Tom Sutcliffe considers the state of opera on the radio and mixed-sex Cathedral choirs
Something has gone seriously wrong with opera on radio. The BBC used to have a proper opera department that recorded complete rarities and knew how to cast (led with distinction by Elaine Padmore before she ran the Wexford Opera Festival, Copenhagen and Covent Garden). But for years now it has often lazily taken relays from the New York Met, and largely ignored what was going on at the opera houses of Britain and Europe. Frankly, standards of performance at provincial houses are often not so different from the star-obsessed opera capitals, and most people listening to radio are more interested in a stream of good works than in who is performing.
But there is another aspect that has occurred to me. One Thursday afternoon recently I found myself listening to the opening of Eugene Onegin, a work I adore. It was being rebroadcast—a performance from Covent Garden recorded and used in 2016—to mark the death at 55 from a brain tumour of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the heroic Russian baritone whose elegance and vocal beauty stopped Bryn Terfel winning the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the Year competition. Obviously it was a memorial event, but hearing the opera, which I know very well, in the original Russian was less rewarding than I would have liked. Hvorostovsky was inevitably not as he had been when in full bloom and I do not understand Russian, though I know the drift of what characters are saying at various points.
In opera the meaning of the words is a crucial part of the experience, which is one reason why surtitles above the stage have become so universal and appreciated and many people have concluded that original language trumps translation every time. When I saw this opera at Covent Garden for the first time in 1971 and was utterly bewitched by it, they performed it in English. Peter Hall’s wonderful production with designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman also boasted Ileana Cotrubas as Tatyana, the charming Romanian soprano who had played Cavalli’s La Calisto at Glyndebourne in 1970. In fact it was not until the 1980s that Hall’s Onegin at the Garden reverted sometimes to Tchaikovsky’s original Russian.
On radio there are no surtitles, yet performances on Radio 3 of great operas in English are very rare these days, even though these are broadcasts for English-speaking listeners few of whom will be reaching for a textbook or sleevenote to help them understand what is going on and being sung. Of course opera sounds lovely in a language you do not understand, but it is an ‘instrumental’ sound, not meaningful. You are none the wiser about that crucial aspect of opera: how the singer communicates meaning and identity through text as well as melody. That brings me to another thought about choirboys and Christmas. Everybody assumes it is unjust that choirgirls are not treated as much as choirboys to the benefits of a choral education, which is also (incidentally) about having adult responsibility as a musical performer at an age when some people think you should not be ‘pressured’ in case it ‘damages’ you.
The problem of choirgirls is of course yet another demonstration of a fundamental difference between the genders about which it is important to be very clear. Boys’ voices in all their beauty have a sell-by date; girls’ voices don’t. Indeed you have only to listen to the disaster of equivalence between boys and girls at Salisbury Cathedral stemming from the Stancliffe/Osborne decision in the 1990s to pursue equality really hard to appreciate that this is an issue, and something special is easily lost. I recently heard Salisbury on Radio 3 doing evensong, and I have to say that there is little musical merit in mixing boys’ and girls’ voices in a choir. They cancel each other’s special aspects out. It is also true of course that prepubescent boys and girls are by nature disposed to not want to mix much, to prefer to live in their own worlds—however little pushed by their modern liberal parents to conform to masculine or feminine stereotypes.
Boys need to be worked hard, rather as ballet-dancers and violinists of both sexes must be from an early age, to get the desired results. When I was a chorister at Chichester, where alas the Prebendal School is now coeducational with a headmistress, and the choir which used to be almost a third of the pupils (in 1952) is now less than a tenth, we sang services for 42 weeks of the year; now there are no full-time boarders, they barely sing for 36 weeks, and the little dears are expected to be restored to their families for three nights every week. There is no girls’ choir, otherwise the boys would work even less hard.
Girls’ choirs are good for modern repertory. It’s good for musical girls to have the chance to perform in a seriously capable choir that uses their special quality, which gradually builds to female maturity through puberty. The solution is for a cathedral’s musical establishment to be enlarged so that it can supply choral servicing to selected shrine churches elsewhere in the diocese that otherwise would not manage to have that draw. Hit the road with your musical selling point: alternating the boys and the girls with their adults (women contraltos rather than countertenors, which we had of course when I was a Chichester chorister in the 1950s)! Touring has always been a vital part of evangelism from Jesus onwards. Spread the word, and the nourishing music.