The Metropolitan Opera in New York is universally acknowledged as one of the two or three great opera houses of the world. All the same, it hasn’t got much of a reputation for investing in new music, and when it does, the composer has usually been a local one. The last time the Met put on an opera by a living British composer was nearly 40 years ago – the composer was Benjamin Britten.
So, when the Met announced that it was going to mount The Tempest, an opera by my friend Thomas Adès, this was always going to be the sort of historical triumph that was worth making an effort for. The last time this honour was given in a British direction, I was nine years old: the next time, at the same rate, I might be 90 and not up to the trip. Besides, I’ve known Tom for ever – in full disclosure, I wrote the libretto for his first opera, Powder Her Face, many years ago. The Tempest was commissioned and performed by Covent Garden in 2004. But this was going to be special.
The Met is an extraordinary house. It is bigger than any other, and the spaces are simply colossal – the stalls stretch out like a football pitch. The scale presents problems to singers, who have to find ways to get their voices to the back of the top balcony without appearing simply to advance to the footlights, tilt and bellow. Sometimes, the singers and conductors who are most loved by the Met audience can seem too much in European venues: accustomed to fill the gigantic space, they give a sense of forcibly restraining themselves in a smaller house, and it doesn’t quite come off.
The audience, too, is a special beast. Over the years, much comment has been expended on their manners, often in a despairing tone. They have a famous habit of breaking into applause the second a singer finishes an aria or the curtain begins to descend, not worrying about what the orchestra might be doing. I’ve seen a Met audience break out as soon as Zerbinetta hits her high note at the end of the big aria in Ariadne auf Naxos, not much caring that not even she has finished. But it’s an intensely enthusiastic audience, full of knowledge and attentiveness. The interval chatter can be socialite in tone, but also full of argumentative comparisons with productions and performances past. It’s not at all like the London houses, which have their own flavour.
It’s more open than you might expect. You can pay a fortune for tickets in the orchestra stalls, or you can stand for $25. But even at these prices, the Met could never pay its way through ticket sales alone. Under general manager Peter Gelb, it’s opened up greatly, and from Peru to Qatar to Japan, you can see Met productions broadcast in high quality in cinemas. It’s opened up artistically, too, with some bold new productions. The Tempest was produced by Robert Lepage, who was behind a radical and controversial new Ring Cycle, to be performed complete again during the bicentenary year. On the whole, I’m a Met convert.
Tom was here rehearsing for a few weeks, and for the week before the first night, London friends were arriving, almost daily. Is there anything nicer than having an uproarious dinner in a foreign city with friends from home? And all the time the impressive awareness that part of the city, at least, was intensely focused on the remarkable prospect of the approaching opera. The papers, the famous magazines were constantly running profiles, previews, pre-critical commentary. The effect, as we went from friends’ dinner to swanky party to evening out, was of seeing something truly impressive – botanical, grand, inevitable – unfold.
There is an interesting question here about our relationship to our own culture in Britain. We recognise, on the whole, that a British product which has genuinely broken on America has attained a different level of success and acclaim. Though many of the best novelists and musicians are, in fact, best understood and best appreciated on home soil, there is something which reduces us to awed spectators when American acclaim visits an Adele, a David Hockney, a J K Rowling, a Margot Fonteyn, or if you like, a One Direction. As you see, the acclaim can be indifferent to merit; even so, there is something astonishing about it, and we recognise it with interest, impressed by the scale of the thing.
Did we notice it in Britain? Or was it something else that we don’t see the significance of, because the achievement was in the recondite field of opera? Surely not – during the summer, when a British person came third in a sporting event none of us had ever knowingly watched previously, it was deemed front-page news. Surely we noticed a major production by so great an opera house of a new British opera – the first one for 40 years – with a substantially British cast? Surely that was worth a mention comparable to the second round of a men’s judo competition?
Well, perhaps we are a little self-conscious about the things that we actually do well – art, literature, theatre, music. When something in these fields goes truly, wonderfully well, there is a slight self-consciousness about celebrating it, or even mentioning it at all widely.
If we are talking about an art form that not everyone understands, and not everyone likes, then the British have got into the habit of pushing it to one side. We don’t talk about the things that we do superbly well, because there might be a taint of elitism about it. Even true excellence can, nowadays, prove off-putting.
The opera was simply magnificent, and I felt so proud and excited to have been anywhere near such an act of transformation. The huge audience was knowledgeable, appreciative, talkative; the party went on until the medium-sized hours. Sometimes, something excellent gets the treatment it deserves. This was one of those occasions, and a faint ripple of the splendour should have made its way back home.