Philip Hensher: Music, not sex, will attract crowds to opera

You might as well admit that the National Gallery's Stubbs exhibition is basically a lot of paintings of horses
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There's certainly a slight sense of desperation in the air. Gerald Barry, that excellently brutalist composer, has written an opera for English National Opera. It's based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder's hysterical 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and gets its premiere later this month. All that, you might think, speaks of remarkable confidence on the part of the opera house.

Barry, as good a composer as he is, is not famous, and, though I personally enjoy the bracing effect of his music, it is never going to be remotely popular. Fassbinder, too, has very much become a specialist enthusiasm of the over-40s; anyone younger than that probably won't have heard of the movie. It really is a brave commission.

The evidence of desperation really comes in the advertising. ENO's marketing materials begin with the headline "Sexual Desire, Dominance, Submission" and are lavishly illustrated with photographs of a singer in her underwear cavorting with a plaster mannequin. Nothing is said about the music - it might be that the marketing department thought it best not to mention that - under Mr Barry's biography, we are told that his music is reminiscent of "the rhythmic energy and appeal of Irish step-dancing and the frankness of Irish folk music".

I haven't yet heard the opera, but I feel confident in saying that if anyone goes in the hope that it will sound like Michael Flatley's Greatest Hits, they are going to be quickly disabused. Anyone, too, who buys a ticket in a fit of enthusiasm only for scenes of female sexual desire, dominance, submission, will find after the curtain goes up that they are paying a fairly heavy price.

Or who knows? They might find themselves rather enjoying Mr Barry's customarily immaculate racket. But that doesn't seem to be a hope that ENO realistically holds. Its working strategy for selling a high-minded piece of new music seems to be (1) Tell them it's dirty. (2) Tell them it sounds like Riverdance. (3) Run like hell before they ask for their money back. As a strategy, this seems to me to have only short-term advantages.

I honestly can't think of another reputable field of the arts which would be happy to let its productions be represented in such a way. In every other case, what you aim for in promoting your work, surely, is to give an idea of it. You might as well admit that the National Gallery's exhibition of Stubbs is basically a lot of paintings of horses. There's no point in disguising the fact that there is a hell of a lot of dancing in Swan Lake.

But the world of classical music does seem, in part, embarrassed by what it actually does, and seems happy to go along with marketing misrepresentations if it will get, as they say, bums on seats. The marketing of Mr Barry's opera is one thing. A more persistent problem returns next week, with the Last Night of the Proms.

Some people like the Last Night of the Proms; some people can't stand it. The issue, however, is not whether the thing is good fun or a total nightmarish embarrassment. The issue is that, for all purposes, the Last Night is the public face of the Proms. The flag-waving and Parry-singing is basically all that most people know about the whole festival.

Quite surprisingly, people are apt to ask, when you mention you'd been to the Proms, if you took your little flag. That's why it should be got rid of.

The Proms are a long festival of (mostly) orchestral music, all through the summer. It's amazing that the "image" of the festival is the mass singing of "Land of Hope and Glory". It is just a false representation of the whole event. The trouble is, I guess, that the image, though false, at least possesses some kind of currency. If you get rid of that - the thinking must go - then would the Proms have any kind of popular profile at all? Wouldn't we just be left with three months of classical music? And who on earth is interested in that? You can see, after all, reasons for this lack of confidence.

The "classical music charts" never contain anything which you or I would recognise as classical music. Miss Charlotte Church is routinely described, by people who ought to know better, as an "opera singer". One Sunday newspaper has what it calls a "music" supplement - "music in all its forms" - which never goes anywhere near art music. And everyone takes it for granted that only the old and posh have any interest in it.

I don't know. It depends how you look at the situation. When the BBC, earlier this year, put performances of the nine Beethoven symphonies online for downloading, everyone involved was astonished by the levels of demand. But hardly anyone before that had thought that iPods and the like could be used for classical music, and, indeed, the man who thought up the "shuffle" function didn't have a Wagner opera in mind. The whole assumption that classical music is a marginal interest could well be a random decision of a cultural oligarchy.

And, if you care to look, there are other hopeful signs. Anyone who thinks classical music has gone away is recommended to watch, of all things, ITV's X Factor. It is, ostensibly, about pop music; but just listen to the way the producers routinely reach for the great classics to suggest, jokily or not, high drama and high passions; Orff, Prokofiev, Holst, Beethoven, Handel. They can't do without it.

Classical music is much more a part of the fabric of our world, ineradicably, than is sometimes asserted. There is, however, an immense challenge for the classical music world. How to get hold of the child who was watching X Factor, and found himself mysteriously stirred by 10 seconds of stately music; tell him that it's Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet; get him to buy and listen to the CD; and from there, get him into the concert hall, or the opera house.

What is always going to attract people to music is music; not the promise of sex-on-stage, and not the fact that people are going to be waving flags in this same hall in two weeks' time. It might be as well to accept that fact.