Tom Sutcliffe on the power of performance


Donald Trump says that the theatre must always be a safe and special place. Nowhere for relevance or political consciousness, that seems to imply. I have not been to Hamilton in New York, but it is pretty rich for a man who used relentless insults in his successful campaign to tweet that. Surely theatre is all about parables. Shakespeare and Burbage nearly got into very hot water for programming Richard II – showing an English monarch murdered – on the eve of the Essex rebellion. Yes, theatre should be free of censorship, a forum for ideas, somewhere specially seeking meaning. But in Verdi’s day censorship was routine for opera, because the music makes opera powerful and opera is an art form concerned with power and private life. British theatre censorship by the Lord Chamberlain lasted till the 1960s. “Safe and special” sounds like Christian sanctuary – though that notion of church rights and responsibility has effectively vanished from our modern consciousness just when it is more needed than ever.

Liberal-minded people like me may have felt in recent decades that things were more the way they should be (and how we liked them). Our eyes have been reopened with a vengeance. I give thanks for a charmed life with no military service, my father and grandfathers having all served. But after Brexit and Trump the state of opera in Britain is just as challenging as our politics. I used to think Brian McMaster describing the Royal Opera House Covent Garden as “a posh restaurant with a theatre attached” was a good joke. I had never done the meal thing in the intervals there, and am usually teetotal at performances. Brian was an innovative and wildly successful boss of Welsh National Opera, before taking over the Edinburgh Festival for 15 years in 1991. But a few weeks back I was taken to the ROH revival of Tales of Hoffmann by a generous friend who had served on the Board of English National Opera. We sat in a balcony-level box almost opposite where I sat in 1959 on my first visit to see Jon Vickers in the bicentenary Samson with my family. An actress-cousin’s theatrical husband was friends with the house manager, and arranged it all for free.

It was a pleasure to renew acquaintance with the lavishly trad 1980 staging by film director John Schlesinger (who died in 2003). I had never before heard Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann: nice tenor voice, not much style, a bit of a Jeremy Clarkson ego quotient. Christine Rice, immaculate as Venetian courtesan Giulietta, was much more thrilling. What shocked me, though, was how hard it is in a box to get drawn in to a performance. At Covent Garden affordable amphitheatre seats are so far from the stage that you cannot see faces and acting without opera glasses. Balcony boxes are closer, but have very awkward sightlines. As a critic I have sat in the stalls since the late 1960s – row M when I edited Music & Musicians magazine, and row E (five from the orchestra) as opera critic of the Evening Standard.

My host did not mind. Perhaps productions do not matter to him. But if opera board members are not passionate about the production as well as the singing and conducting, their scrutiny will be flawed. Is that why English National Opera is on its last legs? Our few performing arts institutions are all run this way – with Boards of businessmen and the great and good to keep arty thespians on the financially straight and narrow. But (according to a wise arts administrator I know) the lack of theatre and opera professionals on those Boards means that their members are out of their depths in alien territory, and inevitably cautious. They always take the easiest option; whereas in business their success came from understanding risk. The Arts Council bigwigs since the Thatcher era are much the same. It would be so much better if in London the Mayor’s office controlled subsidy and helped make dynamic appointments. Think what the Church would be like if bishops had no parish experience.

ENO this season has just one more new production – the world premiere on 27 February 2017 of the Shakespeare-based The Winter’s Tale, composed by Ryan Wigglesworth, their resident young conductor. I just saw their Lulu staged by South African painter William Kentridge, originally staged (and liked) at the Met. Frank Wedekind’s two plays about the eternal feminine are a tale of decline and fall. Lulu ends up being murdered by Jack the Ripper (a role doubled with Dr Schön, her rich newspaper-owning patron and lover after her artist husband cuts his own throat). But this staging, with almost no theatrical realism about it, was all about an artist sketching pictures on a projection mechanism as we watched – extremely distracting and unfocussed. It also had a very poorly cast – Brenda Rae was almost inaudible much of the time in the challenging title role. As always in opera, however, there were compensations: the wonderful Willard White as Schigolch, Lulu’s grubby supposed relative; and Sarah Connolly as the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, who follows her doggedly to disaster. ENO brought in this new production for only five performances. It had a Richard Jones staging not long ago. Crazy.

They have chosen a new artistic director, Daniel Kramer, with very little opera experience. Covent Garden’s choice of Oliver Mears as opera director after Kasper Holten leaves is equally perverse. His Don Giovanni, recently seen for two performances in Belfast and created in Bergen, Norway, was set on a cruise liner and reduced to meaningless farce. As Holten has contracted all the opera plans for the next four years, those offered the Covent Garden opera job (such as, I gather, Pierre Audi) could see no point in going there. After the £5 million subsidy cut at ENO, of course nobody appropriate wanted the job.

Our present performing-arts system is not working. Even national institutions with a known purpose are not understood by our masters; and Times journalist Richard Morrison continues his long, insane, campaign to reduce opera in London to just one company with astronomical ticket prices. We do not subsidise theatre, opera, and classical music just so that a wealthy audience can eat smart meals and enjoy a bit of culture. We do it because it matters for all – and we need to do it more professionally and for a much more extensive public, as the skills it requires are irreplaceable and extremely challenging. Cinema relays are not the answer, though they may extend the market and public appetites. The pyramid of excellence requires a very large skills-base. If we do opera, theatre, and music properly, there is much more product to serve and nurture tastes for this kind of enlightenment that, like libraries and education generally, has all sorts of spin-offs. Culture and Christianity have always supped together. Both partake of the same divine wisdom.