Why everybody needs opera when they're down and out

THE HYPE has done its work, the hype has made me suspend my normal faculties. For a couple of minutes, at least. I'm looking at the stage, at the extravagant set, the 30-foot painted backdrop, the guy with long hair belting out the lyrics, making absurd stagey gestures, and I don't immediately come to my senses and think: this is awful. No, I'm thinking: give it a chance. It's good. It's good, for God's sake, everybody says it's good; in a couple of minutes I'll see the point.

I look at the stage set, listen to the music, searching for something that might edify or enlighten me, or at least amuse me. Well, the guy in the wig is singing pretty loudly, holding his notes for a long time. He hasn't got a bad voice. I still can't make out what he's saying. But the lyrics aren't the point. It doesn't matter if you can't hear them. What you have to do is get into it. People say that listening to this stuff makes them cry. So I'm keeping an open mind.

The backdrop, which must have cost thousands and thousands, is a life-size painting of a large house, which I suppose has been well done; windows and doorways, every brick practically, painted on to the wood. But Meatloaf had a 20-foot motorbike on stage with him; Prince had a huge four-poster bed. Everybody has stage sets. Still, I'm told they've got one or two great effects to come. I don't know why they think we'll be impressed. What I want is good music, good stagecraft, proper communication.

The music is loud and booming one moment, rather fiddly the next, like early Genesis or Rick Wakeman; string instruments and wind instruments rising and falling in tempo, going nowhere for ages, a pattern too complex to grasp, and then building towards moments of passionate climax. There are two singers now, a man - dressed in 18th-century costume, with full powdered wig - and a woman, both singing their hearts out. He's loud and low, she's shrieking, screeching. And a guy's just popped out of one of the windows; he's 30 feet up; poking his head through the window, and then . . . he starts to sing. Nice touch. My first positive reaction. Something I wasn't expecting. Just as good as Michael Jackson appearing out of nowhere.

What a relief. I really didn't want to come away with nothing. Because you can't go to the opera and not like it, can you? Opera is good. How good is it? Let me tell you: it's so good that you're paying for it out of your taxes. So good, in fact, that it's protected from regular market forces. They're not even doing that for hospitals any more. But, as the advertising slogan goes: 'Everybody Needs Opera.' And just imagine: if we didn't pay for it out of our taxes, it would wither and atrophy, like other art forms before it: Gregorian chant, mystery plays, morris dancing.

The opera is called Ariadne on Naxos, by Richard Strauss. The story is an absurd fantasy, making heavy use of ancient mythology, like an early Seventies pomp-rock concept album. It's about a woman who has just helped the mythological Greek hero Theseus kill a freak monster called the Minotaur, half man and half bull, which happens to be her half-brother. And then what does Theseus do? Leaves Ariadne on the island. This is before they had a boat every hour. So she's stuck. She feels so let down she wants to die. She wanders around the island, getting more and more upset. But then Bacchus, the God of Wine, comes along and rescues her.

Can you imagine going in and pitching that idea to a movie executive? 'But wait,' you'd tell him, 'it gets better . . .' Actually, it gets worse. The Naxos plot is a story within a story, about a rich Viennese guy who's trying to put on an opera, Ariadne on Naxos. He also wants to put on a comedy. It turns out that he hasn't got enough time to run them end to end. The solution? To run them simultaneously. Oh, great idea. A mixture of Dying Young and Big? Or Beaches and Beetlejuice? Naturally, the story doesn't quite work. But then, it doesn't really have to work, does it? Isn't that the point of arts subsidy? Subsidy and patronage are just as bad for the arts as their opposite, going for the lowest common denominator. At one extreme you get breathtaking slasher movies; at the other you get this, you get weird doodles, strange fantasies, odd noises.

At first, it makes me angry. Paying for this out of my taxes? Rather than, say, filling in the holes in the road, or building an indoor tennis court so I can play tennis in the winter, or stopping homeless people from making me feel guilty all the time? You choose this? Why? And then I get even more angry. I want to get up out of my seat, rush to a phone, and call my parents and all my old schoolteachers and say: 'You had the arrogance, the gall, when I was a kid, to tell me - no, worse, to assume - that all this pompous old music somehow occupied the high moral ground . . . and you made all those snide comments] 'Is it a girl or a boy?' 'I wonder if they were on drugs when they wrote this.' ' And, worst of all, 'I can't make out the words.' '

Well, I can't really make out the words here. You sing opera high and loud, lots of long, drawn-out wailing. There seems to be a degree-of-difficulty clause written into this culture; when someone does something really extraordinary, like singing a note for ages and ages without breathing, or getting a devilishly high note, a real ear-splitter, you clap and shout 'bravo'. Ah, there's a lyric: 'My heart is true, yet tainted with desire.' Oh, profound. Come on, this is no better than Soft Cell. No, I'll stick my neck out: worse.

On the way out, we pass the poster which says: 'Everybody Needs Opera.' Well, maybe we do. Look at those poor sods in the subway, up to their necks in their sleeping bags. You can see they need opera. And that guy there, the one poking around in a trashcan. He'll be fine. No need to worry about him. He just needs a bit of opera. Anyway, he's getting it, if only indirectly. Because even if he can't afford it, opera filters down. He just needs to dig a bit deeper. There] Under that pizza carton. -

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