The aesthetic apartheid which once separated opera from musicals is crumbling in Britain. A good thing too, says Herb Greer-the US should follow suitby Herb Greer / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time, in what now seems a distant past, opera companies offered their audiences an exclusive diet of melodrama, sumptuous arias and somewhat demanding cultural uplift. The brassier genre of musical comedy was confined to West End commercial theatres, where punters could enjoy a relaxing evening of undemanding fun, with tunes you could whistle.
Providers of material for the opera were called composers and librettists, and were (still are, in fact) regarded with a certain respect. They were artists. The other lot were just writers of words and music. They were artistes: generally they used the tradesman’s entrance to the cultural world, where their works were regarded by audience and critics alike as a sort of aesthetic Kleenex: pleasant for the nonce, but disposable, and certainly nothing to place in a serious venue.
On the whole, this is still true in the US. Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Frank Loesser produced what are called, not classics, but “standards”-songs which have not faded, but persisted stubbornly in the public ear well after the shows they came from sank out of sight and mind. This persistence was not a consequence of hype, but of a kind of aural sympathy which catches a good song in the mind’s ear and keeps it there.
Curiously, it was the prima facie popularity of these songs and their shows which told against any idea of their cultural excellence. Anything so easy to absorb, so instantly accessible, might be amusing, or tickle certain facile sentiments, but as for being good, well, at best they were good “of a kind.” In the US that kind is not culture. It still has too much of a smoky tinge of Broadway and easy, unbuttoned applause. True, it pleases, but in the way that a charming, very lively (if expensive) chorus girl might please. It does not belong in the same house, and certainly not in the same critical ambiance as, say, Carmen or The Magic Flute.
There are rare exceptions: Porgy and Bess, which was looked down upon for years for being too much like a musical-all those popular tunes! Even today, who will refer to Summertime as an aria? Leonard Bernstein, like George Gershwin, worked in the opera genre, but his West Side Story and Candide (both of which borrowed their mildly “serious” cachet from antiquarian sources) have remained shows, the property of commercial theatre, as have the works of Stephen Sondheim. Some of these shows are regarded with critical gravitas; but even if Sondheim has moved away from the Broadway musical towards a more operatic, self-consciously “serious” genre, he is still not a provider of opera company material in the US.
This aesthetic apartheid once existed in Britain, too. But over the last few decades it has been breaking down. The National Theatre staged a brilliant production of Guys and Dolls which was a match for any West End commercial enterprise and-some said-as good as Broadway. The NT has staged several Sondheim shows; the English National Opera mounted his Pacific Overtures. The ENO production of the Kurt Weill-Elmer Rice Street Scene had a verve which would not have been out of place on Broadway. And one of the finest musical comedy productions of recent years was the Opera North-RSC staging of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat.
Carmen Jones, on the other hand, was a resounding success in a commercially backed production at the Old Vic; but not all such efforts caught fire there. Jonathan Miller’s mannered staging of Candide was a failure for the good reason that the show is based on Voltaire’s now obscure satirical scoff at Leibniz-hardly a catchy or meaningful reference for the modern audience. In the subsidised sector, the American shows which have worked best-Guys and Dolls, most of Sondheim’s work, Show Boat, and Street Scene-have refreshed audiences with a blend of good scripts and musical excellence. The exuberant, high spirited tone of celebration which they project is something rarely present in musical theatre. While Americans tend to revive these old shows on Broadway as a commercial sure thing, Britannia has taken the classic American musical under her wing, staging superb revivals in venues which present the show as not only enjoyable but also relevant in a “high culture” sort of way.
It was inevitable that a few of these efforts were going to go astray. The first to do so was a highly praised NT staging of Carousel, in which an ?patant approach, sharing the second lead roles between white and black performers, warped this great piece into a patronising multi-ethnic homily. This pleased the politically correct in London and New York, but made a theatrical nonsense of the show, whose turn-of-the-century New England fishing village would not have imagined, much less tolerated, such a racial mixture.
The most recent stumble occurred for different reasons. Opera North, whose Show Boat had been so brilliant, and which has presented wonderful stagings of French and Russian op?ra comique, applied to the Gershwin estate for permission to compress Of Thee I Sing and Let ’em eat Cake into a single evening’s show. Inexplicably, the Gershwin estate refused to go along with this rather good idea. Opera North, stranded with a gap in its season, and rather late in the planning stage, hit upon Love Life, a 1948 work by Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill which had never been staged in Europe. The show was not a great success in the 1940s, and there had been no revivals except for a few concert performances. The book existed in no fewer than six versions-which should have been a warning. But time was pressing, and Opera North -blinded by the names of Lerner and Weill-went ahead.
Love Life grew out of one of those plausible but silly ideas which sometimes hypnotise talented people. To quote the programme note: “… an idea for a show about the effect of ‘progress’-the industrial revolution, the women’s movement, the technological revolution of the 20th century-on love and marriage.”
Watching Opera North’s Love Life it was impossible not to feel a certain commiseration with the company. This elephantine show-a hash of vaudevillian pastiche and sentimental clich? which did not bring out the best either in Weill or in Lerner-had once defeated the directorial flair of Elia Kazan. Poor Caroline Gawn stood no chance.
The sequence of scenes (there is no story worth the name) begins in 1790 in a rural paradise. Ageless Sam Cooper, the carpenter, becomes a factory worker, then a railroad man, then a 20th century salesman and hustling businessman. His wife, Susan, also ageless, evolves into a hard but suffering career woman. Their children sort of stand around and watch. Eventually, in the heartless 1940s-divorce! At the very end, in a climactically silly scene, Sam and Susan decide in spite of everything to try communicating, and inch towards each other, slowly, from opposite ends of a neon-lit tightrope. Meaningless interruptions by a dancing chorus and vaudeville acts, interminable scene changes, flat dialogue, and a set of very routine lyrics doomed the audience to boredom and the show (one hopes) to the decent obscurity from whence it came. It prompted a memory of George Kaufman’s famous remark: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” and showed that even the best talents can do little with a bad idea. But this disaster was an aberration, caused by the pressure of circumstances. It will not, God willing, discourage Opera North or ENO or any other company from the work of preserving a great American tradition in the courts of high culture, with a flair and generosity of spirit that even the Americans do not yet match.