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