none-too-small fortune on travel to watch more of same, spend another small fortune on associated overpriced merchandise, all the while being whipped up into a pseudo-patriotic frenzy that is cynically manufactured to manipulate them into spending all that money, and, in some cases, drinking too much and beating up anyone who dares to support something other than "their" team - violence that is always excused 'cos it's football, innit. Football, not opera, makes city centres revolting arenas for pavement pizza and brainless bodily harm. And it's tremendously sexist, of course - women can't take part except in their own designated teams, and those don't draw the same crowds because, in the main, women have more sense than to go anywhere near it.
Opera may be pointless, like most forms of entertainment - the same is equally true of pop concerts, Glastonbury, West End musicals and approximately 99.3% of television - but football is not only pointless, it is also harmful. And these days the premier league is more expensive than opera, but where are the inverted-snob tirades against that? Football brings out the worst in human nature. Opera stands some chance of bringing out the best.
When my niece was 14, I took her to see Le Nozze di Figaro. In Italian, with surtitles. She was entranced from start to finish. At the end, she turned to me and remarked: "Isn't it amazing that such a wonderful sound can come out of a human body?"
That, dear readers, is the point of opera.
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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