SECULAR LITURGIES

All must have prizes

Tom Sutcliffe fulminates against the demotic influence of reality television on serious artistic productions

 

Nothing wrong with incentives. Fear of (or hope for) what might happen to one in the after-life may still be a motivating factor in religions. But surely the emphasis on rewards and prizes in the British arts world has got out of hand, when the lead role in a commercial production of a musical is the winner of a talent contest settled by popular vote.

I am not saying there is no undiscovered or undeveloped talent out there. Nor that the preferences of the public mean nothing. But the belief that you can be a singer or an actor just because a lot of people like the way you look, and how you do things on the screen, is surely absurd. It’s not just a pleasing game.

Reality television is cheap entertainment, however unreal, because people are amused by any mirror that shows up the distinctiveness of everybody. But it all fits snugly together with a British performing arts establishment that is largely the plaything of amateur boards of rich successful entrepreneurs.

 

Too few companies

What has happened in Britain is that there are few performing arts institutions, whether in music or in the theatre and opera – compared with other European countries or the USA. So there is a dearth of environments where people can acquire the training they need, without being placed prematurely in the limelight. We Brits seem prone to the belief, fostered by modern technology and communications, that everybody can do anything – because the microphone, cinematography and the art of editing can manufacture an impressive simulacrum of performance.

Take Glyndebourne, where the season will open on 20 May with Billy Budd in a new production that will be director Michael Grandage’s debut in opera. At the Donmar Warehouse, Grandage has the Midas touch. -e publicity says launching theatre directors into opera is a Glyndebourne tradition. But it’s a recent one.

Last summer’s Glyndebourne season included Dvorak’s fairytale opera Rusalka staged by Melly Still making her opera debut. In my opinion, shared with Hugh Canning of the Sunday Times, this was the one of the worst directed Glyndebourne productions ever.

Actually Glyndebourne was built on German and Italian professionals, but neither Gus Christie nor David Pickard has any notion who the Gunther Rennert of today might be. Britten’s opera, unusually, has no female roles: it is also an opera with a lot of chorus work and a long cast list. Grandage has no experience directing an opera chorus. But his production will be solidly conventional.

Meanwhile at the London Coliseum, English NationalOpera got Rupert Goold, a current toast of the West End, to stage Turandot – having never staged an opera before; and television producer Penny Woolcock, whose production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic was depressingly incoherent last season, to tackle Bizet’s melodious romance The Pearl Fishers.

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Cultural curacies

Where are tomorrow’s British opera directors going to come from? Our problem is there is so little opera in Britain – and no theatre at all based on regular permanent ensembles of actors working consistently together – which means there is no proper training environment where opera and theatre directors can learn their skill as apprentices.

But how do the talented kids get their chances? We suffer in Britain from not having enough opera companies

with a need for young pianists to act

as repetiteurs and gradually work e of the worst their way up into being conductors. Glyndebourne What budding conductors need is the

experience of working with less good productions ever artists in order to know what a benefit

it is to work with better artists. Making good performances with the ordinarily musical Tom, Dick and Harriet is the real building block of British cultural life. -e Church with its choirs and services and performance-orientated buildings does a lot for our culture.

After years working as a critic on the Guardian, Vogue, the Evening Standard etc I believe criticism is far less about recognising genius, than about helping audiences appreciate the best of whatever they are getting. Unfortunately, these days, just as everybody thinks anybody can do anything and democracy rules supreme, so critics have become as unpopular and unvalued as journalists and politicians. In an age where memory is mechanised and music can be recorded and almost perfectly reproduced, there is less and less interest in expertise. Listeners can ‘suck it and see’ for themselves. Many use music as aural wallpaper, according to their taste.

It is the age of wish-fulfilment, illusion and amateurism. You can become a star because you are popular for who and what you are, rather than for what you do. -e film close-up has made beautiful looks matter, compared with the theatre in the old days when even bright lighting could not ‘reveal all’.

Skill and training are not needed. Only where we listen to the naked voice (as in opera) is professionalism inescapably crucial. But we now have the Turner Prize and the Booker Prize. Composers of unpopular modern music can win the Grawemeyer Award, now worth $200,000. With that sort of money Mozart could have given up composing altogether! ND