BBC Music Magazine

Richard Morrison

Is it appropriat­e for opera composers to write about modern-day atrocities?

- Richard Morrison is chief music critic and a columnist of The Times

Are grim news stories acceptable subjects for operas?

Can anything and everything be turned into art? Is the entire human condition fair game for a writer, painter or composer? Or are some real-life subjects so horrific or still so fresh that they should be off limits, at least until those caught up in them are no longer around to be offended?

That was certainly the view of the German philosophe­r Theodor Adorno, who declared that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. But he said that in 1949, just four years after the full horror of the Holocaust had become known to the wider world, and when it seemed to some as if the human species had permanentl­y lost its humanity, and therefore forfeited the right to amuse itself by creating beautiful things such as music, poetry and paintings.

Today’s opera composers exhibit no such qualms about utilising horrific contempora­ry events. Next year (but already much publicised) Grange Park Opera will premiere an opera called The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko that will chronicle the real-life poisoning in London of a former Russian spy – killed by polonium-210, a radioactiv­e substance. It was apparently slipped into his tea by assassins identified by the British authoritie­s as Russian secretserv­ice agents.

It’s true that this happened 13 years ago, and that Litvinenko’s widow Marina is said to be ‘co-operating’ with the composer and librettist (Anthony Bolton and Kit Hesketh-harvey). But only last year two Russians assassins reprised this ghastly atrocity in Salisbury, killing an innocent British victim and harming others, as well as inflicting a life-threatenin­g nerveagent on their intended targets, Sergei

and Yulia Skripal. What deeper understand­ing can an opera possibly bring to this subject that acres of newspaper analysis have not already provided? And in any case, isn’t it in poor taste to turn a horrific murder into a country-house opera entertainm­ent, when grieving relatives are still alive?

In defence of Grange Park, this isn’t the first contempora­ry opera to depict violent present-day events. Most famously, John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffe­r portrayed, only six years after it happened, the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinia­n terrorists and the murder of a disabled Jewish man. It was respectful­ly received, except by those who felt Adams had been too ‘even-handed’ in his treatment of the Israeli/palestinia­n conflict. And four years ago English National Opera staged Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds which, in the style of a disaster movie, focused on five people trapped in the World Trade Center on 11 September, 2001.

Nor is it only terrorism that provides controvers­ial present-day subjects. Davies’s most recent opera, Cave, depicts a man facing a civilisati­on-ending ecological disaster. It carries a clear ‘Extinction Rebellion’-type message (‘cave’, you may remember from your schooldays, means ‘beware’ in Latin). In that respect, it echoes Giorgio Battistell­i’s global-warming opera CO2, premiered at La Scala, Milan in 2015. Meanwhile, Jake Heggie’s acclaimed Dead Man Walking, which Welsh National Opera performs this summer, is a kind of protest-opera set on death row in a modern American prison.

What explains this trend? There is, I believe, a genuine and laudable desire among opera companies to address contempora­ry issues directly, rather than presenting yet another smartypant­s production updating a 18th- or 19th- century classic to, say, a modern inner-city slum. On top of that, there’s also an understand­able worry among composers and librettist­s that today’s audiences have a limited knowledge of the Greek and Roman legends that were, for centuries, the most fertile source of operatic subject matter.

I can’t help thinking, however, that there’s also an element of gimmickry or, at the very least, opportunis­m about some of these new commission­s. One gets the impression of opera companies scrabbling around desperatel­y for ways of attracting new punters from outside the diminishin­g ranks of loyal subscriber­s happy to see the same twodozen masterpiec­es endlessly recycled.

Fair enough, if these new controvers­y-based operas really do bring in first-time opera-goers who are thrilled enough to return again and again. But not if the spectacle of secret-service assassins or terrorists bursting into song strikes newcomers as utterly fatuous and incongruou­s. Then they will go away thinking that opera is an even more ludicrous artform than they had already suspected.

One gets the impression of opera companies scrabbling around to attract new punters

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