The first night of the new season at Covent Garden was cancelled when the solemn news came through. The second opened with a short, respectful speech from Oliver Mears, the director of opera, and a minute’s silence in which the houselights were lowered and we could gaze at the curtains, from which the huge gold-embroidered EIIR cypher had already been removed. For the first time in King Charles’s reign, we sang the national anthem to unfamiliar new words. There were shouts of ‘God Save the King!’And then the lights dimmed once more and we proceeded with the business of the evening, and the life of the Royal Opera.
Britain has never had a Court Opera in the continental sense, and that’s a good thing, sparing us the epic pomposity that disfigures so many European artistic institutions, and which was imported wholesale by the United States (expect a British orchestra to address you as ‘Maestro’ and you’ll be laughed off stage). The relationship between the opera and British royalty has always been more light touch. Arriving late at Covent Garden one afternoon, I was ushered, temporarily, into the vacant royal box. The sightlines were execrable, surely the worst in the house, with barely a third of the stage visible. That, presumably, is what Her late Majesty tolerated, uncomplaining, for all those years.
Anyway, the show went on, and if it’s difficult to think of a less appropriate opera for such a grave occasion than Richard Strauss’s Salome, it’s also hard to think of many circumstances in which Salome would ever be appropriate. That’s kind of the point: it’s blasphemous, it’s depraved, and the Vienna Court Opera banned it outright until after the fall of the Habsburg monarchy, when nothing in Austria really mattered any more.