Sunday 22 March 2015

Specs and violence: how to 'reduce' disruptive audiences

I've been to several sublime concerts and operas in recent weeks - and one thing I've never lost since I started going to this sort of thing regularly is a sense of how privileged I am to be there. Obviously, I've paid, so I am 'entitled' to go - but that's not the point. Great performances remind me of my incredible good fortune, simply having the opportunity to hear these musicians and artists giving their best to create such unforgettable experiences for the rest of us.

But one thing I've noticed - and it's difficult to escape that idea of entitlement when thinking about it - is an increasing tendency for audiences to treat whichever auditorium they're in as their front room. I know it's a contentious issue. And I know that being aware of this behaviour hardly makes me Sherlock Holmes - others have written or complained about it, I've touched on it myself before, and we won't be the first or the last.

I think Keith Jarrett was one of the first performers to really have a good old moan about this, to the point where he would berate audiences about coughing, in particular. The trouble is, because KJ can be a bit pompous and arrogant, I think many people took this as just pomposity and arrogance. I did hear him once, linking coughing to a kind of hive boredom or lack of attention - and the temptation is to respond, 'well, who's to blame for that, Keith?' (It goes without saying, I hope, that his performance was beautiful and utterly riveting.)

I actually think KJ is giving the phenomenon more psychological complexity than it deserves. I think people are just thoughtless. The ruder society gets, the ruder audiences get. It isn't just coughing - there's the talking, eating, drinking, rustling, barging... and I think my critical tipping point came during a recent Royal Opera House performance where - as much as I loved the cast and production - the shine was taken off the evening by the coughing, with barely 30 seconds of uninterrupted music passing without some hacking, consumptive punctuation mark intruding on the score. (Because it's never a gentle clearing of the throat, a quiet 'ahem' - it's always a colossal roar. Why does no-one ever attempt simply to stifle it, even a bit? It's nothing to do with how ill they are. If they're very poorly, they should be at home. It's because they don't care where they are - they're going to do what they bloody well like.) One ailing attendee sneezed so hard, I think they actually moved back several rows - this picture shows the auditorium immediately afterwards:

So, I return to this vexed subject at the point where I feel driven to distraction. And I'm particularly saddened by the feeling that the Royal Opera House is where this problem is at its most damaging - certainly, it's where I've had my worst audience experiences. (I'll return to how other venues tackle it later.) Fortunately, the ROH is also perhaps the building best equipped to deal in a zero tolerance fashion with these so-called opera lovers, and it would only take a low-key intervention from Q Division to provide them with all the state-of-the-art weaponry they would need to get rid of the problem once and for all. I had hoped never to descend into the underground bunker beneath chez Specs and retrieve these papers from the safe, but extreme situations demand extreme responses. Here is my 6-step plan for removing noisy audience members with minimum disruption.

1: Get them - sorry, 'identify' them - before they come in. Train CCTV on all the entrances, making it easy to spot if anyone is coughing or raising their hand to their mouth as they approach. When they are fully enclosed in the revolving door, stop it moving. Then activate the new motor that spins it round at several hundred rpm, ultimately flinging the saboteur back out into the open, where they will describe a parabola across either Bow Street or Covent Garden. I realise this may involve innocent casualties also using the door, but it's an occupational hazard. Let's not forget, they'll have already paid for their ticket anyway, so are dispensible.

2: If any of them make it past the revolving door, specially-trained ticket-checkers will be on duty at the entrance by the box office, looking and listening out for any signs of throat-clearing, umbrella or walking stick brandishing, or complete inability to do anything without PASSING COMMENT at the TOP of one's VOICE. They will then show these people to the top of the steps down to the Linbury Studio Theatre, muttering something about 'a new shortcut'. Once the targets - sorry, 'patrons' - start the descent, the stairs quickly rotate out of existence to form a smooth chute. The offenders then glide through a secret underground tunnel to the Coliseum, where they will become *ahem* 'extras' in English National Opera's production of 'Sweeney Todd'.

3: Offer throat lozenges to anyone already coughing. As they stoop slightly to take one, clip them twice round the ear, saying, 'Don't. Cough.'

4: Ticket-checkers must also conduct bag and body searches for any boiled sweets, or other consumables nestling in high-rustle paper or plastic. These sweets are to be confiscated and passed to the cloakroom attendants. These members of staff should be so high on sugar and E-numbers by the end of the performance that they pass judgement on visitor style and act accordingly. In this way, a happy side-effect will be to eliminate some of the poshness and elitism opera is so unfairly saddled with these days. "I don't think I should return this coat to you, sir. I really don't." "Madam, on your behalf, we decided your appalling bag was unattended, and duly detonated it. I'm sure you understand."

5: It's possible that even at this stage, some perpetrators - sorry, 'guests' - will still reach the auditorium. Ushers are to hand out free tissues, laced mildly with chloroform. After a few epic sneezes, the saboteur will succumb to gentle - and thankfully, peaceful - oblivion.

6: Ushers must also be vigilant for anyone still causing disturbances not just by hacking or unwrapping, but also choosing the quietest moments to fling their programme on the floor, punt their stick along the aisle, rummage in their bag because it's 'less annoying to check something once the music starts', or start a conversation. These people are to be offered a free interval drink on the terrace. When they are out there, lock the terrace door. Optional: release the snakes.

As you can see, I'm not an unreasonable man. For example, I accept that the ushers and cloakroom staff will need small pay increases to reflect their extra duties.

Let me move back to my serious keyboard. Of course I should stress that the Royal Opera House is not the only place saddled with more than its fair share of inconsiderate, selfish audiences. They're everywhere: South Bank, Barbican, Wigmore Hall... but the Wigmore Hall is a really excellent example to take as a comparison.

The first thing you see when you enter the auditorium is a huge sign on stage, showing a mobile phone with a line through it. The programme is a small masterclass in etiquette - for example, if you are following song words, it instructs you to only turn the page once the song has finished, and reminds you to check your phone again at the end of the interval. Crucially, it tells you - in black and white - to stifle coughs. It makes a point of saying how distracting it is. (And they really do sell lozenges for potential hackers.) Before most performances, one of the Hall's team takes the stage and repeats the cough warning aloud. By keeping these warnings light and jovial (take note, Jarrett), and trusting in the fact that the WH has a 'fanbase' of sorts, regular punters who like to come to many concerts, the Hall can hammer these points home without causing reverse offence.

They are saying: you are not passive in this. You may well have a cough, but you're not powerless to moderate it. Don't open your Werthers or wave your programme around like a child. You are NOT at home now, and until you pay the rental - rather than just the ticket - price, you don't have the right to treat it as such. And because people are then embarrassed to behave like spoilt brats, they largely don't - resulting in a noticeably quieter and more attentive atmosphere than elsewhere.

I see no reason why the Royal Opera House - or any other similarly afflicted venue - cannot make a more explicit challenge to their audiences in exactly the same way. Those that are left after my new measures have been implemented, anyway.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Branch lines: Masumi Yamanaka at Kew Gardens

Very happy about the coincidence that on International Women's Day, I came across the work of a brilliant international woman.

Within the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (or - especially for non-London/UK readers - more often known simply as Kew Gardens) lies the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. It's a lovely exhibition space, built in 2008 to join onto the Marianne North Gallery. As a pair, they offer provocatively (and deliberately) contrasting viewing experiences: the more classical, jam-packed walls of North's art overwhelming the senses, with the cooler, more muted displays in the newer building allowing the brain a little decompression time.

This makes it the perfect environment for an exhibition by Masumi Yamanaka. Masumi (as she signs herself) is a botanical artist based at Kew, and she set herself the task of painting some of the most impressive trees in the gardens - notably 13 of the oldest and most venerable specimens which give the exhibition its title: 'Kew's Heritage Trees'.

Botanical art - distinct from flower painting in other areas of fine art - is by definition exact, as scientifically accurate as possible. If you can call to mind any botanical illustration you've seen, you might be picturing a plate showing part of a plant rendered in intricate detail, and alongside it isolated images of individual features, such as a seed or flower interior from a different angle. The aim is to give as complete a representation of a specimen as possible.

All of these elements are present and correct in Masumi's work, but there seems to be something else going on that makes each picture - and the exhibition as a whole - achieve a potent vibrancy that almost makes you forget the academic excellence on display and just immerse yourself happily in the image.

To begin with, the detail she achieves at times feels supernatural - particularly good examples would be the texture of chestnut tree seeds (or 'conkers' to some!). Like a reversal of the old joke that an Impressionist painting is a mess up close but achieves a kind of detail as you move further back from it - I found that Masumi's renditions got more and more convincing the nearer I leant towards the image. The slightly hairy or rough surface of a conker - or the grainy bark of a trunk - seemed if anything to come into focus.

Given that we also have the luxury of several images for each tree (there are 40 pictures on display), Masumi includes a picture of each one in its entirety. This is unusual given the forensic nature of the discipline and, as Head of Kew's Arboretum Tony Kirkham points out in the exhibitions's short video, it's also extremely difficult. Masumi adds that she was drawn to the sheer beauty of the trees' forms - the fact that some of them are centuries old means they have taken on unusual and fascinating shapes, that she hadn't encountered anywhere else (even the pagoda tree, which hails from her native Japan).

I found the effect this had on me was a sense of movement, or even narrative. Seeing a tree in full (and the detail is as acutely observed in these 'distance' paintings as in the close-ups), next to a section of a branch, say, I felt I could zoom in on the subject from a distance.

And this feeling of movement is also self-contained, in each picture. I was particularly struck by the painting of a cedar, where the combination of highly-detailed still points - such as the connecting branches - with the slightly (and I mean slightly) freer depiction of the leaves gave the impression that a breeze could be moving through the body of the tree.

Finally, the narrative theme is underlined by the suggestion of time passing - again, both across and within the paintings. In a couple of examples, we see a 'whole tree' picture from winter, with bare branches - Masumi writes about wanting to show the strength or power in their structure - then find beautifully-rendered leaves alongside it to complete the picture. Some other images also neatly convey the march of the seasons by showing a lush green leaf next to an autumnal yellow/red counterpart on the same branch.

I loved the way, then, that this exhibition honoured the scientific necessities of botanical illustration, without compromising a bold and generous personal artistic vision. Please go if you can - there's plenty of time. Along with two other enjoyable exhibitions - Spring flower paintings from the Shirley Sherwood collection and a group show from the Dutch Society of Botanical Artists - Masumi's paintings are on display until the first week in August.

(If you can't get to Kew in person, there's a beautiful exhibition catalogue, available here at the Kew shop price.)

Note on images: The pictures I've added to this post are all copyright to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew: the first and third are from the Kew website, the second from the Time Out website. If there is any issue with including these, please let me know and I'll remove them. Many thanks!

Thursday 5 March 2015

National opera: ENO's 'Mastersingers'

Whatever one thinks of Wagner, it's unlikely the first word that springs to mind is 'funnyman'. Yet, there towards the end of his writing career - the eighth in his extraordinary run of ten 'mature' operas - is 'Die Meistersigner von Nurnberg' ('The Mastersingers of Nuremberg'), a four-and-a-half hour comedy, sticking out from amid the grand fantasy of the Ring Cycle and the mysticism of 'Parsifal' like a sore thumbs-up.

He had tried comedy once before. The middle opera in the early trio of lesser works before the 'Big 10' is called 'Das Liebesverbot', or 'The Ban on Love', and based on Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure'. It dates from around 1836, and RW went on to disown it. What made him go for laughs again some 30 years later?

It's quite tempting to think he really was just after some light relief. After composing 'Das Rheingold' and 'Die Walkure', he ground to a halt mid-'Siegfried', apparently hitting a kind of creative stumbling block that must've felt like the whole Ring Cycle was in jeopardy. His first attempt at 'going off and doing something else for a bit' resulted in 'Tristan und Isolde': still vast, intense, mythical, and surely in the title couple's fatal love, foreshadowing the "laughing death" anticipated by Brunnhilde and Siegfried.

But his second great distraction, 'Mastersingers', really was a departure. If its romantic-comedy elements are more reminiscent of a younger work, then that's perhaps because to some extent it was. RW had in fact already tried to write it in 1845, just after 'Flying Dutchman' and 'Tannhauser', when his grand signature style was still crystallising. The Mastersingers of 16th century Nuremberg (along with their most revered member, Hans Sachs) were real, but Wagner fashioned a gossamer plot around them: boy meets girl, girl loves boy back, boy has to win girl's hand in arcane singing contest staged by a club of mostly benign, yet strangely inflexible, town elders. We've all done it.

Here goes (*takes deep breath*) - the opera opens on Midsummer's Eve. The Mastersingers are a guild of craftsmen who have established a tradition of virtuosic composition and singing based on a set of strict rules. We're mainly concerned with three of them: Veit Pogner the goldsmith, Sixtus Beckmesser the town clerk and Hans Sachs the cobbler. Young nobleman Walther and Pogner's daughter Eva are in love, but Walther's timing is terrible: Pogner has offered Eva's hand in marriage to whoever wins the Mastersingers' competition held on the following feast day. This being a comedy, Pogner does not immediately cry out, "You're right! I AM INSANE - I'm about to give my daughter away in a SONG CONTEST! Thank God you turned up." Instead, Walther has to try and become a mastersinger overnight.

Most of the mastersingers are married, which means only the bachelor Beckmesser and widower Sachs are likely contestants for the prize. Beckmesser is an old-school pedant, while Sachs is a thoughtful and open-minded maverick who occasionally horrifies the others with a new idea (for example, allowing the audience to judge the contest rather than the elders themselves). As a result, in one of the opera's funniest scenes, Beckmesser fails the auditioning Walther, punctuating the song by noisily chalking the errors up on a blackboard in every quiet moment. Sachs suggests the committee could be more receptive to the newcomer's vocal style, but to no avail.

(This superb production photo, and the one below, were taken by Catherine Ashmore and appear on the ENO website.)

Eva has a companion, Magdalena (or Lena) - who is stepping out with Sachs's apprentice, David. Events reach a 'mayhem ceiling' when later that night, Beckmesser - who really wants to win Eva - turns up to serenade her with his song-in-progress. Eva and Walther hatch plans to elope, so Eva places Lena in her window to fool Beckmesser. However, David - who takes events at face value and thinks Beckmesser is after Lena - starts a fight which soon escalates into a town-wide riot. Sachs, finishing off a new pair of shoes for Beckmesser, watches the entire fiasco unfold from his front porch. Giving the clerk a taste of his own medicine, he scuppers the romancing ('marking' his song by hammering on the shoes), and in the brouhaha, intercepts the lovers and gives Walther a bed for the night.

Midsummer's Day arrives, and Sachs lays plans to sort out the mess. He coaches Walther, who manages to compose a top-drawer song that nudges the envelope without giving it too hard a push. While the two men get ready for the festivities, Beckmesser turns up and Sachs catches him nicking the new lyrics. Unwittingly, he has played into Sachs's hands - the cobbler promises that he will never claim to have written the text, and that Beckmesser can take the song and use it in the contest if he so chooses. Beckmesser - who has failed to come up with anything decent in time - reckons he'll walk it with a Sachs original, but in the event he has no suitable tune and his turn is a shambles. Although Beckmesser tries to blame Sachs for passing him a stinker (good luck with that), Sachs can truthfully attest the song isn't his. Walther is allowed to perform the song as he intended and win the day. The Mastersingers offer him immediate membership and Walther's first instinct is to (politely) tell them to shove it; but, in a curious epilogue, Sachs persuades him to change his mind with a monologue about the nobility of German art and the need to preserve its traditions.

However 'immature' the story, though, Wagner - by the 1860s - is incapable of giving it anything other than his 'mature' treatment. The plot twists and turns like a farce, but the characters are fully-rounded and complex, enhancing the improbable events with a layer of emotional resonance.

I find it interesting, for example, that RW went to Shakespeare for his only other comedy, as parts of Mastersingers seem to me to have a Bardic feel. For example, in David and Lena, Wagner sets up a lowlier 'mirror' couple to Walther and Eva. By promoting David from his apprenticeship (as singer as well as cobbler), Sachs - symbolising freedom and progress - is as responsible for making David and Lena's union possible, as he is Walther and Eva. Along the way, we have mistaken identity, a controlling father, a virtuous daughter... and the outsider/onlooker who ends the piece alone.

Wagner was no stranger to the *ahem* 'arrestingly modern' idea, and the presence of some of these psychological/sexual themes are extremely potent and challenging when applied to us normal folk instead of giants and gods. For example, there's the way Lena's love for David is expressed through providing food - and his feelings for her could almost be dismissed as cupboard love until his genuine outburst of anger and jealousy towards Beckmesser. Also - in contrast to, say, the incest between Siegmund and Sieglinde in the Ring Cycle - Sachs and Eva have a father/daughter/lovers dynamic that's subtly dealt with and achingly real. Sachs has known Eva all her life and is extremely fond of her - while well aware that any further feelings should probably be kept in check. Eva herself lets Sachs know that if he did enter and win the contest, it'd be fine with her - but, as we know she also loves Walther, the sense is very much of a young and rather confused person working their desires out with very little time to influence the outcome. A more cynical interpretation - she'll take anyone rather than Beckmesser - could be equally valid.

And despite my reluctance to consider RW a natural comedian, I couldn't help thinking that here he is, to some extent, sending himself up. By this time, he was fully into writing his 'music dramas' - rejecting showstopping, stand-alone arias that hold up the action in favour of a new style that had the music track the mood swings in the libretto.

Yet the opera itself is about the art of perfectly structured, self-contained songwriting. Sachs's tutorial of Walther - priming him with the necessary skills, yet shrewdly judging where the knight's innate talent has also moved the style on a touch - is the most obvious place for this. But elsewhere, say, there's beautiful use of the chorus, and liberal rhyming (present and correct in the fine, idiomatic translation). It's as if Wagner is saying, "Look - I can do this stuff when I want to..." and pulling off the feat of building in these more conventional features into his more sprawling, fully-realised vision. Who knows - perhaps, as he was hitting his head against a brick wall mid-Ring Cycle, he was reminding himself what he was capable of.

This tightrope the opera walks between tradition and innovation doesn't just allow its format to reflect its story - it's also a possible 'way in' to Sachs's closing remarks. Given what we know about RW's unsavoury views/character, the nationalistic feel of this paean to 'holy German art' seems problematic in hindsight. However, in context, it's a pep talk; Sachs gently deflates Walther's wish to break away and persuades him to respect the guild. Reflected outwards, this is Wagner demonstrating that his own operatic innovations still come from the same source as his forebears and that there is a place for him in the pantheon.

Director Richard Jones handles the finale deftly. The stage curtain is a Sgt-Pepper-style collage of German artistic innovators (progress as a tradition or characteristic), and as the opera closes, each cast member holds aloft an individual portrait of one of the figures. But the production doesn't put a foot wrong. The art/craft culture of the village is nicely evoked with elegant, but clean and uncluttered sets showing the functional life of the town - church, street square, park - punctuated with soft, busy, patterned backdrops. Props are used with humour and elan. The apprentices wheel on wardrobes behind the masters for them to don their robes and become local heroes - with helpful diagrams stuck on them to assist David's initial attempt to steer Walther through the rules. The graphics then reappear on the blackboard, only to be gleefully destroyed by Beckmesser's chalk. As I write, there are still two performances to go: so I shouldn't really describe Beckmesser's improvised use for his guitar following the riot. Once seen, never forgotten.

The orchestra under Edward Gardner (ENO's current - but outgoing - musical director) found a warm, enveloping tone that utterly banished any idea of Wagnerian bombast and created the necessary atmosphere of domestic intimacy and civic breeziness - then activating full-on beauty mode when the mastersongs took flight. Helping complete the illusion that the Coliseum, for those five hours, was a close-knit studio space were an essentially perfect cast.

To begin with, it's easy to see why the ENO chorus have been nominated as one of the best in their field in the international Opera Awards 2015. I've already seen them give such incredible performance in recent months ('Thebans', which - as befits Greek tragedy - contained such great writing for the chorus, as did 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary'). From their opening hymn in this production, you knew you were listening to a very special group of voices.

The leads were especially well-suited to their roles - both for their sound and the way it served their acting. I could list everyone but for me, there were three particular stand-outs. Rachel Nicholls as Eva sang angelically, but played against this when needed: the improvising runaway lover, or undecided coquette - with the ability to give lines a harsh snap in moments of frustration ("That's all I need!" on hearing of Beckmesser's approach). Andrew Shore gave Beckmesser a near-permanent expression of suppressed fury, and I marvelled at his ability to sing so beautifully yet angrily - at once - then finally, having the theatrical courage to still sing a note-perfect performance while convincing us utterly that he's demolishing a song. I still can't quite work out how he did this, which is how it should be.

As Sachs, however, Iain Paterson is surely giving one of the performances of his life. His bass-baritone voice has tremendous depth and power - as you might expect - but I'm still never quite prepared for its fleet agility and lightness when needed. It gives him the foundation to sing, as well as show, the vulnerability in these rocks of men. I first saw him during Barenboim's Ring Cycle at the 2013 Proms, singing Wotan in 'Das Rheingold' and made a resolution to try and catch his performances whenever possible. In the Royal Opera House's most recent 'Elektra', his unsettling Orest - sinking to the ground in exhaustion by his sister's body in the final moments - is still vivid in my memory, alongside his vehement and heart-wrenching interpretation of Kurwenal in last year's 'Tristan und Isolde'.

Sachs is one of the most intriguing characters in opera, I think - both ordinary and extraordinary bloke. He casts himself in the role of amused outsider and self-styled maverick - but behind the mischief is a keen mix of intelligence and kindness. He finds a way to clear up the confusion but in carrying out the plan he makes a sacrifice that only he can really feel or understand, as the brief window of opportunity where he might have won Eva for himself closes for good.

Unlike the other masters, Paterson's Sachs leaves his ornate robe open - a nice touch that visualises his reluctance to be hidebound by their system - as well as a signature laissez-faire that chimes in with his unerring ability to arrive everywhere a few minutes late. Always alert, always apart and always acting. Hands: a comic 'OK' gesture to Beckmesser mid-serenade at one point; at another, a heartbreaking, incomplete reach for Eva when her thoughts are elsewhere. Even though we were in the circle, IP's command of physical gestures and facial expressions made us feel like we could see what was in his mind, behind the eyes. While it might seem odd to commend such a fine singer in a moment of quiet, I must mention the start of Act 3, where during the prologue, Sachs is onstage alone, waking up. In those few minutes, we are treated to an acting masterclass by Paterson: he works through melancholy, loneliness (gripping his pillow), hope, acceptance, resolve - all by changes across his features and silent movement around the workshop. It was impossible to take your eyes off him, let alone your ears. Let's not forget, this luxuriously complete and rounded characterisation is all still in service of the vocal achievement: the range of dynamics (Sachs must argue, cajole, encourage, comfort and declaim, and Paterson adjusts the volume up and down exactly as needed) on display with such skilful diction and resonance made for an indelible portrayal. It was a performance I felt privileged to see.

Before I go - I should mention a couple of things. First, if you can see this production, you should. Time is short. Tickets look scarce on Saturday 7 March but with a few more available for Tuesday 10 March.

Second, Iain Paterson is also a fascinating and entertaining scribe (he worked on the translation for this production) and his blog is well worth following. Two recent pieces: the advice he gathered from his fellow Sachses, and his debt to the great John Tomlinson. I'm sure Paterson can expect present and future young singers to hold him in similar regard and seek him out for advice in the same way.