Not enough opera

As the 2015-16 London opera season starts up, and before we run into the usual ignorant comments about ticket prices, it’s useful to address some different questions of accessibility: that there are too few opera performances, of too little repertory.

To start, let’s look back earlier this year at one unusual week, when a remarkable amount of opera was being performed in a few days.

Taking the week in London from 7th to 13th March 2015, there were opening nights of new productions (or one-off concert performances) of The Siege of Calais, Alice in Wonderland, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Semele, The Wild Man of the West, The Rake’s Progress, La bohème and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; and further performances in their runs of The Mastersingers, Madama Butterfly, Die Zauberflöte, The Indian Queen, La Traviata, I pazzi per progetto and The Dancing Master – 15 individual productions in total, and with multiple further nights taken into account, a splendid total of 28 opera performances in seven days.

Butterfly, La bohème and La Traviata apart, it was also a good week for unfamiliar repertory, a trend continued over the next weeks with performances of Catone in Utica, Giove in Argo, The Dragon of Wantley, and Adriano in Siria. (Admittedly several of the unusual works were staged in the smallest available theatres.) The quantity of performances and choice of works felt energising and exciting, as if opera had become a genuinely popular activity and, odd as it may sound, normal.

These 28 performances provided roughly 50,000 opera-seats in the week (i.e. number of theatre seats, multiplied by number of performances, summed across all the venues involved), whereas the weekly average for the 2014-2015 season was a much lower 18,000 opera-seats. The data used for these statistics is somewhat generalised – but the important point is that, for a few days, London had nearly three times its average availability of opera-seats.

As expected, that week went uncelebrated by the mainstream media, who are unable to move on from losing the argument over the cost of opera tickets, and continue to give a distorted (though thankfully limited) impression of what live opera is all about.

But, although these opera performances were spread across 8 theatres/halls, another 2 theatres (not in use that week) are frequently used to stage opera, and maybe a further 10 London venues are used sporadically (giving 20 opera venues in total), obviously only 2 theatres out of these 20 venues are staging opera productions regularly across the whole year.

For comparison, looking at spoken theatre/musicals, London has 241 theatres at over 200 sites, and attendance figures indicate that at least 423,000 theatre-seats are available on average per week – the actual capacity could be even higher. As for cinema, London’s 850 screens at 158 sites regularly have multiple screenings of films each day, so there are at a minimum some 812,000 cinema-seats available in an average week. Many of those theatres and most of those cinemas are open to audiences almost every day of the year.

As mentioned already, it was not only the opera-seat availability that week that was unusual, but also the number of works performed. Typically, London sees around 120 individual operas performed in a year, and even though the average of 2.3 per week is misleading because of seasonal skews, it still makes that particular week exceptional with 15 individual works.

But again, London has probably in excess of 1,000 individual spoken plays/musicals performed each year, and given that London’s cinemas show roughly 200 individual films per week it’s not unreasonable to assume that there could be 4,000 individual films shown in a year.

Factor in that many of the 28 opera performances we started with had been sold out for months (which is also the case for certain other productions throughout the year), and the availability of tickets (especially the cheapest ones) reduces still further for the casual opera-goer – some of whom have a genuine argument that they lose interest when unable to attend a performance at reasonable short-notice or in response to good reviews. As a consequence, they stop trying to look at any opera performance, and often the availability of opera-seats simply goes unnoticed.

Except for a handful of star-cast productions in the theatre, it is generally possible to buy tickets (including at the cheapest prices) during the run of a play. Accessibility in this sense is never an issue, and it is really quite easy for most Londoners to develop and sustain a spoken-theatre-going habit.

Further, given that in recent seasons the opera repertory has been skewed in parts towards a handful of frequently performed works or composers, with major works and composers entirely absent, there’s sometimes an impression that opera houses are museums of C19th Italy, rather than theatres that have a serious dramatic purpose – even if that is not their best intention. There is obviously plenty of other repertory staged, including a fair (but not excellent) range of C21st and world premiere productions, but those are often subject to the advance-sell out or small theatre capacity problems to be generally accessible. Contrariwise, it would be hard to justify any argument that London’s theatre and cinema repertory is not wide enough.

Broadening the opera-seat comparison to Berlin, Paris and Vienna, there is a not dissimilar weekly average availability of 20,000, 14,000 and 22,000 respectively. But those cities are quite different in population to the greater London region. The easiest measure for comparison is to look at how many people in each city could attend just one performance per year. Paris fares worst at just under 9% of the adult population, London next worst at just over 9%, Berlin a more respectable 24%, and Vienna leads the provision of opera with 55% of the population able to attend one opera performance each year.

But one event a year, however special, is hardly “normal” for most cultural or sporting activities – at least in a large capital city (for this post leaving aside the issue of minimal or zero provision of opera in many places outside the capital). Attending 12 opera performances a year would seem a minimum reasonable normal amount, and the percentage of the four cities’ population able to do that is 0.7% for Paris, 0.8% for London, 2% for Berlin and over 4.5% for Vienna. Paris and Berlin certainly are understated in this comparison, as it’s hard to assemble performance and capacity numbers for the smaller and seasonal companies – instinct says that London actually has the lowest opera-seat provision relative to population. A question for the Arts Council, the UK government Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and London’s Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, Munira Mirza, is, how can they justify that London lags behind competitor capitals in Europe in the provision of such a major art form?

If that remarkable week in london were consistent through most of the year, opera in one sense would be less exclusive quite simply because it could be part of a normal theatre-going activity, and the repertory broad enough for people to try unknown works just as they do in the spoken theatre – safe in the knowledge that if they don’t like the work or the production, another one will be along the following week that they might enjoy.

But of course, what we see currently is the opposite in availability. Through a malicious and vindictive cut in their Arts Council funding, English National Opera have been forced to reduce their offering, from 15 productions and 158 performances in 2014-2015, to 11 productions and under 100 performances in 2015-2016. That means a loss to London of nearly 150,000 opera-seats in the year, or on average nearly 3,000 opera-seats a week. The impact is on repertory as well, with a withdrawal into “safer” works, however imaginatively they are marketed.

This reduction in accessibility makes opera literally more exclusive, as fewer and fewer people can attend live staged performances – an activity which has to be the heart not just of an opera-loving habit, but of a thriving art form and of the serious provision of culture in a capital city. The second question for the Arts Council, DCMS and the Deputy Mayor is, do you really want to exclude 99% of London’s population from regularly seeing a live art form?

Adriano in Siria, Opera Settecento, 16 September 2015

Adriano in Siria
Pergolesi/Metastasio

Cadogan Hall

Adriano – Michael Taylor
Emirena – Maria Ostroukhova
Farnaspe – Erica Eloff
Sabina – Augusta Hebbert
Osroa – Gyula Rab
Aquilo – Cenk Karaferya

Oboe – Daniel Lanthier
Orchestra of Opera Settecento
Conductor – Leo Duarte

Adriano in Siria is one of several of Metastasio’s opera seria libretti which were used by more than 60 composers, in this case from the first setting in 1732 by Caldara, to the last by Mercadante in 1828; earlier this year, a recording of Veracini’s 1735 version was released, and J.C. Bach’s 1765 version was staged in London. Adriano ends with a gesture of imperial magnanimity; hence many of the new versions were composed for royal occasions across Europe, such as Pergolesi’s setting, performed in Naples in October 1734, which was dedicated to Charles Bourbon, Duke of Parma and future king of Spain, whose forces had captured the kingdom of Sicily and its capital Naples the previous May.

Compared to Vinci, Hasse, Porpora, et alia, Pergolesi hasn’t featured as prominently in the recent wave of opera seria revivals and aria recordings. There is however a complete edition of his operas on DVD, recorded at the 2010 Pergolesi tercentenary festival in his native Jesi, and from that set Adriano in Siria is also available as a stand-alone and on YouTube.

This performance was organised by Opera Settecento, a group dedicated to reviving under-performed opera seria and whose chairman Christopher Silvester is a particular fan of this opera. Their previous events were Vivaldi’s Griselda in 2014 and Handel’s Catone in Utica in 2015 at the London Handel Festival; plans for 2016 include a return to the Handel Festival in March and another September Cadogan Hall performance of an opera by Hasse.

The action of Adriano takes place in Antioch, where the future Roman emperor Hadrian as local governor has conquered and offered peace to the Parthians. He seeks an affair with Emirena, the daughter of the Parthian king Osroa. She is betrothed to Farnaspe, a Parthian prince. Hadrian’s friend Aquilo is in love with Hadrian’s betrothed, Sabina. The plot centres on Osroa’s attempts for revenge against Hadrian, who in turn is persuaded by Sabina to pardon everyone and marry her.

Despite its general appeal, the music is variable: Act 1 drags (no fault of the excellent young cast or the orchestra) until the final two arias, Act 2 is the best balanced musically and dramatically, and the final act wraps things up with rather too much action and too little music. The concert-format (chairs and music stands for the singers, in front of the orchestra) didn’t hinder the dramatic involvement of the cast, who stayed in role and responded subtly to the unfolding of events.

In the title role, Michael Taylor immediately established the authority and confidence of the victorious governor, with a full tone and legato maintained with careful use of limited vibrato. The high-lying coloratura was all managed with ease, and the voice balanced from top to bottom, only very occasionally thinning under pressure of the passagework. Russian mezzo Maria Ostroukhova (oddly identified as soprano in the programme booklet) produced a warm and rich sound, conveying the emotional torment of Emirena and unafraid to use the heavy voice to push fearlessly through the fast passages with mostly clear articulation. Her impassioned Act 1 aria Sola mi lasci a piangere was the first musical highlight of the evening.

Following on rapidly, Farnaspe’s aria Lieto così talvolta is the most performed and recorded extract from the whole opera. Pergolesi sensibly placed this aria at the end of the act – despite being less bravura than other arias for the character and in the opera, it’s the undoubted musical standout in the work. The obbligato oboe, representing a caged nightingale, was sensitively controlled and with some genuine quiet playing. The role was originally written for Caffarelli, and all the arias were handled impeccably by Erica Eloff who maintained a clear, bright tone across the huge range required, and showed first-rate technical control in runs over the break and back.

Augusta Hebbert showed similar control in the role of Sabina, including a perfectly floated held note in Chi soffre, senza pianto, though the emotion was a little generalised through all her arias. The incidental role of Aquilo was reduced further by the last-minute cut of the character’s Act 2 aria, leaving just the one Act 3 aria Contento forse vivere – with music familiar in Stravinsky’s borrowing for Pulcinella. Cenk Karaferya’s full vibrato did justice to the character’s frustrated passion for Sabina.

The most sensational singing of the evening came from the tenor Gyula Rab, who is only in the second year of his professional career. Urged on by the full orchestral sound in his bravura arias, he conveyed Osroa’s desire for revenge with an impassioned, slightly Italianate sound at the top, firm tone and precision in the fast detail.

Leo Duarte, busy these days as principle oboe with the English Baroque Soloists in Orphée et Eurydice, was making his operatic conducting debut this evening. The intention was clearly to keep the drama flowing, the next recitative typically pushing ahead immediately after the last beat of the preceding aria, though inevitably some clapping intruded as the audience wished to show genuine appreciation for the singers. The ensemble and tempi benefitted especially from Jonathan Rees’ excellent cello continuo. It’s a long evening for the violins, and although in a few places better attention to articulation and variety of tone would have kept the textures more interesting, the tuning and pace was secure throughout.

In passing, it should be mentioned that the programme booklets for the concert were delayed, only arriving during the first interval, and the £5 charge was generously waived as an apology – although, as both a thorough proofread and a pruning of self-indulgent biographies were still needed, paying would have rankled.

Orphée et Eurydice (1774), 14 September 2015

Orphée et Eurydice (1774 Paris version)
Gluck/Moline (after Calzabigi)

Royal Opera House

Orphée – Juan Diego Flórez
Amour – Amanda Forsythe
Eurydice – Lucy Crowe

Hofesh Shechter Company
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists

Conductor – John Eliot Gardiner
Directors – Hofesh Shechter and John Fulljames
Designer – Conor Murphy
Lighting designer – Lee Curran
Choreographer – Hofesh Shechter

Eyebrows have been raised at the “Royal Opera billing” of this production, given the ad hoc chorus, dancers and orchestra. The Royal Opera House, however, is still clearly a producing house, and if extending the company to include adjunct performing groups means that the repertory is broadened and the number of performances maintained or increased, that is surely for the good.

Of greater concern, is that the raison d’être of this production seems as much to be concordance both with Hofest (a month-long season of Hofesh Shechter’s work across several London venues) and with the Royal Opera’s Orpheus theme during 2015, rather than any serious attempt to rectify the lack of productions of a composer who was central to the historical development of opera as a genre from the late eighteenth century onwards. Gluck’s tercentenary in 2014 went uncelebrated by any major British company; Bampton, Buxton and the Royal Northern College of Music managed short runs of three operas out of the thirty-nine which survive complete.

Further, although Orfeo ed Euridice in its original Italian 1762 version (last seen at the Royal Opera in 1991) was the groundbreaking work of “reform opera” that first moved the dramatic possibilities of the genre out of the straitjacket of opera seria and the recitative/da capo aria conventions, and even though the 1774 revision presented here was in some ways a more fully worked version of Gluck and Calzabigi’s new approach, there are arguments that Alceste (only seen at the Royal Opera in 1981), Armide (never performed by the Royal Opera), and both Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride (just the latter seen at the Royal Opera, in 2007) are all musically superior. Dramatically too, in the case of those last three works, which were the examples used by Hoffmann, von Mosel and others as the models to be followed for the creation of German romantic opera. If Gluck’s operas are worth performing for their own sake, and quite obviously they are, it doesn’t seem much to ask that a major national company chooses more carefully which one to stage.

Perhaps this would all matter less if this production had been anything close to a success, rather than a collage of different aesthetics with very limited dramatic appeal. The orchestra was placed across the width of the mid-stage, on a platform that was raised and lowered at different points, other wide platforms behind and above them were raised, lowered and angled, the upper platform colander-like allowing beams of light to shine through decoratively – but all with no clear narrative consistency or dramatic effect. At least someone had found the oil can to stop the squeaking that has often been heard here from scenery. The dance company was on-stage almost constantly, mingling with the chorus and duplicating the action; for the final, long, 20 minutes of the evening they took over events with repetitious, enervating movement – yes it’s ballet music that in any case destabilises the drama considerably, but it was the clearest evidence that the dance choreography throughout wasn’t integral to the presentation of the dramatic logic, but a parallel response to surface detail in the narrative and the music.

The story, characters – and singers – were all rather lost in the melee, and the limited attention to their direction led in the worst case to laughter in the upper part of the theatre at Euridice’s perfunctory death. Juan Diego Flórez has recorded the role of Orphée in French and was clearly secure with the high writing and passagework as would be expected from his Italian bel canto background. The tone doesn’t appeal to all, and some of his phrasing sounded too deliberate. Lucy Crowe managed excellent ornamentation and some vocally dramatic involvement with the character, but was swamped by the staging. Amanda Forsythe made the best impression, not through the clichéd gold lamé suit she was given, but with strong line and purposeful phrasing. My French neighbour was dédaigneuse about the quality of diction from all the singers.

The playing also achieved mixed results. Ignoring the barrage of sforzandi that is Gardiner’s trademark, whilst at times there was depth of tone in full passages and sensitivity in quieter sections, too often the phrasing felt routine and the sound thinned alarmingly.

For once, this intellectually unchallenging mix of spectacle met with general approval from the Royal Opera audience, at least judging by the welcome absence of booing. But neither as a dramatic investigation of a profound myth, nor as a tribute to one of the few composers who changed music decisively, could it be considered a significant theatrical achievement.