"Regrettable."

klinghoffer

The Met have made the shameful announcement that they won’t, after all, be broadcasting their performance of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer to cinemas across the world. Shameful, in a general sense, because of their failure to stand up for freedom of expression in the arts due to an interest group’s dubious claims that it might ‘ferment anti-Semitism’. (How long before performances of The Merchant of Venice are banned or James Joyce’s Ulysses is pulled off the shelves? Both are more problematic than Klinghoffer in their treatment of Jews, but it’s no solution to pretend that they never happened.) But the Met’s decision is specifically shameful because said interest group has a political agenda in ignoring the complexity and importance of this work.

The Anti-Defamation League claim to exist to ‘protect civil rights for all’ (in this case, then, perhaps ignoring the fact that freedom of expression is a civil right). Their concerns were that the opera could be used ‘as a means to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism’. That’s quite a leap of logic: the opera is a dramatisation of events in which anti-Semitism played a part, but as librettist Alice Goodman (who not insignificantly was born a Jew) points out, ‘there is nothing anti-Semitic in Klinghoffer apart from one aria, which is sung by an anti-Semitic character and is clearly flagged as such.’ It stretches my credulity to breaking point to imagine neo-Nazi groups adopting a modern aria as some kind of anthem, let alone sitting through an entire opera exploring the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its consequences.

But it is the complexity of the opera’s outlook that is really at the bottom of the ADL ‘concerns’. They quote the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer as saying that the opera attempts to ‘romanticise, rationalise, legitimise and explain’ the murder of their father. The accusation that the events are romanticised doesn’t really stand up to artistic scrutiny (unless you consider opera inherently romantic, in which case you need some Berg in your life), but as for rationalise, I wholeheartedly agree: the whole point is that terrorist acts are not irrational, at least not in the minds of those who commit them. Does it make terrorists more scary if we rationalise what is running through their heads, show what they have in common with us, that they are thinking human beings rather than purely ‘evil’? Yes it does, and rightly so. It is also vital if we are going to understand and tackle the issue of terrorism at its roots. That is a long way from legitimising their actions.

Klinghoffer’s daughters may object to the murder of their father being given an explanation, but writing it off as a meaningless murder is to do him an injustice and to invite the same kind of events to happen again and again. The ADL are unable to see such a nuanced perspective as anything more than ‘implicit justification of terrorism’ (one suspects they haven’t bothered to sit through the opera anyway), but the people at the Met (who surely have) ought to know better: the arts are a vital way of understanding the world we live in and Klinghoffer is one of the most significant recent works on this subject, the reason I suggested many years ago on this blog that every politician ought to be forced to watch it.

By preventing the broadcast of this opera, the Met are preventing engagement with the issues it raises; they are restricting education and discussion. They are bowing to a one-sided political stance and perpetuating an unhelpfully divisive view of a conflict which will only ever be resolved with mutual sympathy and understanding.

And yes, they are also limiting the audience for a Bloody Good Opera.

Advertisements

New ways to read Dickens

When I read my parents’ Penguin Classics edition of David Copperfield at the age of 17, I loved it so much that I went out and bought my own copy, in what I then considered a rather handsome Everyman edition, at least for my meagre income at the time. It isn’t especially handsome, in fact, but it contains all the original illustrations, is edited by a man from the University of Kent and has a nice picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral on the front. All excellent reasons to take it off the shelf and revisit it, which I got around to doing a few weeks ago.

IMG_6067

The novel remains every bit as wonderful as I remembered – a little more, in fact – though this reading brought with it a couple of discoveries that I hadn’t anticipated.

The first concerns my handsome, self-funded teenage purchase, which at the end of page 254 threw up the sentence ‘having my boots cleaned over and over compliment he had paid my relation’. Further investigation revealed the reason was that page 254 was unexpectedly followed by page 223, with the subsequent 30 pages repeated all over again but pages 255 to 286 missing altogether.

I fumed for a bit. So much for my handsome Everyman edition and Malcolm Andrews from the University of Kent. But I decided that 17 years after making the purchase I couldn’t reasonably expect a refund.

Not being prepared to read Dickens on a Kindle, I decided to invest in a really handsome edition of David Copperfield to make up for the disappointment: I wanted hardback, I wanted faux leather binding, I wanted gold trimmings. I spent many obsessive hours researching what was available and ended up with this:

IMG_6066

That’s 36 volumes of Dickens. Sometimes I overcompensate for disappointment.

My other discovery was more literary and I’m surprised it hasn’t been discussed more often, though not that I didn’t notice it at 17 years old. I’m talking about the psychological complexity of the central character when it comes to gender identity and sexuality – perhaps Dickens revealed more about himself than he meant to with this, his ‘favourite child’.

David Copperfield is feminised from the opening chapter, by an Aunt who expects him to be born a girl, and who later rechristens him with the non-gender specific name of Trotwood. What is it that Mr Murdstone finds objectionable about young David, except that he has been brought up to be a bit girly? Murdstone’s whole attitude reeks of forced masculinity, from the moment he takes David boozing with his loutish friends (the Murdstones are themselves a fascinating study in predatory fundamentalism; Murdstone’s need to subjugate women, aided by his sexless sister, speaks volumes about his own insecurities). At school, David becomes a wife figure to Steerforth, reading aloud to him in bed and acquiring the nickname ‘Daisy’ – Steerforth, like David’s Aunt, seeks to feminise him from the word go (for presumably rather different motives):

‘You haven’t got a sister, have you?’ said Steerforth, yawning … ‘If you had had one, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her.’

As for actual wives, David’s relationship with Dora (the most pathetic female character ever committed to typescript) is written about in the same terms as his childhood infatuation with Little Em’ly, all romantic imagery and idealised yearning, and the unhappy reality of the marriage is that he ends up treating her as a child – she even begs him to call her his ‘child-wife’. His second marriage grows out of ‘sisterly affection’, his love for Agnes developing ‘in the withering of his hopes’ and having a platonic domesticity from the off.

No, if you want real passion then you have to look again to Steerforth and David’s extraordinary outpourings of desire whenever he describes or remembers him. The most erotic thing we hear about David’s married life is seeing his wife’s hair in papers; Steerforth is the only person we see undressing David and putting him to bed. And look at the way Steerforth dies – he is dragged fighting into a sea that explicitly mirrors a tumult in the depths of David’s memory, in a chapter full of elemental, virile imagery, reducing him at the end to the sleeping form David recalls gazing at long into the night in his schooldays. (Dora’s death, by way of a comparison, is represented by the last gasp of a dog.)

No wonder Steerforth’s betrayal hits David so hard. It has a similar impact on Rosa Dartle, an extremely complex character who more than makes up for Dora’s two-dimensional femininity (Steerforth’s attitude towards both his mother and Dartle make it explicitly clear that he is sexually aware); Rosa is one of many female characters in the book for whom a heated awareness of passionate, sexual love leads to unbridled misery (Martha, Emily, maybe even Betsey Trotwood if you’re looking for reasons as to why she emasculates the only men she associates with). Dickens seems to be saying that innocence is bliss, and David’s apparent bliss at the novel’s end is only achieved through an almost wilful naivety. Do his schoolboy passions and night of drunken abandon hint at what he is striving to repress?

Far be it from me to restyle David Copperfield as an archetypal model of closeted Victorian homosexuality, a virginal counterpart to Dorian Gray.

But he sort of is.

Voices that will not be drowned

britten-noyes-fludde

I can’t possibly let this day pass without at least a mention of Benjamin Britten. It’s impossible for any British composer of my generation to deny his influence completely, though while I was at university it was fashionable for jumped-up wannabes to do so; I wasn’t one of them, though I kept my love of Britten quiet when fellow wannabes were writing him off, because it seemed like the kind of thing that would make me look naive. So, let me put the record straight: as a child, then as a teenager, and now as an adult, a musician and an occasionally professional composer, I love Britten. I don’t claim to like all of his music, or even that it’s all great music (though plenty of it is), but his influence remains substantial, and one reason sticks out in particular:

Benjamin Britten was the last great composer to truly understand theatre.

A bold claim? Maybe. I’ll stand by it. Because for all the fine stuff I’ve read about Britten’s significance in his centenary year, nobody else has said it, and somebody ought to.

Of course it is often accurately stated that he single-handedly rehabilitated British opera, but that rehabilitation went far beyond writing first rate music, it was an exploration and expansion of the boundaries of opera as a form of theatre. Peter Grimes had popular appeal on the scale of a West End musical (‘Sadler’s Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman!’ as the possibly apocryphal route 38 bus conductor is oft quoted) because of the power of its storytelling as much as the accessibility of his musical style. He formed his own touring company to bring opera to wider audiences and in doing so introduced theatrical pragmatism into the scale of his work, which didn’t stop The Turn of the Screw from being a masterpiece. He did historical drama with rigorous attention to detail, achieving both factual and psychological accuracy. He produced interactive theatre for children and amateurs, without it sounding amateur or patronising. By his last opera he was pushing the limits of structure and theatrical fluidity. Bugger the rehabilitation of British opera, he was a great dramatist full stop – and that is in spite of the variable quality of his libretti, because the drama always came from the notes of the score. In fact, there’s precious little in his output that isn’t dramatic in some way – it’s what made him such an adept writer of songs.

It’s something I became acutely aware of two weekends ago at the excellent Bychkov-conducted War Requiem at the Albert Hall – another work that had immense popularity on its release and (probably not coincidentally) has had a backlash of snobbery from the artistic elite. I could point to the bits that are less successfully musically, but listening to it live I realised that it didn’t make any difference to the impact it had as a reflective, impassioned and utterly remorseless work. Thanks to Britten’s instinctive sense of drama, deft use of juxtaposition and the ability to produce massive effects with the tiniest gesture, in performance the work is greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.

Why do I feel Britten was the last great composer to achieve this? Because his consummate understanding of theatre is something subsequent great composers have somehow failed to pick up for themselves. Modern operas are often vast, impressive, musically tightly wrought and artistically experimental. They are also all too often really serious and nearly always outstay their welcome. And theatrical? Not that I’ve seen or heard. (And yes, you can hear theatricality in a great opera score – indeed, my first experience of Peter Grimes was lying on my bed as a teenager following the libretto as a CD reduced me to tears.) Somehow, music that is in any aspect subservient to drama has become the (admittedly rare) property of film, theatre and musicals – none of which are currently the domain of the genuinely great composer (I say that with respectful knowledge of the very very talented people working in those areas).

This is a far more useful thing to take from the Britten celebrations than the column inches eulogising about his empathy with the human spirit or about the pain of the loss of innocence and pacifism and closest homosexuality and blah blah blah – look, there’s plenty of video footage of the man and he doesn’t seem that miserable. Yes, he communicated the pain of being a human being brilliantly because he was a brilliant communicator – but let’s not forget that he also had a great sense of humour. Albert Herring is a sublime comic opera and A Midsummer Night’s Dream does the funny bits far better than a certain recent West End production I’d prefer to forget about.

Where are the 21st century comic operas? (Or to clarify, where are the 21st century operas that are actually funny?) Perhaps composers are so desperate to be taken seriously that they consider an actual comic opera a bit trivial.

Well, Britten didn’t.

I leave you with glorious evidence that Britten knew that opera singers could be funny as well as scary. And that opera could be for kids as well.

Hopes and bones

There’s something really special about finding yourself in the presence of something artistically unique that hasn’t been discovered by many other people. It’s not that I don’t like sharing things.

Well –

Okay, I don’t mind sharing things, but there’s nothing more irritating than a casual enthusiast, is there? Like how everyone’s a Bowie fan now, and those of us who actually bothered with him when he was ‘dead’ and know full well that he didn’t go off the radar for even remotely ten years don’t get any credit for it. Because now everyone‘s an expert, aren’t they? Like the ‘expert’ DJ the BFI got in for their Bowie party, the one who told me I wasn’t allowed to request ‘Look Back in Anger’ because it’s an Oasis song. Yeah, if you’re going to share, share, but don’t just nibble at the edges, right?

– but it’s not that I don’t like sharing things.

There’s just something nice about getting there before everyone else.

One such special moment was when, many many years ago when I was youthful and optimistic and rehearsing what turned out to be merely the first work-in-progress run of The Rise and Fall of Deon Vonniget, my co-star (yes, it was still a two-hander back then!) introduced me to a man called Archie Colquhoun, and a small group of us sat in a candlelit cafe and listened as he recited, in lyrical Scottish tones, some unexpectedly beautiful and brilliant poetry. I blogged effusively about it at the time and, in a sideways kind of way, compared him to Dylan Thomas (well, ‘a Dylan Thomas’, whatever that means – how many Dylan Thomases were there, Lark?).

I mention it now because a couple of days ago I received an email out of the blue from somebody who has videoed Archie reciting some of his poems. He was kind enough to think I might be interested to know about it, since I once compared Archie to Dylan Thomas (or a Dylan Thomas).

I feared that, what with the candlelight and the generally emotional state of being a) youthful and optimistic and b) doing a show, I might have exaggerated quite how magical this man was. So what a delight to discover that both the poetry and the delivery are every bit as wonderful as I remember.

Watch it now, below.

See? I like sharing things.

We'll dance in the dark

This is curious: here’s young band covering a Bowie song from 2002, which gives the lie to the myth that Bowie ceased to be influential (or write decent songs) after 1980.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/31687200

Now, for my money they’re doing a pretty good job – certainly there are worse Bowie covers out there. Far, far worse.

But is it just me, or does the cover – all wall-of-sound guitars and U2-bass (i.e. where the bass plays every note 16 times in a row) – already sound dated?

Particularly when you compare it to the original, with its throwback “Heroes”-era bass thrust into a grungy rhythm mixed with New Orleans trumpet interjections plus a vocal verging on Shirley Bassey-esque, yet with a transparent sound that lets you hear it all – which somehow manages to sound bang up to date nearly ten years after its release:

Happy birthday, ma'am

Bowie

David Bowie turns 60 today, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at him.

I am part of the generation which, some would say unfortunately, was first introduced to the Dame in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth. I still think it’s a fabulous film, but it was rather late in the day when I became aware of the man’s true significance. A key moment for me was watching highlights from Glastonbury 2000 on television and seeing Bowie give an awesome – and I still reckon possibly his best ever – performance of “Heroes”.

Not that I became an instant fan. As the many 60th birthday retrospectives of his work point out with tedious regularity, a hallmark of his career has been the many unexpected changes of direction his music, appearance and career have taken. I went through a long period of listening to Bowie albums I hadn’t heard before and being disappointed because they were nothing like the last one I’d by then started to like. It was several years before I learned to love 1. Outside, an album which I now consider to be one of his finest pieces of work (an opinion which looks likely to remain a minority, so I get to feel like my point of view is a bit special). And to this day I can’t say I really like Young Americans, I have a love/hate relationship with The Man Who Sold the World, I think Low is overrated and I actively dislike most of Let’s Dance. (The more excessive 80s albums that most people hate I actually quite like, because they’re – well, excessive 80s albums.)

But this ability to do the unexpected and the persistent desire to experiment with new ideas is one of the most appealing things about Bowie. His ability to write perfectly-crafted pop songs would have been enough to cement his reputation, but instead he continuously took risks and pushed his (pretty extensive) musical talents to their limits – the reason why I think his work should be treated more seriously by the musical establishment as a whole.

The scale of his talents as a musician are often overlooked, too – aside from being a great songwriter, he’s comfortable playing half a dozen different instruments, he’s a superb singer, a great lyricist and has a stage presence most rock stars would kill for. He actually learned to orchestrate for his (now pretty much forgotten) debut album. But he’s also a true rennaissance man – not just a fine musician, but well-read and lucid, a painter (I don’t know much about art but I know that his work appeals to me), and people who still don’t think he can act should check out his impressive albeit understated performance in The Prestige.

It’s a bit of a pity then that all of the radio coverage I’ve heard has been rather inclined to go for the obvious glam rock tracks and ignore the weightier stuff. I like “Life on Mars?” as much as the next man, but for the sake of balance here are my top ten recommended tracks which you almost certainly won’t hear on the radio this week, in chronological order:

1. All the Madmen (from The Man Who Sold the World)
2. Quicksand (from Hunky Dory)
3. Time (from Aladdin Sane)
4. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing reprise (from Diamond Dogs)
5. Station to Station (from Station to Station)
6. Always Crashing in the Same Car (from Low)
7. Look Back in Anger (from Lodger)
8. Teenage Wildlife (from Scary Monsters and Super Creeps)
9. A Small Plot of Land (from 1. Outside)
10. Bring me the Disco King (from Reality)

There you go, you’ve no excuse – get on iTunes and open your mind.