David Lister: If opera is going to reflect everyday life, it needs to get rid of the stereotypes
The Week in Arts
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Saturday 17 March 2012
When Kasper Holten, the Dane who is now running the Royal Opera House, gave his first press conference this week, he said he would learn from the success of TV dramas like The Killing, "not go for short-term gratification" and take ROH audiences "out of their comfort zone".
I wonder if there were belly laughs around the room. The Covent Garden comfort zone has been pretty hard to find recently. A couple of weeks ago, the new production of Rusalka was booed by the first-night audience, and a few days ago the UK premiere of Judith Weir's Miss Fortune received some of the worst reviews ever given to a Royal Opera production.
The Royal Opera House is more than capable of bearing bad reviews, though as Oscar Wilde said about something else, one is unfortunate, two is beginning to look like carelessness. But as far as Miss Fortune goes, there is something more important to chew on than the quality of playing in the pit or the staging of an aria.
In Ms Weir's piece about a lottery winner, the heroine's workplace is destroyed by a group of break-dancing vandals. The ROH was rather proud of its introduction of break-dancing into opera, and manipulated the publicity so that this novelty became quite a news story before the first performance.
What I suspect the ROH management did not anticipate for a moment was that the critics might see something beyond the commendable blending of traditional and current art forms. They might see, they did see, that most of the breakdancers who smashed up the heroine's workplace were black.
The critic of the respected website TheArtsDesk wrote that "the racism" was baffling, adding: "As Miss Fortune sings of entering the shadows and dark streets of the real world, she's set upon by six representatives of this rough shadowy place, a gang of bopping black thugs, who go on to destroy the factory she's working for and torch a kebab van she finds herself taking shelter in. Only in opera could ethnic street dancing still so shamelessly be used to connote criminality."
That's quite a charge, and what an irony that in trying so studiedly to be controversial in its story, staging and cross-fertilisation of art forms, the Royal Opera has utterly unwittingly succeeded in being controversial with its casting.
Should the ROH management have given a little more thought to this casting, or should it have said: "To hell with political correctness, we're using the six best breakdancers we can find." The ROH tells me it operates a colour-blind casting policy. That's to be applauded, but on this occasion, and in the wake of the stereotyping that followed last summer's riots, I think a little more thought about perceptions might have been useful. It's only an opera, I know, but isn't it the Royal Opera House that is trying to tell us that opera should reflect and impinge on real, everyday life?
Spacey takes up the ticket fight
This column has long championed the cause of lower threatre ticket prices for young people, so it's great to see no less a figure than Kevin Spacey waking up to the issue. The artistic director of London's Old Vic theatre and Hollywood star says he is embarrassed that theatre is not more accessible to young people. He says: "It is the single most embarrassing thing about being in the theatre, that it has become an exclusive club. I am embarrassed by the fact that there is such short-sightedness on the heads of producers and theatre directors. What happens when this generation that is currently going to the theatre passes on to the great theatre in the sky?"
Mr Spacey was launching a sponsorship deal with PricewaterhouseCoopers for £12 tickets for under-25s at the Old Vic. I have campaigned over many years for cinema-priced tickets to encourage young audiences to the theatre. So congratulations to Kevin, but more needs to be done. One small additional gesture would be Broadway-style free programmes at all theatres, including the Old Vic. A bigger gesture would be for all those short-sighted producers to follow his lead and start thinking about new audiences rather than just profit. And, of course, how's about stopping alienating all audiences with those wretched booking fees (£2.50 at the Old Vic)? But Spacey has made a bold move in the right direction.
Lily Allen could learn from Sade
The surprise music news of the week is that Eighties soul singer Sade is currently the biggest British act in America. Sade, almost forgotten over here, lives quietly in the Cotswolds with her partner and teenage daughter. She told Ebony magazine in one of her very rare interviews of recent years that her partner Ian "was a Royal Marine, then a fireman, then a Cambridge graduate in chemistry", adding: "I always said that if I could just find a guy who could chop wood and had a nice smile it didn't bother me if he was an aristocrat or a thug as long as he was a good guy. I've ended up with an educated thug."
All of which is, I think, a lesson for Lily Allen, who, wrongly in my view, decided to give up music to concentrate on family. No need to give it up. Take a leaf out of Sade's book. Live a quiet family life in the English countryside, and record, tour and make a mint in America.
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