We are easily moved by suffering in art. In real life it’s far more complicated

Leaving the opera house wet-eyed recently, I had to pick my way between the homeless

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The Independent Online

You know you are grown sentimental when you start counting the cygnets on the duck pond in the park to be sure none has perished since you counted last. None has, you will be pleased to hear. Eight last week, and eight this. Each the colour of egg yolk dipped in pale ale. I can’t describe their softness because neither of the swans guarding them will let me get close enough to take a cygnet in my hand and stroke it.

They bite the air fiercely when nosey coots or marauding mallards swim into their space, and they arc their necks at me and hiss if I show more than a passing interest in their families. In an age in which parents force-feed their babies hamburgers and blow cigarette smoke into their faces, there are things to learn from the jealous parenting of swans.

But that could just be me being sentimental again. For all I know, swans do terrible things to their cygnets when I’m not watching. A pet rabbit, for which my father made a capacious hutch, and over whom I made much fuss when I was eight or nine, took it into her head to eat a couple of her babies one night. I didn’t witness the crime. I simply found them gone in the morning, the only evidence they had ever existed a bit of mangled gristle, a flurry of bunny hair, and mummy rabbit twitching her nose prettily, as though butter wouldn’t melt. Sentimentality works by our seeing only what we want to see.

This was brought home to me forcibly twice recently when leaving the Royal Opera House wet-eyed – first for Mimi and then for Violetta, victims of operatic tuberculosis both – only to have to pick my way between the homeless camped out in their cardboard boxes in Covent Garden. It’s a rude shock. Inconsiderate of them to disturb the deep emotionalism of my evenings this way. Couldn’t they at least wait until we opera-goers have left the area before they turn in for the night?

If you want an image for a cruelly divided society, you won’t find a better one. But what is one to do? I don’t mean politically. Politically it’s easy to salve one’s conscience, no matter that salving it rarely makes the problem go away. You join the Labour Party, write articles attacking the privileged, give the money you spend on opera tickets to homeless charities, and vow never to go to anything that can be considered elitist again.

 

What isn’t for everybody shouldn’t be for anybody: the world’s opera houses are the reasons we have cardboard cities. Weep. Occupy. Destroy. Fine, if these resolutions make you feel better, but they aren’t answers to my question. What do you do? What do you do at the very moment of stepping from deeply affecting music and pretend suffering into misery which no great composer has laboured over and no singer rendered exquisite?

There are, I accept, questions to be asked of me. Inequity apart, what am I doing hopping from La Bohème to La Traviata in such quick succession that I am barely over the death of one consumptive woman before I am grieving for the next? Is there not enough real suffering out there that I must go in seek of the make-believe variety? Just what kind of itch am I rubbing?

Philosophers have put their minds for centuries to the reasons-why of art. In our time, the argument that we come out of the fires of art more finely tempered, more civilised, the better humanly for where we’ve been, gets short shrift. We’ve always known about the wealthy who weep over depictions of the poor while treating those in their employ like dogs. For as long as there have been theatres, people have sobbed their hearts out watching scenes of domestic suffering, the like of which they will be the cause the minute they get home. But more recent accounts of Rudolf Hess crying at operas put on by Jewish prisoners he wouldn’t scruple to send to the gas chambers an hour later have focused our minds, not only on the disconnect between life and art, but on the contribution sentimentality makes to the sensibilities of monsters. How can we defend art when art lovers stoked the ovens? You can see why some said that after Auschwitz poetry had better hold its tongue.

Yet poetry is still being read and written, and we do, despite everything that’s happened, continue going to the opera even if we can no longer pretend we will be better people for it. But do we have to be? Isn’t it enough that for the brief time we are in our seats we are not our commonplace selves, we submit to unfamiliar emotions, glimpse what we might have been, if not what we actually are or ever will be?

Much depends, of course, on what we’re watching. If I am honest, I go to that schmaltzfest La Bohème more to indulge the sentimental self I discovered at about the time my rabbit ate its family than to escape it. La Traviata is a different kettle of fish: people sing because there is no other way of expressing what they feel; the orchestra swells now with sympathy, now with contrary emotions, and in the choruses we hear a deep communal lamentation.

It helps if you have the great Sonya Yoncheva interpreting Violetta’s rage and sorrow but, whoever’s singing, you have to be made of stone not to be engulfed by grief watching her short, tumultuous life ebb away. All right, so you’re breaking the heart of a real-life Violetta even as you’re applauding a pretend one – that only goes to show how brazenly versatile a species we are, how infinite in faculty, in apprehension like a god, in action the very devil.

But all’s not lost: just because I’ll be eating braised cygnets tonight doesn’t mean I wasn’t genuinely anxious for their safety when I counted them on the duck pond this morning.

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