Do we really need to sex up opera?

A new production about Anna Nicole Smith and the arrival of 3D broadcasts aim to widen the appeal of an art form that is perceived as elitist.

More nonsense is talked about opera than any other single art form. It may be the nature of the form itself, all hysterics and extremes of passion. It may be that it remains a minority form, which is supposed to be refined and melodic. But the temptation to blow up its antics and its subjects into dramas themselves seems irresistible.

The latest occasion is the Royal Opera House's plans to perform a new Mark-Anthony Turnage opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith, the former Playboy model who died from a drug overdose four years ago after a tempestuous life of grotesquely enhanced breasts and bad behaviour in search of wealth and stardom. "Shocking," say the opera purists. "Needed," retorts the opera house, "if we are to attract new and younger audiences."

We've been here before, of course. Our own columnist, Philip Hensher, was the librettist of Thomas Adès's opera, Powder Her Face of 1995 about the life of the notorious adulteress , the Duchess of Argyll, who was accused of having 88 lovers at the time of her divorce in 1963. "Go to bed early and often," was said to be her motto.

The chamber work, which had the singular distinction of introducing the first act of fellatio on stage in opera, has been broadcast several times on BBC and was produced by the Royal Opera House only last year. Anna Nicole is supposed to go one step further and have the heroine performing oral sex on her 89-year-old husband in a wheelchair on stage.

Its libretto is by Richard Thomas, notorious for being the co-creator of Jerry Springer: The Opera in 2003. This managed – as it was presumably intended – to upset virtually every known interest group from those disgusted by its bad language to those mortally offended by its blasphemy against religion in general and the Virgin Mary in particular. The BBC received a record 55,000 complaints when it aired it.

Opera has always loved women larger than life in their appetites. A friend started a lifelong love affair with opera when his music master at school sat a group of them down to listen to a recording of Bizet's Carmen. "Now Carmen was a very naughty girl," he started off and my friend, after years of hymns in church and classical music in class, knew that here was the art form for him.

"Naughty girls" are indeed the stuff of opera. The work which started it all, Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, of 1643, has as its heroine a woman who sleeps and murders her way to the top and, what's more, gets away with it at the end. Alban Berg's unfinished Lulu, first performed in 1938, is about a woman of primal lust who beds, is bedded by, and kills a succession of lovers until she is finally done away with by Jack the Ripper to the sound of some of the most romantic music ever composed.

Opera is above all about the voice and full emotion, nowhere more so than with the soprano. Put a high voice together with high drama and you're going to get some of the most unforgettable and explosive characters on the stage. There have been legions of betrayed lovers, of course. Song has always favoured the forlorn, male or female. But besides those have been a succession of courtesans and prostitutes, the insane and the hysterical, the ruthless and the greedy. The fallen woman and the femme fatale may seem a very male view of the opposite sex (and almost all opera composers have been men), but it has still given the soprano leads a power and a complexity in opera that straight theatre has rarely even tried.

Nor are operas, contrary to public myth, just about the noble and the redeemed. Four of the greatest works of the twentieth century – Leos Janacek's Jenufa of 1904, Alban Berg's Wozzeck first performed in 1925,Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1930), and Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (1945) – have as their heroes, respectively, a soldier who stabs his wife to death out of jealousy and humiliation, a woman who poisons her wealthy but bullying older husband in favour of a younger lover and is then betrayed by him, a stepmother who drowns her stepdaughter's baby to clear the way for her marriage and a fisherman who arguably causes the death of his apprentice through his bullying.

The art form has long courted controversy and not just from opera-goers who like their music melodious and their plots old-fashioned. The Empress Eugenie stood up in the imperial box at the Paris premiere of Don Carlos in Paris and studiedly turned her back on the stage to show her upset at the anti-Catholic message of the auto da fe scene. Stalin walked out at the Moscow performance of Shosta- kovich's Lady Macbeth, upset at its satirisation of the police, and directed (and maybe even wrote) a front page article attacking the work as "muddle not music". John Adams stepped into the most delicate issue of all with an opera about Palestinian terrorism, The Death of Klinghoffer in 1991, while Jonathan Miller so offended Italian-American sensitivities with his Mafia-based reinterpretation of Verdi's Rigoletto that they picketed the opera house in New York as an insult to both their country and their most treasured composer. More than one cabinet minister was heard humming Beethoven's great chorus of the prisoners released in Fidelio, which was playing at the Royal Opera House the week Maggie Thatcher fell.

Whatever opera's problems, they do not stem from artistic or social irrelevance. If Anna Nicole is ultimately about the nature of celebrity and the self-destruction involved in gaining it – which one assumes will be the case – it will be very much in line with Powder Her Face, Jerry Springer and half the new dramas being staged in the theatre today. As a medium of expression, the form isn't dying. Far from it. Some of the best classical composers of our day – Philip Glass, John Adams, Harrison Birtwhistle, Thomas Adès and Mark-Anthony Turnage – have set their hands to writing operas.

A lack of creative energy is not its problem. The difficulties of gaining a wider audience are. Opera is of necessity an expensive business, particularly grand opera with its requirements for large orchestras, top ranking singers and full-on productions. It needs to be popular to pay for itself. Asked whether he had a view of what theatre should be, Verdi replied "Yes. The theatre should be full." And he was able to fill it, then as now, with operas which combined the most perfect melodies with the most dramatic plots and lots of really big (and expensive) sounds.

But it was easier in his day. Opera was then the happening art, just as the stage was in Shakespeare's day. It became a global business, with opera houses built in the Amazonian jungles and troupes of singers and set designers bringing by ship the latest works to new audiences around the coasts of Latin and North America. Tunes from the latest productions were whistled in the streets and pirated on the presses.

For all the new commissioning and trumpeted world premieres, however, it would be foolish to pretend that it still retains that pre-eminence. Like the novel, it goes on, it attracts lots of creative endeavour still, but, save for the odd populist success, it no longer holds the centre stage as it once did.

The cost of seats doesn't help, although I have sat in the Covent Garden amphitheatre listening to Placido Domingo sing Simon Boccanegra, with a full orchestra and choir, for less money than I then had to pay for a West End production of Arthur Miller's View From the Bridge with a cast of half-a-dozen, no music and no better seats.

Pitted against the cost of musicals these days, opera doesn't fare badly as live entertainment, with the added advantage that you hear singing its natural form rather than through the distortions of the microphone. Some of that may be due to the degree of subsidy given to the main houses (at the expense of encouraging smaller, newer touring companies). But to give the opera houses their due, they have tried to broaden the audience for the established repertoire by broadcasting live performances into cinemas and the squares outside.

On the latest pronouncements, 3D is being added to the broadcasts (although how this will improve the listening is hard to fathom). More even than the straight theatre, opera has encouraged directors into the extremes of interpretation to refresh the old standards, far too extreme for some who think that directors should keep some faith with the composer's intentions. The show may not be over until the fat lady sings, but when I first went to opera it didn't start until they sang. Sopranos were enormous. My first experience of Wagner was of the wonderful Rita Hunter having to be held steady by a wire from above to enable her to navigate the giant ring on the stage. Now sopranos, and tenors, are lithe and young and apparently ready to strip off whenever the director wants to cheer up the action.

State-subsidised houses have also tried to prove their worth by commissioning new works, of which Anna Nicole is one. If there is a complaint from composers, it shouldn't be a lack of outlets. They now have a far better lot than aspiring film directors. Opera's problem – like that of fiction and, for that matter, even film now – is that so many other forms have come in to express the spirit of the age. Opera's ability, like the 19th-century novel, to delineate grand themes through big characters has been rivalled, and in many ways overtaken, by cinema, while television has satisfied (satiated at times) the public appetite for the dramas of everyday life and the personalities with which one can empathise. At its greatest, opera can universalise the human and humanise the universal, but it needs a sense of space and a certain bigness to do it.

Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist and composer who comes nearest to opera in the field of musicals, was questioned on the subject during his 80th birthday celebrations last year. Was he ever tempted to write an opera, he was asked. No, he replied, he'd been much influenced by opera but thought it was more of a hassle and less rewarding as a form. He liked the extempore nature and audience involvement in composing musicals, he added.

It was a sad answer but an accurate one. The old argument about what is an opera and what is a musical is a sterile one. There are no absolute distinctions. They're both about words, music and songs. But opera is above all a composer's expression and modern music in all its forms has found it difficult to gain a wide audience. Serial music, minimalism and atonality have excited musicians but not the general public, who prefer the melody and directness of musicals. It's not the subject matter so much as the cerebral nature of so many modern works that puts them off.

It's an old dilemma. Three hundred years ago George Frideric Handel, Germany's greatest gift to Britain after the English language, set up shop in London composing and playing Italian operas with the best singers imported from the Continent, much as footballers are today. The audience came, language crib and story plot in hand, much as people used to until the introduction of surtitles. All went reasonably well until the London musical stage was overwhelmed by a new work, John Gay's Beggar's Opera, written in English, using the lingo of the street and basing its songs on the popular ballads and ditties of the day. Virtually bankrupted by this competition, Handel turned to expressing his supreme dramatic talent through a different form, the oratorio, appealing to religious piety and local choral societies to keep up his audiences.

The Beggar's Opera, reconstructed from what is known of the original, is still played occasionally. And yet it is Handel who has triumphed over time with the extraordinary revival of his operas. It's not just that he wrote such good melodies, which he did, or that he gave such rich parts to his singers, which he also did. It is also that he had an instinctive sense of what opera does best, which is to portray humanity in all its contradictions and fullness.

Opera's unique justification as an art form is that it uses the greatest of all musical instruments, the voice, to express the most fundamental drive of all society, the human emotion. At its grandest, as in Verdi, it can set the voice of the individual against the great swirl of events as expressed in the music. At its most intimate it can, as with Mozart, portray the frailty and humour of man by setting music not just to support the voice but to comment on and even contradict it. Music can make you feel what you want to feel – pride, pity or patriotism – but opera can also make you sense what you don't want to – the dangerous yearning for a new beginning in Wagner's Parsifal, sympathy for a witch in Handel's Alcina, admiration for a philanderer in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The combination of music, words and the human voice has the power to make you empathise with even the most outlandish characters or situations. The voice can say one thing, the orchestra can tell you of the other passions and pressures going on. No other art form can do so half as effectively or as thrillingly. In opera the human becomes the universal through music, and the universal is made human.

Take the letter-writing scene in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The original poem by Pushkin – widely held to be the finest work in the Russian language – describes the adolescent Tatanya, suffering from too great a diet of English romantic novels, opening her heart to a neighbour in a letter declaring her love. You read it in print. The letter is set out. You judge it, even dismiss the girl as being silly.

In setting it to music in his opera of the poem, however, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky – ever sensitive himself to the pangs of unrequited longing - actually makes you feel what the girl is going through as she writes it. The orchestra surges with her growing ardour, then stops while the girl pauses, the harps telling you of the delicacy of her first love, her voice struggling to find the right words, before the strings gather pace again in swelling passion until, with an almost resigned half-flourish, she signs and seals the fateful missive. And you know it is going to end in tears not just because it always does in these cases, but because the music has told you in those final still hesitant chords that the resolution has yet to come, leaving you as relieved as she is that the deed is done, but uncertain of where it will lead. I defy anyone who is human not to be moved by this aria. Indeed, for all that old sentimentalist Oscar Wilde's cynicism at such scenes, not to be moved is not to be human at all.

I hope that the ROH does succeed in widening its audience through Anna Nicole. Turnage is a good composer, while celebrity and the fallen woman is always a fascinating theme. But it's not really what opera needs at the moment because it's not really something it can do uniquely. Film, the novel and the documentary can do it just as well, and are doing so at a much cheaper cost to far wider audiences. Sex and notoriety are no longer enough.

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