Opera is Not Just Our Most Expensive Noise

Standing at the apex of our culture, the operatic art form remains the supreme test of any composer — as I know from experience

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Feelings released from darkness: The set design for the Queen of the Night from Mozart's "The Magaic Flute", by Simon Quaglio, 1818 (credit: Getty)

 ”Of all the noises known to man,” wrote Molière, “opera is the most expensive.” He was referring to the spectacles staged for the court of Louis XIV, in which dances and entr’actes were part of the entertainment and in which the king himself — who was an accomplished dancer — would sometimes appear on stage. The plots were drawn from classical and mythical sources, and the stylised singing and dancing corresponded to the ritualised setting of the drama. We can appreciate these operas today, partly because their leading exponent, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was a master musician, who could elicit heartfelt sentiment from whatever nymph-and-shepherd-infested libretto came his way.

Opera has moved on since Lully’s day; but it is still the most expensive of our noises. Costs didn’t matter so much when the royal purse looked after them. But the transfer of opera from the court to the town, and from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, meant that producers had to look for sales rather than patronage in order to cover their outlay. It wasn’t so difficult when the supply of singers was abundant, the sets cheap, and the music easy to sight-read. But by the time the crisp dramas of Mozart and Gluck had morphed into the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner and the virtuoso spectacles of Verdi, opera involved investment beyond anything imaginable at the court of Louis XIV. Verdi was immensely popular and the costs of his smaller productions were more than covered by the sales. Wagner was popular too: but his ambitions so outstripped the bourgeois readiness to pay for them that he had to look back to the old way of doing things, calling on a royal purse to subsidise his dreams. Those two great composers helped to create an art form that stands today at the apex of Western culture, but which is always short of funds.

A full-scale spectacle must run for an extended period if it is to cover its costs. Hence an opera can put the composer’s name in lights for days on end, and the more costly the production the longer it must run. But it is not the promise of repeat performances that draws so many composers to this supremely demanding art form. Opera is a crown to be won, a sign that the composer has finally stuck his head above the clouds on Mount Olympus. Beethoven wrote his single opera twice, and parts of it more than twice, in the determination to reach the summit where Handel and Mozart stood in triumph. Schubert tried and failed, again and again. Mendelssohn and Brahms shied away, but Schumann laboured for eight years over Genoveva, his only opera, in which the strain of writing is clearly audible. Janáček achieved his first real success, after several attempts, at the age of 50, with Jenůfa. Chausson put his entire life into his one opera, Le roi Arthus, as did George Enescu into his laboured retelling of the Oedipus story. Debussy spent ten years over Pelléas et Mélisande, and Stravinsky’s one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, was accomplished only by means of a complete change of style, from neo-classical Stravinsky to inverted comma “Mozart”.

Those examples testify to the determination with which composers have approached the operatic task. Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu’s Oedipe, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Pfitzner’s Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten. Not deterred by those corpses by the wayside, however, composers continue to tackle the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, knowing that, even if they reach the first plateau, holding a completed score in their hands, they may not get to the next one, with a live performance. And beyond that goal lies the distant summit of the operatic art, where stands the handful of composers with works in the permanent repertoire.

I was prompted to those thoughts by two new operas by British composers: Julian Anderson’s Thebans, revisiting the world of Enescu’s Oedipe, and another, as yet unperformed, opera by Oliver Rudland. Anderson’s librettist Frank McGuinness reduces Sophocles’s Theban trilogy to three acts, presenting a harrowing interpretation of the world’s most famous dysfunctional family. He has crafted a meticulous and complex score. Lucid harmony, impeccable orchestration and wonderful singing make this into a memorable evening, the impression intensified by Pierre Audi’s blunt and imagistic direction. Clusters of bird-like notes from the orchestra flutter about the characters on the stage, as they confront each other in emphatic dialogue. A dissonant chorus utters warnings and cries of compassion. The listener is left in no doubt that this is a significant event, dealing with deep and barely manageable emotions. But there is something missing. What is that thing? What are those people doing on stage singing their hearts out, if they have yet to discover a tune? Is it too old-fashioned to suggest that, every now and then in opera, there has to be a melody?

One thing that immediately strikes you in the music of Oliver Rudland is that melody is, for him, the sine qua non of the operatic stage. Rudland has asked me to introduce the first of three performances of his new opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre on July 24. The work is based on William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, which recounts the last thoughts, memories and hopes of a British naval rating, as his drowning body is dashed onto a rocky island in the Atlantic. I was intrigued by Rudland’s idea of turning Golding’s story into a one-act opera. For Pincher Martin is a work from my teenage years, part of the postwar attempt to make sense of England, to mourn its lost poetry and to find consolation, nonetheless, in the “inner” England that lies dormant in us all. How would a young person of today transcribe this devastating story into music?

Rudland has written two previous operas, including a touching setting of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale, The Nightingale and the Rose. These appealing works, with their tuneful vocal line and tonal harmonies, led me to wonder what such a composer would make of Golding’s grim fiction. If any scenario demands modernist dissonance and broken vocal lines, it is this one. In the event the score that Rudland put in my hands turned out to be surprisingly modern, with a raw orchestral seascape against which the tonal melodies sound like the breaths snatched by Martin as he fights his losing battle with the waves.

The set makes use of a cinematic backdrop. The foreground revolves quickly from jagged rock to remembered drawing room, while characters from the past appear and disappear in rapid succession. The music interweaves recollection and perception, past and present, remembered trauma and present fear. The ghosts are brought before us by music that is as haunting to the listener as to the drowning sailor on the stage. The heaving ocean in the pit constantly shatters the past, and the shards of memory pierce the dying sailor again and again until there is nothing positive left of him — only anger, regret and fear.

Oliver Rudland’s music has melody, rhythm and harmony, and passages of considerable lyric power. Perhaps that explains why it has fallen through the net of official subsidies. The Arts Council, being run by bureaucrats, is obliged to be at the “cutting edge”, supporting what is “challenging”, “vibrant” and preferably “subversive”, in order to show that the bureaucrats are entirely impartial, and therefore not misled into supporting something merely because they like it. On the contrary, it is because they don’t like it that a new work will earn their support: that is what the word “challenging” really means. Subsidy or no subsidy, so convinced is Rudland that the path he has chosen is the right one that he has decided to make this opera happen, whatever the cost. He has chosen poverty with opera, against comfort without it. Like others who have succumbed to the operatic urge, he sees opera as a need, not a choice. It may be the most expensive noise known to man, but it is a noise that has to happen.

And I agree with him. I see opera as the supreme art form, not so much a representation of human life as a redemption of it. For dramatic music can rescue our feelings from their randomness, and vindicate our immortal longings in the face of chaos and decay.

The complaint was already made in Monteverdi’s Venice that singing detracts from the realism of the stage. The verismo of Verdi was a response to this complaint, an attempt to tie the melodic moment to the particular person in a believable situation — and no one can doubt his success in this. But Wagner had another and more persuasive response to those who dismissed his operas as mere fairytales. By lifting everything — character, setting, emotion and gesture — into the imagined space of music, he believed, we achieve another and higher kind of realism. Words and music develop together, and the purpose of both is drama. Opera conceived as a sequence of arias, loosely joined by recitative, thereafter disappeared. Even Italian composers quietly adopted the Wagnerian ideal, so that by the time of Puccini it was universally accepted that operas should be through-composed, each act working towards its climax by largely musical means, with the musical material constantly reworked in accordance with the logic of the drama.

In recent times, therefore, Wagnerians like Berg and anti-Wagnerians like Britten have both been Wagnerians in practice. Through opera human life can move from situation to situation by purely musical means, with the same necessity that compels the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach or the quartets of Beethoven. The music then lifts the drama into another realm, where passion achieves a wordless logic of its own, and the ephemeral and contingent is remade as eternal and necessary. By revealing the eternal in the transient opera reveals the truth of our condition. If Oliver Rudland’s instinct is right, opera can do this even with the fleeting recollections of a drowning man.

The redemptive mission assumed by the successors of Wagner is one reason why operas are now so often mutilated. Despite the cost of production, and in a sense because of it, producers take what could be called “liberties” with the stage directions, were mutilation felt to be a liberty and not a necessity. Producers are chosen for their “artistic” qualities, and the mark of the artist is to “challenge” whatever assumptions lie to hand. Enjoying a budget far beyond anything required by the usually simple actions on the operatic stage, and faced with an audience of middle-class people condemned to suffer in silence as their expectations are thwarted and their fairy landscapes ruined, producers cannot resist the temptation to spit on the precious thing that has been placed in their hands.

Sacred things are especially intolerable to those who no longer believe in them. An urge to desecrate is the inevitable successor to a lost habit of reverence. Hence Siegfried is dressed in schoolboy uniform, Mélisande is lying on a hospital bed in sheltered accommodation, Rusalka is taking a bath in a whorehouse, and — well you know how it goes. The best one can hope for in the state-subsidised opera houses of today is that the singers will all be dressed in Nazi uniform, but otherwise allowed to get on with the plot.

New operas can escape that fate, since the composer is around to prevent it. In Rudland’s Pincher Martin music, words, sets, gestures and lighting are integral parts of a unified dramatic conception, and Rudland is determined that the opera should be realised exactly as he conceived it. Without an official subsidy and all the paraphernalia that tends to come with it, a composer can take full control of the performance, and not just of the score. Equally it is when subsidies are not forthcoming that we see how unnecessary they are. Singing automatically places the actors in an imaginary world, and properly crafted melodic lines will shape the passions, the relations and the gestures according to the inner logic of the drama. The attempt to embellish the action with machinery, special effects and arcane symbols is as likely to diminish as to enhance its persuasive power. Hence costumes, make-up, lighting and a few suggestive props may be sufficient to transport the audience into the heart of the drama. The contribution of the producer is then a kind of visual noise, as expensive as the noise that troubled Molière.

Many people have an opera buried within them: so at least I believe. For the inner life is essentially operatic. It sings to itself in many voices, and we strive in our dreams and meditations to bring those voices into line, to turn discord to concord, and conflict to resolution. Precisely because the characters in opera sing their passions, we sense that these passions are really cosmic forces, whose scope is far greater than the mere individuals who represent them. Through opera our inner life is summoned from hidden regions and resolved before us on the stage.

So it was in my own first attempt — a one-act meditation on the familiar theme of power versus love, set in Sixties Britain, and in the mind and memory of a lonely politician, who is The Minister of the opera’s title. This story was a projection of the inner life, my own inner life, in which guilt and trauma made their discordant claims on me, and were yet to find the objective form that would resolve them. The inner life can be given objective form by magic, and music — which makes no distinction between the natural and the supernatural — is at home with magic. It passes with ease across the barrier between present and past, the actual and the possible. What might have been is always present in the present tense of music.

Hence we have a long tradition of magic opera — from the god-haunted dramas of Monteverdi, Cavalli and the French court composers, through Semele, The Magic Flute, Der Freischütz, The Flying Dutchman, Parsifal and Die Frau ohne Schatten, down to The Turn of the Screw and Curlew River. In all those works the drama, guided by the music, moves effortlessly between the material and the spiritual worlds, and the audience sees its own inmost feelings released from the darkness and parading on the stage.

I conceived The Minister as a magic opera in this tradition, just as Rudland did in his setting of Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose. In a gesture of supreme impertinence, I decided to follow the great and inimitable example set by Britten in Curlew River, and to borrow from the Noh theatre of Japan. The opera was to be a drama with masks, which fall away to reveal moral truth beneath the ruin of social pretence. I devised a few leitmotifs, allotted them to situations, moods and characters, and to my amazement within a few months I had a complete piano score.

The first thing I discovered was how easy it is to make bar follow bar, theme follow theme and chord follow chord, when all are hung out on the line of dialogue. The Gesamtkunstwerk readily declines to its opposite: music that has only a borrowed order, and dialogue that is too weak to stand alone. I thought constantly of the conclusion to the second Act of Figaro, in which sustained symphonic writing creates a tension that is wholly musical, wholly dramatic and also wholly integrated with da Ponte’s brilliant text. That remains my paradigm: a dramatic idea expounded through a tonal argument.

By contrast, the music of The Minister is held together by no inner logic, but merely by the dramatic imperative of “Next!”. Wrestling with this problem, trying to re-imagine the music as the engine of the drama rather than the trailer that it pulled, I learned more about music than at any time in my life before. I recalled Berg’s habit, in both Wozzeck and Lulu, of drawing attention to the musical forms explored by his orchestra-sonata form, theme and variations, fugue, gavotte, passacaglia, and so on, all neatly and almost academically explained in the score, while the raging melodrama on the stage drags the music into excesses that would be utterly senseless in a purely instrumental work. Berg is cheating his way to musical form, by borrowing the shape of a drama. And I guess that, in my infinitely less accomplished way, I was doing the same.

Reflecting on this, however, I came to see more clearly why opera is and has always been the high point of the modern composer’s art. To compose music in which drama and music move towards climax and closure not just simultaneously but in a single movement, so that the drama becomes the music and the music becomes the drama — this is to endow life with a form that it cannot otherwise reach to. It is to prefigure what we humans might be, were we rescued from time and remade in eternity. Writing The Minister was therapeutic, as no doubt Thebans has been for Anderson and Pincher Martin for Rudland. And here, perhaps, lies the explanation of the operatic urge — the real cause why Beethoven tried not once but three or four times to extract from himself the story of Leonore. For his opera is both an objective drama and the transfiguration of his inner life. He yearned for a love so strong, bold and otherworldly as to change woman to man and man to woman. By finding the objective correlative for this hermaphroditic fantasy he was released from its grip. And in healing himself he conferred on the world a tribute to freedom and joy that will remain in the repertoire as long as operas are staged.

Just such a therapy occupied Debussy in Pelléas and Britten in Peter Grimes, the one wrestling with a desire that disdains the messy world of real commitments, the other gripped by malign temptations from which we all must turn. Those great artists endowed these difficult emotions with outward form, inventing the imaginary world that resolves them. They gave a clear outside view on inner conflicts, which they transcended through the notes. In Pincher Martin Oliver Rudland enters equally dark regions of the psyche, regions of terror and guilt. Darkness needs light, terror needs comfort and guilt needs redemption — all of which are conferred by music when it moves by necessity towards that ineffable resolving chord. Rudland has still to send me the final part of his score: but I have a premonition of what that final chord will be.


The premiere production of Oliver Rudland’s opera “Pincher Martin”, based on the novel by William Golding, will take place at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, from Thursday 24 to Saturday 26 July, with an introductory pre-performance talk on the first night by Roger Scruton.