Thursday, 14 February 2019

Chilled to perfection: 'Anthropocene'

There's something particularly exciting about seeing a new opera - by which I mean brand new (not just new to me). The opportunity to go in completely 'cold' - very appropriate in this case - and treat the work much like a first encounter with a book or film, with no idea of what to expect or how things will turn out... it's surprisingly rare. Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of Scottish Opera's production of 'Anthropocene' - the latest collaboration from Stuart MacRae (music) and Louise Welsh (words) - was that the opera itself carried those feelings of exhilaration and suspense right through into the action. I left Hackney Empire as wrung out with the tension as I would have been by any Christie play or Hitchcock film.

(image copyright Scottish Opera)

Much like one of those dramas, our characters are contained in a confined space: the ship 'Anthropocene', owned by Harry King, an egotistical businessman who has financed the Arctic research expedition for which the vessel was built. King himself is on board, along with his daughter Daisy; Miles, a journalist King has hired to write up the voyage; crewmen Ross and Vasco; and last but not least, the leader of the expedition, Professor Prentice with her husband Charles, also a scientist.

(Pause for thought: Although the run is now over - and the programme includes a synopsis and complete libretto - I will try and avoid including too many spoilers. I think there's every chance the piece will be revived or recorded, and hopefully enter 'the repertoire', and the more people who get to experience it without full knowledge of the evening's surprises, the better.)

As the opera begins, Charles, Daisy and Miles are away from the ship, exploring the ice. Back on deck, as the water freezes around the Anthropocene, Prentice has the agonising decision of whether to leave while the ship can still move, or wait for the party to return. She makes up her mind to go, but too late: they remain trapped. Meanwhile, the trio come back with an unexpected discovery - a block of ice with a body suspended inside.

On seeing the creature's eyes move, Vasco breaks the block apart to reveal a young woman, who we come to know only as 'Ice'. Various divided loyalties and hidden motivations among the crew cause the group to fracture - especially as, for horrifying reasons, rescue seems increasingly impossible. In the meantime, Ice gradually recovers her faculties, and ultimately her memory of her origins and identity. These two plot strands - one rooted in a grimly human psychological horror, the other in a more timeless, mystical register - beautifully converge at the end of the opera, as the characters are faced with a dilemma that renders their scientific reasoning and emotional instincts inseparable.

I loved pretty much everything about this. In particular, the production makes brilliant use of the way time moves in opera - how we take it as read that what we do see is likely to happen very slowly (everyone has to sing everything for a start), and that certain leaps might be made elsewhere for storytelling economy. 'Anthropocene' absolutely thrives on this stuff. Just as the characters wait for rescue, we the audience suffer our own, relentless, ruthless delays: the almost unbearable opening scene when we're already unsure if all the characters will start the opera alive; the nervous circling of the still-intact block; Miles's drawn-out, desperate attempts to speak to his editor over the phone; the patient coaxing of Ice's first words... and this is all just Act I.

Yet for all that, the opera feels pacy - it bends time both ways. On several occasions, we need to keep our eyes on all corners of the stage: what is character X up to while we listen to Y speaking to Z? Even the interval is pressed into service (and apologies for the slight spoiler here): as the curtain opens on the severe winter of Act II, the characters are visibly more frozen, their suddenly snow-white faces like death-masks. Their haunted, monochrome expressions - so matter-of-factly present - are a visual coup worthy of any horror film, plunging you back into the situation in an instant, washing any interval warmth away. Among them, Ice walks, unaffected, in a t-shirt.

(Production photos from Scottish Opera website, by James Glossop)

The staging and overall look of the thing - stylised yet not completely surreal - are crucial to the atmosphere. Again, there are filmic gestures: the name 'ANTHROPOCENE' is prominently displayed at the front of the stage, looking like an elegant title-card, but in fact forming the name on the ship itself. The sides of the deck compress our view almost into a 4:3 'Academy ratio' screen shape reminiscent of old monster movies.

I enjoyed the way that the characters' suits were colour-coded - possibly a function of King's ego to establish a hierarchy? He clothes himself and daughter Daisy in red; Prentice and Charles in orange; Ross and Vasco in navy (I think!) and loner Miles - with no on-board ally - in light blue. As the action progresses and loyalties blur and dissolve, these codes are abandoned until everyone - literally in the same boat - is in white.

I had the luxury of a great seat, close to the stage (not usually an option for me somewhere like the Royal Opera House!) - and I felt privileged to see such accomplished acting and singing from the cast. As I've hinted at before, facial expression is vital for the piece to operate at full power, and in a story like this - where almost every character is at the limit of their physical endurance for a sustained period of time - we're talking about real dramatic commitment. I can't remember seeing a group of performers quite as intensely 'on' as this - able to deliver the sung conversations with real conviction while shivering, crumpling, on the point of collapse. Benedict Nelson's Miles was an absolute masterclass here: constantly watchful, terrified, scheming while near-deranged with panic: a bold, selfless, charismatic turn.

Other standouts included Jeni Bern's Prentice: through her character, we seem to investigate the irony that this woman of science is buffeted by heightened emotion, trauma and superstition - in other words, a more traditional/sexist view of the 'feminine', especially in opera - but at no point does she weaken or waver from her convictions. Even her final decision - which will send friends out arguing into the night - is reasoned and thought through, for right or wrong. Bern sang the role with finely-wrought steel, giving the scientist a genuine tenderness in a beautifully-judged scene with Charles, but with the necessary grit and wilfulness of one in charge.

Jennifer France made a captivating Ice - her crystalline soprano voice perfect for the brittle nature of the character: the superb scene where she essentially learns to speak again, so can only get the words out in staccato bursts at the top of her range... it really felt like the fall of a tiny shard, or intermittent drop. It looked to this lay listener like a massive technical challenge - worth it, for such a spine-chillingly effective result.

But then, what a piece the cast had to work with. Stuart MacRae's score - in the hands of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, conducted by their Music Director Stuart Stratford - felt so flexible and versatile. Lyrical when a short-lived sense of relief was needed (Daisy and Vasco's flirtation, mirrored with the older, more lived-in love of Prentice and Charles, that I mentioned above)… but elsewhere, the orchestra were made to stretch and groan with each lurch of the ship and crack of the ice - at one point the Arctic wind whistled so convincingly I thought the pit might freeze over. The contrast he created between phenomenal climactic crescendos and unnerving near-silences moved me nearer and nearer the edge of my seat.

Louise Welsh's libretto is a handsome achievement in its own right: the economy of expression allows the dialogue to 'snap', even at opera speed. Ice speaks with a folk-poetic turn of phrase ("Only blood can melt the waters") that marks her out as something other. King's Boy's-Own nautical obsessions bleed into his language as he imagines his businesses "crashing against the rocks". The scene between Prentice and Charles that I keep mentioning - because it still haunts me - merges the worldly and otherworldly as Prentice tries to shake off her nightmares, when she momentarily accesses Ice's poetry ("Sleep unlocks labyrinths … Death wound itself around me") but speaks to Charles with an open-hearted clarity: "I love you but I had to make a choice".

Seeing 'Anthropocene' with next to no advance knowledge was an unforgettable experience - but even though I now know all its secrets, I just wish I could see it again. Let's hope for a recording or return to the stage - we don't want this one to melt away.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Retrospecstive 2018: live

It has taken me a little longer than I expected (so long, January!) to get this post together, but finally! Following my round-up of favourite recordings from 2018, here is its companion post, looking back at the 18 (or so - was close to running out of countable digits) live events that really stood out for me over the year.

Where I wrote about the performance at the time, I've quoted from (and linked to) the relevant post, as those descriptions are inevitably more vivid. But one of the pleasures of this survey is that I can still draw attention to some of the great events I was lucky to attend but didn't get the chance to write about at the time.

I hope you enjoy it. It's more or less chronological through the year, so (cue wobbly flashback screen effect) we rewind all the way to January 2018 with...


Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Milton Court)

(Photograph by Kaupo Kikkas)

The glorious EPCC focusing on music from their homeland. I wrote:

"The first half was given over to the hypnotic serenity of Pärt's music, highlights for me being the 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc dimittis' that appear on the Choir's latest recording, along with the powerfully direct 'The Woman with the Alabaster Box'. These glorious rendition inspired a somewhat devout response from the audience, held rapt, with no applause given (or invited) until the interval. The second half was a bit more chilled out - and gave full rein to the Choir's versatility. Alongside the Harvey, we heard a pair of gorgeous Psalm settings by Kreek, and finally two pieces by Tormis. The closing song was a tour de force: the mythological, almost surreal 'Raua needmine', or 'Curse upon Iron', which gave us a pounding, ritualistic drum (one of the tenors having the time of his life), underpinning evocative and at times terrifying vocal effects. A stunning climax to an evening characterised by conductor Kaspars Putniņš's ability to draw a wide range of dynamics from his singers, allowing many of them the chance to shine as individuals amid the collective sound."

More here.

Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton (Wigmore Hall)

A beautiful, personally heartfelt recital focusing on parenthood - and displaying the versatility of both performers in a programme ranging from Schumann and Mahler lieder to a startling new song cycle from Helen Grime - by way of Britten and Ives. My advice - never pass up an opportunity to hear Ruby Hughes sing if you can help it. (And buy her album with JM, 'Nocturnal Variations'.)

Barb Jungr & John McDaniel perform Sting (Pizza Express Jazz at the Pheasantry)

This superb duo unites one of the UK's greatest singers and interpreters teams up with one of the US's finest arrangers. Perhaps an unexpected songbook to choose... until you hear what they do with it. I wrote:

"Here, you could detect a sense of missionary zeal as if aware that for some listeners, they would be making a case for the material. As such, they were a Formidable Unit. It's hard to imagine two performers more determinedly in sync. Immaculate two-part harmonies, sometimes sustained for virtually entire songs, inventively exploiting her deeper, fuller timbre against his lighter tones. Moments where BJ would embellish the basic tune - one I keep thinking about is the 'Confront your enemies, avoid them when you can' lyric from 'Englishman in New York', where on 'avoid' she found something else in the melody, and JMcD instantly mirrored it in his accompaniment, the songs seemingly effortlessly wrapping themselves around his fingers."

More here.

Raf & O as 'The Kick Inside' perform the songs of Kate Bush (Temple Pier)

This is no simple tribute, but a particularly gifted, insightful and empathetic band completely re-imagining the way one of our most distinctive artists could sound. I wrote:

"Already so expert in suggesting parallel musical worlds with their own music, Raf and O as 'The Kick Inside' show us another alternative reality: where Kate Bush still wrote all those spectacular songs, but was never seduced by technology, submerged in band arrangements or occasionally dated production, perhaps never even became a perfectionist, or near-recluse. In this other dimension, she never stayed away from the stage for three decades - instead, she's out there, performing for the love of it, seeing the effect the sheer immediacy of her words and music has on the audience."

More here.

'Rinaldo' (Barbican)

Just an unbeatable combination: Handel, the English Concert and Iestyn Davies - here joined by some stellar colleagues including Sasha Cooke, Jane Archibald and Jakub Józef Orliński. Luxurious, moving and ultimately, an evening of pure joy.

The Handsome Family (Round Chapel)

One of my favourite groups of all time, husband and wife duo Brett & Rennie Sparks have made richly disturbing music for some 25 years. Originally a Chicago band, they in fact mesh two sensibilities. Rennie (hailing from New York) writes eerie, unforgettable short stories in lyric form - often, but not always, macabre, they are clued-in to both natural and supernatural phenomena and the way they can both have us at their mercy. Brett (originally from Odessa, Texas) oversees the music, marrying these tales to a heady stew of folk/country/blues that increase the songs' power to surprise. I could recommend so many of their albums - but this concert was something apart, as they played their breakthrough LP, 'Through the Trees', in its entirely to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Those songs are special to me: as is the soundtrack to any process of falling in love with a band. Hearing them all again live was spine-chilling, in the best sense.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Debussy (Milton Court)

An entire day's worth of concerts, spotlighting Debussy's solo piano repertoire in the most engaging of company. I didn't want it to end - as I wrote at the time:

"You couldn't ask for a more enthusiastic or evangelical guide through Debussy's music - JEB gave us a mixture of historical anecdote, in-depth analysis of compositional techniques and comparisons to other composers (technical expertise worn very lightly), and - best of all - would talk to us from the piano, willing to play over various excerpts to clarify the points he was making. I soon realised that even after four or so hours in his company, I could happily have listened to Bavouzet continue playing - and speaking - long into the night."

More here.

Sylvia Schwartz and Malcolm Martineau (Wigmore Hall)

More used to the 'album-tour-album-tour' routine of the rock world, I'm always fascinated by the frequent disconnects you get in the classical world of when an artist might release a recording (if and when they are in a position to do such a thing) and play a related concert. SS and MM made a truly lovely album of Spanish art song for Hyperion Records, which came out in 2013. Here was the first time I had been aware of an opportunity to hear them perform some of that repertoire live, with the added first half bonus of some Berg and, especially, marvellous lieder by Wolf. A proper event.

'Satyagraha' (English National Opera)

I'm a Glass devotee. I was in the lucky position of knowing this would be brilliant, getting unspeakably excited about it, and then having my sky-high expectations met, or even surpassed. I wrote:

"[Conductor Karen Kamensek] keeps the orchestra motoring like absolute clockwork, while bringing alive every dynamic shift and nuance. For me, part of the power of Glass's music is that it uses its regularity to, in fact, play with time. Events can speed up, or stand still. As the sequences stretch out, you have time to appreciate the artistry of Improbable and director Phelim McDermott as endlessly inventive visual motifs fill the stage. McDermott explains the use of newspaper and corrugated iron as key materials linked with Gandhi's environment - the oppression of both opinion and poverty - but this is just the start. Giant puppets form an imposing crowd, while the silent 'icons' (the historical figures that provide a linked focal point for each act) are either still or move in slow motion against the 'normal' speed of the protagonists. The skills performers move with such precision that they can hold up scraps of newsprint to receive caption projections. And the meticulous score does not preclude cast and chorus injecting the sacred text of the libretto (adapted from the Bhagavada Gita) with real emotion - especially in the prayers of Toby Spence's superb Gandhi."

More here.

'Lessons in Love and Violence' (Royal Opera House)

(Barbara Hannigan as Isabel and Peter Hoare as Mortimer, photograph by Stephen Cummiskey)

After 'Written on Skin', could lightning strike twice? Yes - and, arguably, burn more brightly and savagely than before. 'WoS' could boast both timelessness and yet, the 'shock of the new'. But this latest work mines similar depths from a more familiar historical setting, and somehow the cut of the scalpel seems deeper and more precise. I wrote:

"Benjamin's music and Crimp's words are so closely-linked that the score clings to the vocal lines like hands around a twisting rope, and the never-ending tense rumble of the orchestra (on terrific form) veers as much into sound design as any kind of conventional musical accompaniment. … [As] characters collapse or go off the rails, the score seems to 'break' along with them, like a coiled spring finally snapping. ... Voices in similar registers blend and clash - the intimacies of the male lovers are expressed by two baritones as King and Gaveston, while further sexual tension is generated between Isabel (soprano) and Mortimer (tenor) - so every duet feels very 'close', narrow and intense. At times, it feels there is barely any room to breathe."

More here.

Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton (Wigmore Hall)

This was the superbly programmed and performed CD 'Lost is My Quiet', but in live format. Could you wish for anything more? No. I wrote:

"As actor-singers, they generate a pleasurable tension between their 'angelic' registers and the physical expression of the more earthly, sensual subject matter of the songs. CS gives us wide-eyed wonder, tenderness and terror; ID an occasionally wracked, noble presence, at times leaning to the piano as if for support, then unfolding, straightening, to face the listeners, gesturing towards us, recharged. ... The stage is not large, but the eye contact, easy body language and frequent smiles between them speak volumes and communicate their enjoyment of the songs directly to us. The intimacy of the Wigmore itself - which I really felt, after seeing both CS and ID at 'opera house distance' recently - amplified the whole experience, sound and vision. The superb acoustic also allowed us to fully appreciate how versatile and sympathetic an accompanist JM is - always keeping an ideal balance with the voices whether flying round the keys at breakneck speed … or anchoring some of the steadier tunes with sonorous, rich tones …"

More here.

ENO Studio Live

In its second year, this enterprise - essentially ENO's house company of Chorus and Orchestra taking the reins and producing left-field work outside the Coliseum - built handsomely on the triumph of the previous summer. I wrote:

"The initiative takes the music staff and ensemble out of the Coliseum, and lets them loose on smaller-scale works that give free rein to their imagination, dedication and talent. Let's say your favourite band (and ENO's Chorus & Orchestra are certainly one of mine) are at the level where they only play arenas - and then you suddenly get the chance to see them in a tiny venue or club. That's what ENO Studio Live is like. That's why it's so exciting."

On their Handel production...

"An environment like this really brings home what matchless communicators we have in the great troupe of actor-singers in ENO's mighty Chorus. In the Coliseum, you can still perceive them all as carefully-realised individuals, making up that unstoppable wall of vocal sound. But here, with all them acting up a storm, every [character] is enjoying their own evening, having a whale of a time. As they work the stage area, interacting with each other during the chorus sections, you can discern their separate voices depending on who is nearer to you, or further away - so the balance shifts and the blend changes, while the combined 'whole' remains glorious. I love the idea that the half of the audience on the other side will have heard a distinctly different 'mix' to me. You really are 'in it' that much."

More on 'Acis and Galatea' here.

On their hugely successful takeover of Wilton's Music Hall for some great Britten...

"I thought this was one of the most deftly thought-through stagings I've seen, precision-tooled for the venue. The orchestra were vertical rather than horizontal, arranged in storeys at the back of the stage - meaning no playing area separated us from the actor-singers. Under Matthew Kofi Waldren, they negotiated the lightning shifts in style with real pizzazz, finding that under-explored middle ground between pit and nightclub. As the story got darker, red blinds gradually drew over the players, as if twilight was descending on the stage. The recording of Bunyan's voice (a rich, booming Simon Russell Beale), neon lights and plastic props presented a kind of 'electric cabaret', conjuring up a mid-20th century New York milieu, channelling it through the history in the bricks and mortar of Wilton's, and bringing it all into collision with the enchanted forest. The use of the space to maximise the effect of the voices was breathtaking. The opening moments would have been worth the price of admission alone, as we suddenly realised we were surrounded by the ENO Chorus, and we were inside the sound they were making. … a wall of glorious surround-sound as the choristers moved around and among us."

More on 'Paul Bunyan' here.

'Mary's Hand' (McCaldin Arts at Holy Cross Church)

(Clare McCaldin as Mary I, photograph by Robert Workman)

This one-woman opera felt like a potential 'hidden gem', so thrilled to see it come back this year for a short tour and attract more attention. I'm going again. Check it out if you can. I wrote:

"Martin Bussey's elegant, expressive score makes maximum use of seemingly minimal resources. Written specially for the mezzo-soprano performing the role, Clare McCaldin, Mary's part deftly moves between spoken word and sung passages. In a performance that's somehow both handsomely relaxed and precision-sharp, McCaldin at first negotiates almost patter-like passages that draw us in with speech while seasoning the text with sung notes. The effect is a 'best of both worlds' hybrid - the musicality and cathartic power of opera, combined with the intimacy and immediacy of a monologue. ... While it would be lovely to think this opera might be recorded one day, as written and performed it's a truly multi-sensory experience, making best use of its close-quarters visual richness in tandem with the taut, evocative soundworld. Well played, indeed."

More here.

Wagner / Strauss / Nørgård (BBC Prom 51, Royal Albert Hall)

One of those full-on, 'didn't-see-THAT-coming' experiences that the Proms can often specialise in, this terrific concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard just built and built in intensity. Already in raptures from the 'Parsifal' Act 1 Prelude, we were then treated to the 'Four Last Songs' from the brilliant Swedish soprano Malin Byström (the Royal Opera's most recent Salome)… and at the climax, an epically exciting UK premiere of the Danish composer's 3rd symphony - made all the more special by Nørgård being there to hear it, clearly delighted by the whole experience.

Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès (Wigmore Hall)

I never ever tire of hearing 'Winterreise' - Schubert is my favourite composer and this is arguably his finest achievement. Its icy allure encourages multiple listens, and multiple interpretations. But it was still a highly pleasant wake-up call to hear a rendition that set me re-thinking the whole work yet again. I wrote:

"But in Adès's performance, I felt like I was hearing something completely new to me - an accompaniment that sounded recognisably like it was being played by a composer. ... I had the impression TA had taken the whole cycle apart to see how it worked, then put it back together again. … This now had something of the unpredictability of an Adès score. We seemed to be hearing new things. … Something about Adès's fearless way with the material meets Bostridge's technique head-on, and the outcome is a surprisingly robust, wilful interpretation that doesn't skimp on the anguish or even horror, but doesn't give in to it, either. Already a pioneering work when first penned, this performance made 'Winterreise' sound for all the world like a new, contemporary cycle."

More here.

The Ring Cycle (Royal Opera House)

It's almost impossible to write about this. It was my third Ring Cycle, but my first fully-staged (before then, I'd seen the sequence in concert. conducted by Barenboim at the Proms, then in Opera North's terrific semi-staged production). At the time, I was overwhelmed, really, and never managed to clear enough leisure writing-time to sit down and properly address it. An astonishing privilege to witness, really - I know that long-term Wagnerians will always dissect the merits of various casts and productions (and why not?), but I am still green enough to just applaud the immensity of the undertaking and achievement. Don't get me wrong - my critical faculties were operational - but all I remember clearly are the things I loved. Stuart Skelton's monumental Siegmund; the dual casting of a soprano I've long admired, Emily Magee, as two of the cycle's 'wronged women', Sieglinde and Gutrune; Stefan Vinke's tireless Siegfried opposite Nina Stemme's unmatched Brünnhilde… and, rightly, conductor Antonio Pappano bringing the entire orchestra onstage to receive their applause at the very end.

English National Opera's current season

I write often about ENO (as do many other people), so I won't add too much here - except to say that I think, over the past few months, they've been on fire. A 'traditional' success with 'Lucia di Lammermoor' (though nothing traditional about Sarah Tynan's superb interpretation of the title role), a storming 'Porgy and Bess', and the remarkably powerful staging of the 'War Requiem': even watching the production I was ambivalent about - 'Salome' - I had a blast, because of its riot of visceral ideas. I described ENO as having 'venom in its fangs' - that we were seeing challenging, provocative work, performed to equally uncompromising standards. For more detail...

"As I applauded, my head was spinning. This was an assault on the senses, and I approved. The production isn't there to make friends, but to kick arse. Making the case that a piece of vintage art - whether it's a period novel, Shakespeare play, or an opera - is Relevant To Today's Society can so often be problematic, because you can be passionately and genuinely keen to prove how the medium you love still speaks to modern times, while simultaneously being aware it can lapse into cliché. But given the ongoing reports we're now seeing of the horrifying - and shamefully widespread - treatment women receive at men's hands … is there a more appropriate story than Salome's to illustrate its devastating effects? … I think, then, that this is a vital and necessary production. It doesn't really matter to me that some people don't like it. I didn't like all of it and I didn't necessarily think every idea worked. … But I did like having these ideas thrown at me, challenging my preconceptions about the opera - both its story, and the wider issues it forces you to confront."

More on 'Salome' here.

"With its bold idea to flesh the work out into three dimensions, [ENO's 'War Requiem'] is attempting reinterpretation and reinvention of the familiar into something with a flavour of arthouse edginess. And with its combination of the 'P&B' and ENO choruses, and collaboration between British and German creative minds, it quietly sends out a diversity message that won't be lost on the range of audiences coming to see it. Mission, at this rate, accomplished."

More on the other operas here.

Alice Coote and Christian Blackshaw (Wigmore Hall)

Titled 'Songs of Life, Loss and Love', this recital was a heady brew of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Mahler. Another concert that, to my shame, I didn't manage to write up fully at the time. But I did send a tweet, and I stand by every word:

"What a glorious recital from Alice Coote at Wigmore Hall this evening: am always struck by the devastating power & sheer emotional range of her performances, but tonight was awe-inspiring. 'Du bist die Ruh' touched the sky. Such sensitive accompaniment from Christian Blackshaw throughout."


… aaaand relax.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Conversation pieces

Apparently, there's a 'debate' about opera - well, there MUST be, because look at all the people on social media and in the papers going on about it. If all the folk talking about opera actually went from time to time, takings would go through the roof...

That said, one individual that I certainly wasn't expecting to weigh in on the conversation has done just that: David Mitchell, the writer-comedian, spent his column in last Sunday's Observer poking fun at the 'Is opera elitist?' issue (or non-issue, depending on your point of view). In turn, the main springboard for DM's piece was conductor Mark Wigglesworth's recent article on the Bachtrack website in support of performing opera in translation to increase audience's understanding and enjoyment.

I'm generally a huge admirer of DM's wit and wordsmithery, and ultimately his satirical aim targets the musical 'tribes': that their key trait is the need to look down on those with different views, and that the purists and the plebs are as guilty of this as each other.

But I confess I could have done without passages like this:

'...I admit I don't know much about music. Is that really such a problem though? The more I think about it, the more I reckon that's actually what might make me amazing at analysing its cultural impact...I don't have any musical taste that could skew my judgment and confuse the analysis of whether this bit of music, or type of music is "better" than that bit or type...I've never been there [English National Opera] because of my irrational fear of hours and hours of boredom...'

Those familiar with DM will be able to imagine his voice saying this out loud, clearly stretching the point for comic effect. But for once, I feel irritated rather than amused. Perhaps this is because - particularly in our current world climate - I'm having trouble finding ignorance funny. Is having zero knowledge or appreciation of music really something to be worn like a badge, trumpeted for kicks in a newspaper column? (Would I be justified, if I simply found DM unfunny, in posting a big feature generally writing off comedy as something we can all just do without?)

Isn't the whole thing rather distasteful? 'Ignorant' is rightly used as an insult or derogatory term towards the inconsiderate and thoughtless, and yet, when displayed in a broadsheet by an educated, privileged columnist, it's somehow reverse-engineered into clever-cleverness. More inverted snobbery, ironically enough - my vacuousness is funnier, and so worth more, than your expertise.

It's hard not to draw a comparison with DM's fellow comedian Chris Addison, who has become a card-carrying ambassador for opera and is 'out there' doing his best for the genre - essentially 'walking the walk'. On the other hand, the accidental poison in DM's approach could do a lot of harm. We've all encountered thugs and bullies who need no encouragement in making their belligerent closed-mindedness appear like strength. The last thing we need is intelligent commentators throwing in the towel as well - saying, 'Hey you - the wordy, arty, sensitive kids - you're better off pretending you're thick as well... at least you'll get a laugh. Forget about opera, music - all that stuff that enriches your life, and focus on honing your sarcasm.'

Which perhaps brings us to where we are today, when so many people - especially when emboldened on social media - use their talent with words to wound others, and their power of expression to banish any sense of nuance or moderation.

(London Coliseum, home of English National Opera)


Despite all this, I am actually an optimistic soul. One casualty of the over-simplified, yet over-amplified nature of the 'music discussion' is the idea of accessibility. It only ever seems to be considered from the 'elites'/'masses' angle but surely it extends into all kinds of areas:
  • Ableism: The issue of whether or not to perform operas translated into English goes deeper than purists expressing a preference for the original languages. English National Opera - the London company renowned for English performance - has an explicit remit to bring opera to the widest possible audience, which includes the sight- and hearing-impaired, the elderly, children: so, without apology, they sing in English and show surtitles above the stage, and rightly so.
  • Pricing: Opera companies face criticism because the best seats in the houses command ridiculous money. This is true, but then the affordability of the cheaper seats can balance this out. Equally, people rarely consider in the same breath that theatre, rock concerts and even cinemas and restaurants are also pricing folk out as well. (As it happens, my slips seat at the Royal Opera House's 'Hansel & Gretel' cost half the price of a ticket at my local Vue cinema.) Austerity / the economic climate - call it what you will - has meant that for many it's harder to afford everything. Add to that the 'subculture' mentality that has seeped into music in particular - that one shouldn't have to pay for records when one can simply download them: this knocked the wind out of rock music especially. It was surprising and encouraging to read a few days back that classical music sales seemed to be in good shape (despite accompanying sniffs that some of the artists concerned weren't - ahem - classical enough). But there's a much wider conversation to be had - and societal change to be wished for - than just pressuring the Royal Opera House to knock twenty quid off its seat prices.
  • Seeking the youth: There's an urgent desire to bring young audiences to classical music - I totally understand and support any effort in that direction, but mainly because it's my belief you should bring any kind of music to the young. It's not a fashionable opinion to call classical music relaxing (even though some of it is, along with plenty of folk, jazz, I could go on...) but I think one of the reasons it gets saddled with that image is because much of it is long-form, and so requires more time to listen to and appreciate than bite-sized pop songs. As a result, many people 'grow into' classical music as their 'need for speed' decreases. Also, it can help to journey through other genres of music en route to an appreciation for classical as they build you up for greater complexity and variety. So, just as today's older audiences were young once, so they will be joined by many newer, maturing listeners as a matter of course.
It's also worth noting on this last point that - as far as listening to music live or on recordings is concerned - we still press on into uncharted territory. We are only now contemporary with our first old rock stars, for example: the idea that rock = young and classical = old will only become increasingly ludicrous as time goes on. I only have to look back at some of my favourite releases of recent years to see that, in terms of new music, divides between genres are blurring and collapsing all the time - and thanks to the likes of BBC Radio 3 (especially the In Tune and Late Junction strands) and even Radio 6 Music, it's finding an audience. I was heartened to read only today that we are shortly to get a new classical music station, Scala, spearheaded by Simon Mayo, increasing the reach even further.

If the conversation about classical music in the coming few years is going to get wider and louder - as I believe it is - then let's all of us keep it going, give it room to breathe. If someone tries to shut it down to score a few points or an easy laugh - breathe yourself, count to ten. Then pick it straight back up again.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Hotel du Jack: 'The Shining'

[Spoiler alert - I talk in some detail below about the plots/endings of the films 'The Shining', 'The Wicker Man', 'Carrie' and 'Psycho'. If you've not seen them but, like me, are fond of the uncanny, then by all means stop reading this now - with my blessing - and seek them out. Then please come back here afterwards!]

I rarely, if ever, write about cinema - music or art always takes over! - but I've been inspired to here after listening to a terrific podcast, 'Kermode on Film'. Mark Kermode will need no introduction to many of you, but to readers perhaps further afield, suffice to say he is at the very heart of film appreciation and criticism in the UK. A national treasure, to my mind. He succeeded the great Philip French (who I have written about, here) to head up the superb team of film writers at The Observer, and he co-hosts the BBC's irreplaceable Radio 5 Live Film Review show (commonly known as 'Wittertainment') with Simon Mayo. A really engaging writer on both film and music, he puts his words into action: championing emerging film makers, creating live events to interact with fans and fellow film buffs, and importantly, encouraging others to write, discuss and celebrate cinema in all its forms.

The particular episode of 'Kermode on Film' that got my mind whirling was MK's recent conversation with film-maker Jack Howard about 'The Shining'. It's brilliant stuff - I'd encourage you to listen and I'll try not to repeat too much here. I think it's fair to say that they are both ambivalent about how successful 'The Shining' actually is as a horror movie - but it's such an enigmatic piece of work that just by sharing their very different responses, they still open each other up to new ideas after who knows how many viewings.

'The Shining' is possibly the only film I have a genuine love/hate relationship with. There are movies I adore, and others I don't - but I can't think right now of another one that both fascinates and frustrates me simultaneously in quite the way this film does. I own a copy, and always enjoy watching it - but it annoys as well as absorbs me. For the first time in ages, the podcast started me thinking about why this was, and - almost as if I was joining in the chat myself - I found myself seeing certain aspects of the movie in a new way.


A lot of people - including, famously, Stephen King - dislike the liberties Stanley Kubrick takes with the source material. I'm actually not too 'purist' in this sense and rarely identify with 'the book is always better than the film' takes. I remember being at a reading years ago given by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, and during the Q&As, a rather pompous-sounding attendee asked how he coped with the fact that the film of 'The Remains of the Day' lost so much of the novel's approach. The author politely replied that the two enterprises were separate - he thought it was a great film and that it wisely avoided attempting to replicate the book, which would be impossible. This made a huge impression on me: it's possible to honour and respect the source, without trying to copy it.

A good comparison here - staying in the King universe - is Brian De Palma's film of 'Carrie'. It's faithful to King's plot, but De Palma re-fashions some of the novel's 'unfilmable' moments with great visual set pieces that a book could not conjure. The split-screen carnage is perhaps the obvious example. But there's also the killing of Carrie's mother - in the novel, Carrie uses her telekinesis to slow Margaret's heart to a stop, a brilliantly chilling passage; but who would question the bravura decision in the film to crucify Margaret with the kitchen knives, not only delivering an unforgettably visceral image but also symbolising her macabre, distorted mix of the domestic and devout? Then, the final question-mark ending of the book (a mum's letter describing her toddler displaying similar powers to Carrie's) becomes one of film's greatest jump-scares, giving a different but completely cinematic spin on Carrie's lingering presence.

I think there is some of this in Kubrick's 'The Shining'. For example, the risk of mobile topiary animals looking daft is so great (er, see the TV remake for 'examples'), would anyone question the genius of creating the maze - an outdoor 'mirror' of the hotel's impossible corridors?

But I believe that most of the other changes Kubrick makes are rooted in something a bit more slippery and knotty than visual flair (not that the film is short of that). Two of these changes, in my opinion, fatally weaken the movie and are the parts that irritate me on each viewing. First, the axe. In the novel, Jack's weapon is a croquet mallet - crucially, it's much harder to kill anyone with it, and it's a key factor in Jack's ultimate inability to murder his family, causing him to 'fail' the hotel. In turn, this leads to my second gripe: the death of Halloran (who rescues the family and survives in the novel). In the film, this simply feels like clumsy plotting: dragging Halloran all the way to the hotel, only to have him bumped off within seconds of arriving - because Jack is using an axe - is a phenomenal let-down. In a film that tends to dodge neat interpretation, to have such a contrived moment - 'well, it's a horror film, so there has to be a murder, if only to get him away from that bathroom' - feels like a massive 'shrug' moment even as you're watching. As MK points out, you don't even notice it's supposed be a jump scare, such is the sense of anti-climax.

So why make these changes - along with all the others that don't bug me (including Nicholson's treatment of the character, which - however divisive it might be - I believe is sound)? I think it's because the film is on the hotel's side. And that's why 'The Shining' is scary.


A brief digression to talk about possibly my favourite horror film, 'The Wicker Man'. While the film is widely acclaimed and its shocking denouement justly revered - I equally come across people who don't know what the fuss is about, primarily because it doesn't frighten them. As a result, they see the end almost as blackly comic, a Roald Dahl-style twist, after the fruity antics that have preceded it. (Much like viewing 'Psycho' after the Norman Bates character has passed into film lore, it's also quite difficult to watch 'The Wicker Man' without any knowledge of how it pans out - partly because there's a gigantic wicker man on almost all the posters and DVD covers. WHY??!)

But to me, the dark power of the film, the creeping dread that almost grows in your subconscious (without ever making you actually jump out of your seat or recoil in terror)… is that the film behaves as if it's on the islanders' side. Everything they do is completely normal. They go about their various idiosyncratic routines as if they're the most natural things in the world (which, since they worship nature, they are), and the film supports them every step of the way with its depiction of their uncomplicated contentment and spook-folk soundtrack. Only Howie blunders into each scene, outrage building, like a comic irritant - never learning to read the room, incredulous at the heathen hi-jinks. But I'd be wanting to spend my weekend with Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt. By the end, Howie is almost like one of those Agatha Christie victims who thoroughly deserve all they get, and it's testament to Edward Woodward's fine performance that real fear, blended with stoic resignation, turns Howie round in the viewer's eyes in the final minutes - and you realise the extent of the horror you have essentially been going along with. But the film doesn't bottle it. Howie is sacrificed, and the crops will not fail.


When iconic cinematic locations are created, people often see them as 'characters' in the films. This is especially true of haunted house movies, and I think it's fairly common to regard the Overlook in this way. However, while most of us would think of it as the villain... I'm not sure that Kubrick does.

If anything, it's the film the hotel might have made. The opening shots are rightly celebrated as conveying the feeling that an ominous, omniscient viewer is focused on Jack's car on the way to the interview - right from the outset. The pioneering Steadicam takes that glide around the corridors are not strictly Danny's point of view - they stalk Danny, following him, eyes unencumbered by a human form, or gait. The architect-like symmetry and precision of so many frames, almost like stills.

For all the suggestion that the movie dwells mostly in the psychological, tortured headspace and hallucinations of its characters (while the book wholeheartedly embraces the supernatural)… there are unambiguously paranormal events where the hotel intervenes - releasing Jack from the locked larder or telling him through the Grady character that Danny has contacted Halloran telepathically - and arguably several more, such as the ball rolling towards Danny to draw him to room 237 (after this visit he sustains a real bruise, driving a wedge between Jack and a suspicious Wendy), or the film's only gratuitous bit of 'because we can' visual effects, where Jack gazes down into the model maze and sees Wendy and Danny in the real one, as if the hotel is allowing him to monitor their movements.

Seeing the film as the hotel's version of events makes sense of some puzzling decisions. For example, to return to Nicholson's performance, which many feel is at the lunacy ceiling from the outset - none of the book's sense of the fundamentally good man being driven gradually insane. But, for Kubrick's Overlook - if Jack has always been at the hotel, then the hotel has always been with Jack. Even discounting the disorientating photo shown at the end - Jack at the hotel in 1921 - we don't see a version of Jack before the interview, when the hotel already has this 'incarnation' of the caretaker in its clutches.

Also, Kubrick's Overlook survives (in the book, it does not). Wendy and Danny might get away, but the evil entity - like a Summerisle resident - carries on beyond the life of the movie, dispensing with its 'victim'. As such, 'The Shining' on screen peters out to some extent, denied the novel's explosive climax in favour of a lingering sense of unease, underscored by the queasy-listening soundtrack and mind-bending photograph.

I think this lack of resolution, along with the unshakeable feeling that our view of events is through an alien, corrupted lens, is what keeps me going back to the film and overlooking (ahem) my own personal quibbles. Equally, the film doesn't have the potentially ironic reversal that 'The Wicker Man' offers us. As with many auteurs, Kubrick's films are to some extent about Kubrick - that cool, aloof intelligence - big themes through the eyes of a detached observer. Did Kubrick identify with the Overlook to some extent? I imagine it's possible - the control-freakishness and perfectionism that manifested itself not just in the way the films looks and moves... but also in his notorious treatment of Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers to get the performances he wanted. There does seem to be traces of manipulative malevolence in the celluloid: perhaps this is why it draws me in and repels me - keeps me watching, but at a distance.