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Thought(s) for the day; some things never change

During the months of recent self-examination by the opera world and its constant battles with itself and others, it has been easy to forget about the art itself. I do think that in the operatic firmament, there is a great deal wrong (about which, more soon, elsewhere) and at times it can feel quite apocalyptic but there goes along with that a feeling that whatever "problems" exist, they are temporary, cyclical. I suppose we should know relatively soon towards what fate we are all striding, at turns bellicose and defiant, or anxious, self-regarding, timid and supplicant to the great combined Gods of digital and one dimensional new-audience gratification. Paddy Power should open a book.

But what has certainly struck me recently after watching several rehearsals and performances is just how unchanged the art form is on a very simple level. After 25 years of doing it, I am aware that opera is just the same, provokes the same emotions, the same concerns, the same cynical examinations, tastes and professional judgements. I am not talking about the modernisation of productions (after all, we had a production at Holland Park nearly 23 years ago that had Trovatore set in the streets of Belfast) but the simple, visceral concepts, disciplines and effects of opera. I am aware there is no great profundity in this realisation, which is sort of the point.

Unquestionably, there seems to be a school of thought that "singers were better" in the "old days" and nostalgia persists in audience thinking. Yet, we still sit in the theatre and think the very same things we thought years ago about a particular singer, or conductor, director or even individual orchestral players. One still recoils at a particular vocal tone that has its foundation in technical deficiencies that existed 100 years ago, too; you can still hear a bloom (or not) in a voice at roughly the same age as one did decades ago; it is still possible to melt at pictures painted on a stage by a director and his designer or cringe at those you wish they hadn't. As with committed long-time audience members, the ear is trained, refined, able to hear nuance, layers of sound, the vocal inflections and weaknesses and this is of course why we argue so vehemently about certain cross-over artists who we insist are not opera singers. We don't do that because we are snobs, but usually because we know the difference. And the things that make "real" opera singers different are the same as they have been for all time.

Theatrical believability has become a powerful, positive force in opera in the last couple of decades (a discernible change if there is one) and that has given us many interesting things to praise, argue, gnash and snarl about, but opera hasn't really changed that much has it? It may sound counter-intuitive but by bringing theatrical believability and pungency to operatic stages, we have given the thrill of the voice and its age-old manner a new and scintillating context. I would argue we can identify huge developments in television production and styles, in acting itself even, theatrical writing, pop music. But not so in opera - perhaps a loosening of censorious instincts? - and amid the gloom, that should give us more hope than concern. Moreover, we shouldn't be afraid of the foundations that remain either.


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