With wounded soldiers shipped in to Covent Garden by the egregious Joanna Lumley, and the idiocies of ‘Popstar to Operastar’ giving way to Kiri Te Kanawa’s X-Factor search for talent on Radio 2, one might think that the campaign to widen opera’s audience has been terminally hijacked by showbiz.
But that would be to discount the heroic work done by opera-company education departments up and down the country, and above all by their brand-leaders at Glyndebourne. Glyndebourne’s head of education Katie Tearle has presided over a series of brilliant events - starting on Hastings Pier in 1990 - in which local children have been induced to put on operas dealing with subjects which are as near the knuckle today as the rough-trade exploits of Don Giovanni were for eighteenth-century Vienna.
This time round it’s the story of King Arthur updated to a twenty-first century urban wasteland, courtesy of a libretto by Nicky Singer who was inspired by an encounter with a typically deprived and ‘antisocial’ youth on a Holloway estate: her realisation that ‘respect’ was simply a modern version of medieval knightly honour became the pivotal idea for a plot which translates Arthurian symbolism into terms of turf wars and street-gang rituals. This being very much a community project, the 50-strong amateur chorus has been selected first through workshops in schools and youth centres, then through ‘skills’ workshops, then through auditions, and has then been given a top-dressing of six professional singers; the 30 amateur players in the orchestra have been beefed up with 30 professional instrumentalists.
The moment the curtain rises on Es Devlin’s slowly rotating giant cube, onto which a desperate face is projected while the modern-day Arthur launches into a plangent recitative, we know beyond any shadow of doubt that we are in safe hands. The orchestral sound is marvellously translucent, the vocal line could have come from Britten: Glyndebourne’s first composer-in-residence Julian Philips is a master of pastiche. And when Knight Crew make their appearance - dimly lit and drably costumed like creatures from the underworld - one senses director John Fulljames’s characteristically sure touch.
The plot turns on teenage love and valour against the backdrop of permanent war with a neighbouring gang. But it also has an other-worldly dimension represented by a bag-lady with the vision of a seer, whose senseless murder sets in train a series of mystical events which test the moral mettle of all concerned. With a knife which kills without getting blood on itself, and with a book which foretells the future, we are in the sort of magical territory which Harry Potter readers take for granted; what lifts this drama onto a different plane is the Puccinian intensity with which the characters are impelled to destroy each other and/or themselves, as events progress towards their mysterious denouement. One of the most poignant scenes has strong echoes of the Damilola Taylor tragedy.
For a ‘community’ opera this is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of work, with the Mothers’ Chorus - some of whom are the real-life mothers of the fictional gangsters - being outstandingly good (full marks to chorus-master Gareth Malone, otherwise known as presenter of the BBC’s ‘The Choir’). Soprano Claire Wild and tenor Pascal Charbonneau are wonderfully convincing as the chief protagonists, with mezzo Yvonne Howard doubling brilliantly as the bag-lady and Arthur’s despairing mother. The endlessly mutating set with its skilfully projected climactic scenes recalls the glory days of English National Opera, the libretto trades intelligently on the monosyllabic terseness of street slang, and the music draws boldly on Bernstein and Stravinsky. Whether this new work ‘has legs’ is a moot point - it demands major skills and resources - but it’s certainly a major achievement.