Posts Tagged ‘ Mozart ’

Is Classical Music Relevant: Cambridge Union debate, Stephen Fry and Kissy Sell Out

“The idea that classical music is the province of white-wigged old farts shows a failure of imagination and rank snobbery.”

Thus spake Stephen Fry at a debate in Cambridge last night on the relevance of classical music to today’s youth. His adversaries included Kissy Sell-Out, Radio 1 DJ and critic Greg Sandow. But it was Stephen “dub-step is my life” Fry who stole the show – and indeed won the debate (365 to 57, 88 abstentions). As someone embarking on a career as a classical music journalist I’m obviously pleased with the result, but much of the debate was depressing.

Classical Music

White-wigged old fart?

Over and over the genre was called “elitist”, snobby, exclusive, out of touch. Yet only yesterday morning I was musing with my pianist and conductor house mate as to whether now was the best possible time to be a classical musician – or indeed spectator.

London alone has a healthy clutch of symphony orchestras performing music from Puccini to Pärt, Tippet to Turner, every evening. And there are chamber ensembles across the country, constantly experimenting, performing contemporary music and attracting new audiences. The classical music scene is vibrant, exciting and full of incredibly talented people.

Nor is it fair to call the classical music world elitist. Opera houses and concert halls are busting their gut strings to show young people that the door is open, there are comfy seats waiting for them and –look – you don’t even have to wear a suit.

This summer I will be going to the Glyndebourne opera festival for the second time in as many years. Last year my ticket was £30, this year it is £20 – both special deals for the under 30s. And the OAE are forever throwing late night events with tickets for just £5 – which always seem to sell out. Thanks to these initiatives, classical concerts are full of young people just enjoying the music and, rare from worrying about it’s relevance, they are simply thankful that for a few brief moments, they are transported away from worries about exams, boyfriends, school gangs, fashion, essays or emails. It’s just them and the music.

Why this concern over relevance anyway? Why can’t classical music just be enjoyable, moving, terrifying, thrilling, transcendental, beautiful, staggering, heart-breaking, cheeky, humorous, thought-provoking or threatening? Pop music may use the language of the young, refer to Twitter, video games and clubs but it is the toilet paper of the music world: a one-use item. It is relevant today, gone tomorrow. Classical music, by contrast, is vellum – it might take a bit of blood to produce, but will be around long after the toilet paper has disintegrated.

The brilliant Benjamin Grosvenor (very much not wearing a white wig)

And the, ahem, toilet paper

The whole debate will be available to view at

The opera audience: a rare two-headed beast

During the interval of a recent production of Mozart’s Cos­­ì fan tutte, my obligatory interval ice cream was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.

“Can you please explain to me why everyone in the audience is either in their 80s or 20s?” asked the woman behind me.

What a stupid question, I thought. Had she never been to the opera before? But of course, she had a point. The modern opera audience is a strange two-headed beast, a Cerberus of the stalls: rich, older people still make up the core but the less wealthy under-30s are increasingly present. And opera houses are tying themselves in knots trying to please this pushmi pullyu of an audience.

Dr Dolittle's Pushmi Pullyu

The Pushmi Pullyu

This odd situation has come about because of opera houses’ fascination with the young: their borderline-unhealthy obsession with attracting the under-30s. Every opera house in Britain – and the world over – has ploughed vast sums into projects and “initiatives” (shudder) in an attempt to “widen participation.”

Only recently the Lyric Opera house in Chicago announced that operatic diva Renée Fleming was to become its first ever creative consultant. Fleming’s role, according to the venue, will primarily be to broaden its audience, come up with education projects and work on their web marketing strategy. In other words, try to get the young’uns in. Which is all well and good, but at what cost to opera?

Opera is not the most accessible of art forms – it is often in a foreign language, the emotions expressed are usually highly exaggerated and the plots rarely dip below the ridiculous. What’s more, characters like Mozart’s Dorabella, who professes undying love to her fiancé one minute and then sort of forgets him – ‘cos she’s a girl – and gets engaged to his best friend, don’t wash with modern, post-feminist audiences. And don’t get me started on Tosca or Isolde.

But there’s no point apologising for this: opera plots are only a vehicle for the music. That’s where the real drama happens: the music, if you’ll pardon the expression, is where it’s at.

Castel Sant Angelo

Opera’s pleasures spring from its difficulties. Trying to deny this does the form a disservice: that’s why last year’s Royal Opera House project to make a Twitter opera achieved little more than a rash of headlines and why terms like “initiatives to widen participation” make me want to follow Tosca in her leap off the Castel Sant Angelo. No self-respecting young person would be fooled by these attempts to be “cool” – the operatic equivalent of a mid-life crisis.

A good opera production will appeal to any discerning culture vulture – young or old.

Simple, gimic-free, well-staged productions will do more to broaden opera audiences than any futuristic, circus-inspired, gangsta-rap version of La Traviata.

By all means make the ticket prices affordable, advertise productions on facebook and Twitter. But don’t compromise on the product. Opera, like theatre, is a great art form and opera houses shouldn’t feel they have to apologise for it.

Cosi fan Tutte, Royal Academy of Music: review

Women: they’re all the same. That’s the message of Così fan Tutte, one of Mozart’s most loved and well-known operas.

An old teacher, Alfonso, delivers a lecture on the unfaithfulness of women – explaining that they can’t help being

Royal Academy of Music Cosi fan Tutte
Image by Mark Whitehouse, Royal Academy of Music

fickle as it’s in their DNA. Two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, protest that their girlfriends are different. The teacher laughs at their naivety and suggests a bet that the two girls, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will betray their boyfriends within 24 hours. The two men agree, disguise themselves as strangers and test their girlfriends’ loyalty.

In this production by Royal Academy Opera, conducted by Jane Glover, director John Cox has moved the story to the modern day – there are mobile phones, laptops and the alcopop WKD probably plays more of a role than Mozart intended. The opera also becomes a giant science experiment. To emphasize the point, Gary McCann’s design has the walls coated with graph paper and a giant sculpture of the DNA helix hangs from the ceiling.

As the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, Katie Bray and Ruth Jenkins are giggly, wide-eyed girls. They text their fiancés on their mobiles and kiss the screens. Bray as Dorabella is the sillier of the two: flighty, excitable and attracted, magpie-like, to pretty jewels. We know she will be the first to fall, and so it proves. The scene in which she is seduced is beautifully sung and simply staged: Charles Rice’s rich baritone and Bray’s full-toned mezzo-soprano communicate the complex emotions of the two characters and create one of the most memorable scenes of the evening.

Jenkins’ Fiodiligi puts up more of a fight, agonising over her changeable heart. The aria in which she asks her absent lover to forgive her (“per pieta”) is moving and heart-felt. As Jenkins tears out her hair, however, Bray’s Dorabella happily skips around, painting her nails and chatting about her new boyfriend.

The sisters are encouraged in their unfaithfulness by their landlady, Despina. Mary Bevan in the role is all high-heels and bling. She totters around the stage teaching the young girls to flirt and flutter their eyelashes. Her aria on the unfaithfulness of men provides some balance in the plot and Bevan manages to suggest an interesting back-story for her flibbertigibbet character.

The two men, Roberto Ortiz as Ferrando and Charles Rice as Guglielmo, are cartoonish: first in their passionate attempts to seduce the two girls, and then in their rage when they submit. Frederick Long as the puppet-master of the experiment, Alfonso, manages to undercut the lovers’ emotions throughout.

Although the first half feels strained, the singers relax in the second and begin to revel in their roles. While the staging is sometimes too static, overall, the calibre of the singing is high enough to carry Cox’s hands-off direction.


The Magic Flute, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Upstairs at the GatehouseThe Magic Flute, Mozart
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Translation: Stephen Fry
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

With panpipes, enchanted bells and a family tree more complex than any Shakespeare ever penned, The Magic Flute is utter nonsense. But that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of Mozart’s best-loved works. Hampstead Garden Opera’s production, directed by James Hurley, deals with the sillness and the childish japes, much more successfully than the darker parts of the tale.

Prince Tamino is rescued from an evil demon (it’s a serpent in the original) by three ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. Said nocturnal monarch asks Tamino to rescue her daughter, Pamina, whom she says has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Tamino, on seeing a picture of Pamina, falls instantly in love – as only opera heroes can. He is accompanied on his quest by a feather-brained bird catcher, Papageno – who provides every laugh of the evening.

William Balkwill’s Tamino is all chinos and cut-glass RP: Balkwill does a good turn as the dull but nice “Prince Charming” – though his voice sounds a touch strained at times. Papageno, played by Samuel Queen, gets all the good lines in an otherwise surprisingly pedestrian libretto by Stephen Fry. What Queen lacks in richness of tone, he makes up for in charisma. A nod should go to costume designer Madeleine Millar for the brilliant bird-patterned “onesies” (an adult baby-grow) sported by Papageno and Papagena.

But the men are outshone by the women in this production. Viki Hart, as the Queen of the Night dazzles with pin-point coloratura and a beautifully luscious sound. The Queen’s famous aria is without doubt one of the highlights of the evening, sparking calls of “Bravo” from the audience. As her daughter, Pamina, Raphaela Papadakis is endearing and moving by turns. Her mellow sound proves particularly poignant in singing of Pamina’s pain when she thinks Tamino no longer loves her. Elsewhere, the three ladies (Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King) are impressive.

Several motifs have been added to Mozart’s original by Hurley: a doll’s house, a voodoo Barbie and Ken (probably not coming to a store near you soon), vast quantities of alcohol and a giant toy box. The voodoo dolls create some arresting scenes, proving particularly effective as a literalisation of the Queen of the Night’s psychological manipulation of her daughter. The doll’s house, however, is more perplexing – I think the story is supposed to be taking place inside it, though I’m not sure.

The Dionysus Ensemble, under the baton of Musical Director Oliver-John Ruthven, has some shaky moments and it occasionally feels as if they aren’t quite working with the singers but parallel to them. Generally, Hurley’s production rattles too quickly over the more complex plot points, making the story hard to follow for those unfamiliar with the tale and it loses momentum during the “Masonic” scenes in Sarastro’s court. But there are some stunning moments in this production – courtesy of a couple of true stars-in-waiting.

Runs until 14 November

This review first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

What’s On this Week

Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow, Finborough Theatre

Walter Greenwood’s tale of 1930s Salford in the midst of mass unemployment and poverty.

“With their father out of work, the burden of keeping the family together falls to Sally Hardcastle and her brother, Harry, as they desperately fight to break free from the shackles of poverty.”

Cosi fan Tutte, by Mozart, Royal Opera House

Jonathan Miller’s updated production of Mozart’s classic – if rather anti-feminist – tale of the fickle nature of women. This ultra-modern production apparently even involves iphones.

Blood and Gifts, by J T Rogers, National Theatre

Originally seen in a shorter version in The Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game season.

“1981. As the Soviet army burns its way through Afghanistan and toward the critical Pakistani border, CIA operative Jim Warnock is sent to try and halt its bloody progress. Joining forces with a larger than life Afghan warlord, and with the Pakistani and British secret services, Jim spearheads the covert struggle.”

House of Games, by David Mamet, adapted by Richard Bean, Almeida Theatre

David Mamet’s thriller about the con, high-stakes poker and gambling, adapted for the stage by Richard Bean.

“This is a confidence game, not because you give me your confidence, but because I give you mine.”

A Disappearing Number, by Complicite, Novello Theatre

A revival of Complicite’s 2007 play about mathematical patterns and puzzles and the men who spent their lives pondering them. This production will also be broadcast as part of the NT Live season on 14 October.