It was the fourth time, or maybe the fifth, that I found myself reaching for the tissues that I began to feel suspicious. Somewhere between the poignant gaiety of A.E. Housman’s ‘…lads that will never be old’, Shakespeare’s tender valediction ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ and Strauss’s ‘Morgen!’, with its rapturous vision of a never-reached tomorrow, emotion turned to manipulation. You can’t engineer catharsis (though you can score it to music), and this attempt felt like something a visit to the Royal Opera House has rarely felt like before — cheap.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the performances at this first in a series of live-streamed concerts. Louise Alder’s soprano dazzled and warmed, Gerald Finley was all sincerity and gravitas, leaving wistful for tenor Toby Spence’s English songs. The problem was one of conception. After 12 weeks of silence London’s flagship venue reopened with a whimper, a white flag of defeat — musical mourning, before the battle has even begun.
Neither a real recital nor a gala, caught between operatic lollipops and a strange selection of songs, this programme seemed to hope that sentiment would be enough. But while we may look to the arts for consolation, what we need more urgently right now is inspiration, innovation, action.
In the aftermath of the first world war, as composers, impresarios and institutions all faced existential doubts about the future of classical music, a rash of articles appeared with coyly rhetorical headlines like ‘Whither opera?’ The current cultural crisis may be as different as the tone in which we talk about it, but the question remains essentially the same. When it comes to opera, where the hell are we headed?
Historically, bigger has always been better in the opera house.