Tom Sutcliffe yearns for a greater championing of British opera

Peter Phillips, the musical entrepreneur who created and conducts the Tallis Scholars, says that he cares that opera, ‘a form of entertainment that gives some people a lot of pleasure’, should flourish. I worry, however, that he does not seem to understand the costs of any live theatrical performance involving more than a choir-size handful. He also seems to opine that opera should just be for the rich who fancy it. His Spectator column headed ‘ENO Must Go’ concluded that ‘if people want The Mikado, they can pay for it. If they want the Ring, they can pay for that too.’ He cannot have noticed how little live spoken theatre there is in urban areas outside London, let alone opera.

I don’t believe in majority taste. No referendum will endorse opera as fervently as capital punishment, though perhaps public libraries might be democratically approved. London should only need Covent Garden, he feels; and less opera might mean more comfort for the Tallis Scholars.

Phillips seemingly assumes that the arts in the USA do not get subsidy. In fact, the system of tax kickbacks and deductions permitted by the Revenue over there provides substantial life-support for opera, theatre, music, dance, galleries, and museums – not to mention private universities. Labour-intensive live performing arts like opera and theatre have rarely made serious money even in this age of mechanised reproduction and digitalised memory. There is either the German way, where a portion of public expenditure (€3 billion annually for opera) is channelled via the federal Länder and city mayors; or the American way (perhaps more pluralistic but also far more effortful and expensive) where individuals decide or are persuaded to give some of what they would otherwise pay in tax to not-for-profit institutions the Revenue deems worthy and appropriate.

It is often said Shakespeare died rich from performance profits. Recusant composers Byrd and Tallis made money thanks to music publishing monopolies granted by Elizabeth I. They also held important posts and had Court patronage. Shakespeare – as a partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) – also had official status and dutie at Court, which brought rewards. In those days of state control and censorship he and Burbage needed official support. Jacobean England was scarcely capitalism as we know it now.

Opera is challenging for all concerned, including the audience. Staging opera is like running a military campaign; albeit less bloody. For the performers and their auxiliaries many actions need to coincide: it takes planning and manufacturing skills.

Rehearsals are needed not just by the upper crust of performers. It can be miniaturised and you can ignore elements it needs. But it is sad that someone with such a reputation for fine performances of choral church music as Peter Phillips should attack an art form as serious as opera.

Byrd and Tallis’s wondrous polyphony was to accompany highly theatrical and choreographed representations of fundamental Christian truths. Opera is a glorious expansion of the sermon, powered to feed the five thousand with vital ideas, and involving contextual tales realised in colourful narrative drama in ways that will shock us into rethinking many of our assumptions. Opera makes us think and feel. Dr Johnson thought it an ‘irrational entertainment’, but its potent marriage of singing voice and text embodies an utterly lifelike dynamic. Maybe some court masques staged by Inigo Jones with texts by Ben Jonson were just entertainment. But opera deserves to be regarded as a living equivalent to the greatest paintings of Velasquez, Titian, or Leonardo.

Opera North is about to present in Leeds, Nottingham, Gateshead, Salford, and London a series of semi-staged concert performances of the Ring because it cannot afford to put on actual proper stagings. Putting on the Ring destroyed Scottish Opera, leading to the loss of its permanent chorus and its orchestra. Politicians are of course unimpressed if a chorus is being paid but doing nothing. Only one of the four Ring operas needs a chorus, and then of men only. Chorus contracts should detail what work the pay is for. But with an opera company not doing many performances, what should ‘full-time’ mean?

ENO has had a heartening success with its new production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. I am not a Glass fan, but the music – though as lacking in dramatic colour or tension as Carl Orff’s Antigone and Oedipus – has some interest. However, the subject does not interest me because the words (which I had to read because they were inaudible) and situation are so superficial. In 1985, first time round at ENO, it was more engaging. The trouble is that Phelim McDermott’s staging is all circus and choreography. The American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) makes his entrance naked – which does not add realism. It is all ritual, unlike last time here. But the punters like spectacular, so it has sold well – helping ENO in its present crisis.

At Covent Garden, Richard Jones’s production of Boris Godunov was cleaned up and also choreographed – with a mime repeated four times on the upper level of the set, showing the true Dmitry as a boy having his throat cut. No Polish scenes or grand operatic romance. Even the usually primitive inn, where the disreputable monk Varlaam sings a rattling aria (splendidly done by John Tomlinson) was just a neat counter. Very designer-ish. But Ben Knight, head choirboy at All Saints, Kingston-upon-Thames, took the role of the Tsarevich Fyodor brilliantly – much better than the usual little mezzo-soprano. Ain Anger as Pimen and Kostas Smoriginas as Shchelkalov added the dark bass tones the opera needs. Maestro Pappano as usual got good playing and plotted the course well. Boris’s musically memorable coronation had the bonus of a colourfully dressed chorus. But I found the production cold and unfeeling. Neither Bryn Terfel in the title role, nor John Graham-Hall as the wily Prince Shuisky were cast right. Terfel has a fabulous bass but lacks those earthy black tones Boris needs, suggesting fate and angst. He is too eupeptic, and with his soft beard and sheepskins resembled at the end a dead sheep on a hillside.

English Touring Opera drew packed audiences at the Hackney Empire, and are now on the road all over the UK with Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei, and Don Giovanni. The movement on stage and the sets and costumes may only be passable. But the conducting is good, and the singing of some roles has merit. ETO manages on very little subsidy, but is filling a hole successfully. On the other hand, if this is the new norm for most opera in Britain, people who want the full works will have to go abroad for their fix.