For 25 years opera failed to create new masterpieces. Now the barren years may finally be overby Tom Sutcliffe / July 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Why call it Jerry Springer: the Opera? It’s a musical, not an opera-or, to be accurate, a revue sketch stretched to breaking point. But who knows what an opera for today should be, anyway? The Battersea Arts Centre’s opera festivals have included all sorts of shows that wouldn’t strike opera buffs as the real thing. Yet Tom Morris, the impresario who delivered Jerry Springer to the National Theatre, seems to have tapped an audience eager to sample shows like Tourette’s Diva, in which two would-be opera stars flow with piercingly sung obscenities.
Is there any difference in principle between operas and musicals? Both depend on music and words and acting. The postwar director of the Komische Oper in east Berlin, Walter Felsenstein, employed the term “music-theatre” for opera, operetta, musicals-the lot. Felsenstein proved that opera was not just a costume parade for adorable vocal canaries, but could be an argumentative kind of total theatre.
Yet these days, in Britain especially, the idea of opera is taken to be a bit of a joke (which is the point of calling it Jerry Springer: the Opera). The institutions of traditional opera, meanwhile, can’t reconcile their high aspirations with their even higher costs. In the mid-1990s, the Royal Opera House was subjected to extreme pressure by the Arts Council of England to end its all too frequent reliance on deficit funding; and now it is the English National Opera’s turn. Unlike musicals, opera has almost never made money and, despite subsidies, ticket prices remain very high. The operatic event is stuck in a bourgeois social calendar: Glyndebourne alongside Ascot. Opera in Britain amounts to just six permanent companies, compared with Germany’s 83. No wonder there isn’t a cadre of experienced British managers to draw on. ENO’s new artistic director, Sean Doran, is no different from his predecessors Peter Jonas, George Harewood and Stephen Arlen, in never having run an opera company before.