Edward Pearce enjoyed "The House" and now wants to run Covent Gardenby / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Consider the BBC?s television programme, The House: a combination of documentary and soap, it also had some of the qualities of opera. It held us fast, while the bald, aggrandising and imperfectly nice Keith Cooper called on Jeremy Isaacs murmuring that a colleague was not quite on his wavelength: Iago wandering into Die Meistersinger to oil up an over-parted Hans Sachs. But much of The House was The Money Programme. “We can?t do this.” “We?re over budget.” “We need extra for that ramp.” The face of Tessa Blackstone at those board meetings was an art form. (And it seems, since The House was made, that they have overshot again by the odd ?2m.)
But chiefly The House is a provocation. Jeremy Isaacs has a line which says: “Look, this thing is hellishly difficult. Yes, it costs a lot, but it has to. That?s the price one pays for our being wonderful. Anyway, if you?re so clever, you do it.”
Let?s do just that. My objections to Covent Garden fall into two categories: cash and art. They use money for origami and give power to despotic little aesthetes-on-horseback who stage conceptual productions which should not be allowed.
The saddest thing was the little conductor from Canada brought in for Massenet?s Ch?rubin, humbly seeking instruction from a languid director after the star Russian conductor had, quite rightly, walked out over directorial intrusion. My response is to write up in flaming capitals: Prima la musica!
The next is to demote the director. Most of us are there for Verdi, Mozart or Wagner; at many productions we just close our eyes. Sorry, but why should a figure like Bernard Haitink be cajoled into a charlatan production cluttered with cars and aeroplanes alien to its text?
I would give the conductor a production veto and encourage him to choose the broad outline of scene-setting. The Opera House should contract younger, less expensive designers. Direction and design have become the Emperor?s new pantomime. But the merits of the grand directors are rarely demonstrable and popular demand offers no support. Yet we are told that such-and-such a fellow is the last word in shimmering perfection and that we must have him at whatever hellish price.
This is absurd. Opera stands or falls on the music. The scene-setting can be handsome and attractive?but ultimately is not that important. Only directors, designers and critics proclaiming “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” make it seem so.
Stuff them. The conductor should call the shots; direction should come from an in-house stage manager who knows how to get a soprano from one side of the stage to the other. And design should come from the young. We should give opportunities to recently graduated art students, who would, of course, be properly subordinate. And though paid properly, they would still be inexpensive. One proviso: only graduates of the Scottish art schools need apply. These are the only places where drawing and painting are still taught.
The next thing Covent Garden should do is: tour. It has faced the coming hiatus with pathetic inertia while a great deal of money is being spent on splendid dressing rooms and other luxuries which, “as an international house,” it just has to have. At one stage, the company seemed ready to roll up like a badger in winter and, apart from the odd Albert Hall gala, do nothing.
Covent Garden should travel anyway. The flash names won?t budge, but there is enough talent to create a decent touring company. And if they rough it a bit, play cinemas and, oh dear, those ghastly provincial hippodromes, the country?s growing taste for opera would be rewarded. There is life away from the corporate booking. Tours might not show a profit?but they would be money well spent as promotion, career openings and more music.
Now to the repertory: I wonder at the good and accessible pieces which are not played. We get a limited repertory, a sort of cheeseboard spiced with weirdo productions. Yet with a little promotional skill?perhaps a preliminary touring production?the public could be drawn to works off the cheeseboard offers in straight-up-and-down, unaffected productions. Can we really not sell the operas of Dvor?k (The Jacobin, The Devil and Kate), of Rimsky-Korsakov (May Night) or of Smetana (The Two Widows)? Could we not get an audience for the delightful Il matrimonio segreto by Cimarosa? Leopold II of Austria demanded a second performance after supper!
If the House got itself a name for doing overlooked, non-penitential, enjoyable works from the last 200 years, the public would get the message. Nielsen?s Maskarade is incomparably preferable to a 15th Lucia, but it has never played in London since it was written in 1906.
My plan is straightforward enough. Music comes first; directors are second-line technicians; designers are young Scots who can paint, but may not set Tosca as if Samuel Beckett had written it; the company goes to Bradford and Wolverhampton and likes it; good, not-bothered-with works are bothered with. And to adapt Verlaine on rhetoric?we take mystique and wring its neck.