The new and the old

Tom Sutcliffe evaluates the cultural contribution made by two very modern operas which proved highly popular with their audiences

I have been having quite a lot to do with ‘the new’ in recent weeks. In Chichester for my last delegation visit as a member of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England, I was listening to much dubious theological justification for Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa’s sculpture of a severed hand, which the Chapter wants to hang above the Arundel screen right in the heart of the building. If the CFCE permits it, Walter Hussey will be honoured as few deans have ever been in any British cathedral.

Now, Hussey was a remarkable collector and commissioner of new works of art, and his impact on the cathedral was unprecedented in the quantity of noticeable and notable works that he set in place. But I wonder whether a detached ‘blessing’ hand, made out of unlovely stainless steel, with its shape created by a ‘skin’ of letters from various world alphabets which the artist has arranged as surface matter that you need a telescope to see, would have met with Walter’s approval. The hand which is supposed to be his memorial will serve no purpose except to shout ‘look at me’, without clearly indicating the story or notion that it exists to serve.

This is conceptual art, of course, self-consciously modern and extremely fashionable these days. We are supposed to warm to this manifestation of the hand of God, Jesus blessing us, except that we have to imagine Jesus up there – when all we can actually see is this peculiarly indicated hand. Blessing is specific and contextual: it is meaningless if merely generalized. The blessing is that which is hoped for: should it be counted on or presumed?


The Royal Opera had a big hit with Anna Nicole, composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Here was another concept work in many ways, an opera about a genuine recently dead famed person who actually is traduced, reduced and in many ways completely ridiculed by this work. The public liked the subject matter and the words by Richard Thomas, who composed the music and the text for Jerry Springer the Opera. The exercise entertained because it was full of self-consciously vulgar jokes, which the public enjoyed enjoying. Critics concerned about ‘the future of music’ tended to disapprove.

The heroine (whose ‘real’ name was Vickie Lynn Hogan) was not naturally favoured with enormous breasts: she had them added as a career move. Actually her work as a model and film star was successful, and she capped it by marrying the extremely rich J. Howard Marshall, 62 years older than her, as her second husband. His family objected, of course, and they went on fighting to stop ‘their’ money going to an undeserving cause long after Anna’s death at only 39.

Compared with operas that matter, or even operas that merely entertain, Turnage’s work was a predictable affair. There was not really an operatic job to be done with the story, which is all about celebrity and the excess that fame can generate. The story was ‘true’, but it felt like a tragicomic invented sitcom, signified little and made only a very slight emotional impact. It was all staged and performed with tremendous panache – and Antonio Pappano, the boss of the Royal Opera, conducting brought all his skill, energy and charm to bear. It was not meant to move or challenge us, just glitter – and the staging by Richard Jones was coldhearted and precisely calculated. The Dutch star in the title role, Eva-Maria Westbroek. But the justification for all the effort and expense had to be the originality of the opera and its potential to challenge an existing work dealing ironically with very similar themes: Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Unfortunately Turnage lacks the melodic gift that allowed Weill to enhance both popular and serious culture with the earlier work.

A cynical exercise

The Heretic at the Royal Court Theatre was a rather cynical exercise by Richard Bean, who has a good eye for subject matter in the theatre. Once again, as in his controversial National Theatre commission England People Very Nice, Bean was challenging political correctness. The wonderful Juliet Stevenson plays a professor of paleogeophysics at a nameless university who is notorious for not accepting the popular orthodoxies that are supposed to explain climate change. But this ‘meaty’ topic is dealt with in a domestic history that is never really convincingly lifelike. If the plot seems like an unreal fantasy, how seriously can the argumentation about environmental matters be taken? Issue plays and operas do not amount to a very substantial contribution to the culture. Mere entertainment is not justification enough when the issue is serious.

And what actually distinguished Walter, whose first head chorister I was in Chichester, was the firmness of his taste and the unerring conviction that it reflected about functionality and enjoyment. The fact that Anna Nicole and The Heretic were so enjoyed does indeed recommend them somewhat. But do they tell the truth and are they in their way well wrought and beautiful? Plensa’s conceptually blessing hand is undoubtedly well conceived in its way: Plensa is very clever with letters and functional shapes, even if the letters never mean anything much. The issue ultimately is one of taste. New this play, this opera, this sculpture may be. But in their place and in the role they serve, are they demonstrations of appropriate taste? Are they fitting? Or are they, as I fear, in poor taste? ND