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Wednesday, 16 July, 2003, 18:23 GMT 19:23 UK
Opera becomes political
Royal Opera House
How about al-Qaeda the Opera, or Mozart in combat fatigues, or the history of the atom bomb in song?

There are growing voices who say opera should become more politically engaged - while traditionalists want to keep it just as it is.

But Mozart and his contemporaries regularly used politics as subjects for their arias and a soprano singing about world affairs is not quite as silly as it might seem.

David Sillito reported.

(The libretto for Manifest Destiny was written by Dic Edwards.)

An exclusive preview of Manifest Destiny, a sort of Al-Qaeda, the Opera. The plot revolves around Leila and the problems caused when she forsakes life as a poet in north London to become a suicide bomber. It's an opera written to challenge politicians and the opera houses.

The whole idiom of opera must do that in fact, if it is to survive. If it is to become relevant to the present day. If the boundaries, the perceived boundaries, of opera and elitism are to be broken down then it must address our contemporary world.

#The Mani terrorists stole the election. With a quarrel over ballot papers...#

This is opera with issues and it's not the only one. Glyndebourne, opera for those who enjoy Pavarotti and a good picnic. And even here this season's Mozart productions has been flavoured with the Iraq war. The director believes Glyndebourne is perfect for politics. Why? Because this lot are posh and powerful. They've come to drink 40 bottles of champagne, pay 145 for some opera and have a fun time. What do they get? An old opera dressed in combat fatigues and Iraqi veils. Some aren't too happy.

Wheel chairs and Americans coming on in stars and stripes but not quite. Just think it was a bit in your face, a bit too obvious. I think they can do a modern staging which is more subtle, don't have to be so dominating and pushy.

Pushy? Peter Sellers is more than pushy. He's evangelical about making opera political. His war-torn Mozart is nothing. He, after all, came up with the idea for an opera about Richard Nixon.

Why we live in a world that keeps denying responsibility as citizens, wouldn't assume that everyone is interested and has lot at stake with these questions. Why just assume, 'why would you want to talk about that?'. To me it's like, how could you not talk about it? Can somebody please, can we stop practising for a moment and talk about the things that really need to be talked about. Or else what? For me it's so basic. I don't have to think about it, of course. You make art based on what's on your mind and what's on everyone's mind. And what we're all dealing with.

These are startling exceptions. Not only is most opera non- political it's old and non- political. Over the next few months you can see nearly 80 operas. Among them are two Madam Butterflies. Figaro getting married in four separate productions. And a full complement of breast plated Valkyries, biblical figures and tragic Greeks. Around 90% of productions are from classical repertoire. And there's a strong appetite for it. A familiar opera done in a familiar way is what draws the crowds at Covent Garden. Even if it means sitting outside the Royal Opera House. There are a few drops of rain and not the warmest of summer evenings but it doesn't stop the crowds coming out for these, the cheapest of the cheap seats. There are about 4,000 people here who can say that opera doesn't have a popular audience at the moment. It has been growing for the last 15 years. Of course that's risen from just over 3% of the population to just under 4%:
The Royal Opera House knows its audience and what does and doesn't work.

We're bringing back operas for several seasons. And if you set out to do something that's controversial you probably know you're limiting the period you can show it. It might not get an audience to come back more than once or twice. We can't afford to do that.

Politics is expensive and risky. The classic repertoire is the Royal Opera House.

Absolutely. And on into the future.

Will anything change?

Why? It's a successful formula. It seems to be what the audience wants and they're coming.

But one place is innovating. London's Almeida. This is Who Put Bella In The Wych Elm. An extraordinary four new operas are being premiered here this month alone. There were more than 200 entries for the competition to be one of those staged here. So the man who read those submissions has a pretty good idea what is exciting current composers. It isn't politics.

There has always been a little bit of political opera. If you look back in the past repertoire. But not much. It is perhaps not a subject that opera particularly lends itself to. You're telling stories or addressing issues through music, which is a profoundly emotional medium.

So what sort of characters have appeared in modern operas? Well, Peter Grimes in 1945 was notable for not being a king or duke nor a character from history or mythology. But history and mythology have dominated whether it's the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton or Gawain. Of course, there was the innovation of singing sheep in Yan Tan Tethera. And a singing President Nixon in Nixon In China created a new art form, docu-opera. But many in the opera world remain unconvinced that more of this would be good thing..

An opera about Tony Blair. Now that might be dull. It just depends on how you treat it. Somebody sent us in a treatment of an opera about a political leader and it simply told the story which was very boring. Just their life, not good. But another suggestion about two leaders and their meeting and all the different levels of emotion and understanding and mis-understanding... and that could have been exciting.

So Tony Blair the Opera might not work, but perhaps the emotional turbulence of Tony and Gordon the Opera would!

#What are you saying? #

But there's a deeper issue affecting the ability of new operas to communicate.

The problem with opera is that it's commissioned and run by people who don't have a lot of interest in the world outside opera and that are not very knowledgeable about the world outside opera.

Philip Hensher has written a successful libretto. For him, opera's problem isn't subject matter, it's talent.

What usually happens is that a composer is commissioned to write an opera and also he'll be asked who had he in mind to write the libretto, a very important part of it, you know the drama, the words. Usually what he will say is, 'there's this music critic I know', or 'what about Aunt Marjory?' or worst of all, 'I thought I might write the words myself'. The end result is that you turn up on the opening night, the music is fine, it's been written by a professional composer. The drama has been put together by an abject amateur.

It's not as if there hasn't been a hit contemporary opera, it's just that Jerry Springer the Opera was born here in a fringe theatre. Tom Morris, who commissioned it, feels opera's survival depends on prising it from the elite.

If the right artists from the right backgrounds felt that they were able to go and create and develop new forms of opera, as the natural and most eloquent ways of telling the stories they wanted to tell, which is what I think should happen, then within the mix of that there would be lots of interesting political work.

So more than just new operas, it's a need for new opera composers and writers.

The perception, and to an extent the reality, is that the big opera houses and the form of opera is a set in stone, very expensive and very elitist form, which you can study and learn to love and is enormously beautiful. But it isn't the kind of thing that can either reflect the kinds of lives that most of us lead, or respond very quickly to contemporary events.

To emphasise that point, the next Battersea production is Newsnight The Opera, in which a signing Jeremy Paxman will tussle with Michael Howard. It's meant to be funny! But what about operatic suicide bomber. Well Peter Sellers feels opera too can be serious about politics and tell us things that other art forms can't.

It is about this other spiritual release and moves deeply into the irrational. As long as we're only treating questions as rational, of course you say these suicide bombers it makes no sense. Until, you begin to understand the irrational, the religious, the spiritual, all of these other impulses which are why people really do things. People don't think about it before they kill someone. It is the irrational which is functioning all the time. Music takes you in there, takes you past words, past what people claim they're doing to the place where people really operate. Which is this absolute impulse which is at one level emotional and out of control and another level a spiritual aspiration that is beautiful and opera can capture the ugly and the beautiful like nothing else.

# I must fight for justice.#

Productions about Al-Qaeda or trash TV may not then meet the taste of opera's bow tied high brow but it does pose some questions about an art form which worries addressing such issues on stage is rare, risky and really rather odd.

#I love you.#

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Newsnight's David Sillito
reported on whether opera should become politically engaged, or should it stay just as it is?
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