Until the other week, my enjoyment of opera was largely confined to my occasional unsuccessful attempt to hit the lower notes of “Nessun Dorma” while enjoying a bath. Like many Brits, I discovered the song via Pavarotti and the TV coverage of the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy. I couldn’t tell you which opera it came from, but I could probably tell you which adverts have used it.
This may all be set to change, though, after a friend dragged me (not screaming, but definitely kicking a bit) to the London Coliseum to see Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at the English National Opera. Once in my seat I could see why they thought I would like Phelim McDermott’s production, with its travelling-fairground theme being so familiar to someone like me. who has lived and breathed circus for more than 50 years.
But what I was not ready for was finding something that I thought was all but lost in UK arts and entertainment. Cosi Fan Tutte was spectacle, pure and simple: the kind of spectacle that made me join the circus and the kind of spectacle I have been chasing ever since.
It was that sense of spectacle that I ended up recognising even more than the candy-floss-chomping carnies and sideshow freaks, and that was what gave me a buzz that kept me on the edge of my seat and then up half the night. This was a three-ring circus taking place right in front of me and it stirred up so many emotions, with the sets, the scale and the stage-craft making me realise what I have been missing.
I want to go back. I want to go back every single week.
With my own Gerry Cottle’s Circus I certainly created amazing shows, but even they paled in comparison with what I see as the apex of live entertainment in Britain. The Bertram Mills circuses of the 1950s at Olympia in London were like a live version of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Everywhere you looked something new, unexpected and dangerous was happening. You couldn’t take your eyes off of the action.
The Mills family knew that if their rivals had six horses, five clowns and two lions then their own show would need a dozen elephants, a dozen clowns and a dozen tigers to make sure they got the crowds.
No one ever left a Bertram Mills circus muttering a weak, “what did you think?” to their companions afterwards.
Such a question was redundant. You know when you are at an event that has simply blown you away. I had that feeling at Olympia as a child in the 1950s and I have now had it at the ENO show.
Of course, the Bertram Mills productions were far from politically correct, as animals were so often the stars of the show. The shows also largely shunned the idea of health and safety, as genuine peril was what the audience wanted to see. The sheer sense of scale has been lost along with the elephants and the high-wire acts without safety harnesses.
But this loss has not been confined to the world of circus – it has happened across the performing arts.
Even big events such as the Glastonbury pop festival are in very many ways more of a social event to be seen at rather than something where you come home talking about what you have seen. Rock’n’roll has been tamed and fenced in, while our youngsters are hooked on games consoles as no one has come up with anything amazing enough to make them look up from their screens.
Spectacle demands the spectacular and the ability to fill a stage. Minimal sets may work for minimal audiences, but I want extravagance and a full house.
McDermott’s Cosi Fan Tutte certainly delivered both. I may not have come out humming the tunes and it may have even been a bit long for my tastes, but I am a convert.
My light-entertainment head will take a while to switch to light opera and eventually heavy opera (if there is such a thing) mode, but I have started that journey now, chasing the spectacle. I am not expecting a dozen elephants on stage, but if any other operas can live up to what I saw the other week at the English National Opera then I may just have a new love.