Alexandra Coghlan

Call of duty

Is it possible to write a feminist opera about Jack the Ripper? Composer Iain Bell thinks it is, and his Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel tries very, very hard to prove it. But while the result is respectful, topical and agonisingly, paralysingly sincere, it’s also a sheep in wolf’s clothing. You can’t have

Deft and daft

Operas are like buses. Both are filled with pensioners and take ages to get anywhere, but more importantly they always seem to arrive en masse. You wait ages for a Magic Flute, then five come along at once. Opera North started us off in January, Welsh National Opera and English National Opera are currently following

Mirror, mirror…

We increasingly accept the collision between life and art. Whether we’re puzzling over the real identity of Elena Ferrante, choosing our own adventure in Bandersnatch, or boycotting the latest Polanski film, we’re buying into culture that’s more mirror than window. But wasn’t it ever thus? It’s a case Barbara Strozzi would certainly argue. The most-published

Divinely reticent

Earlier this year The Spectator published an article in celebration of Evensong — the nightly sung service of the Anglican Church. Attendance, it seems, is not just up but dramatically so. While church visitor figures across the UK have fallen steadily and substantially since the 1960s, congregations at sung services have swollen up to ten

Voices of doom

It’s December, and while musical theatre is busy celebrating ‘warm woollen mittens’, opera, as usual, is far more interested in the tiny frozen hands inside them. Because nothing says Christmas quite like consumption, and I’m not talking turkey and mince pies. London’s opera companies are serving up a heaped sleighful of heartbreak this year. English

Chills and thrills

How do you solve a problem like Lucia? Murder, madness, abuse, possibly even incest, all set to a soundtrack of rollicking, rum-ti-tum tunes. Add to that a Scottish setting (nothing sabotages dramatic seriousness quite like a kilt, just ask Mel Gibson) and you have Gilbert & Sullivan in an Italian accent, Ruddigore with a cigarette

On the road | 25 October 2018

Wolverhampton; Workington; Blackburn; Sheffield; Lancaster; Hackney. Every year English Touring Opera does what our national opera company doesn’t: packs up its props and takes to the road, bringing opera to the bits of the UK other companies don’t even think about reaching. And not just Traviatas and Toscas either, but properly interesting, often unusual, repertoire.

The naked and the dead

Yes, Oscar Wilde never wrote it. No, Strauss didn’t intend it. In fact, the composer famously demanded the Dance of the Seven Veils be ‘thoroughly decent, as if it were being done on a prayer mat’. But that doesn’t stop this striptease and musical money shot being the look-but-don’t-touchstone of any Salome. A blonde, blank-faced

Murderer or Madonna?

At the end of Act Two of Tosca there are some 30 bars of orchestral music — accompaniment to a very specific set of stage directions. During this time Tosca takes two candles and places them on either side of the dead Scarpia’s head. She then removes a crucifix from the wall and lays it

Britten at war

‘I feel I have learned lots about what not to write for the theatre…’ There’s a prevailing idea that the ever-precocious Benjamin Britten was an operatic natural — a composer whose gift sprang fully formed with the première of Peter Grimes in 1945. But that’s not strictly true. Go back just a few years to

Lord of the dance

Some conductors conduct from the fingers — think of Gergiev’s convulsive gestures, flickering up and down the keyboard of an invisible piano in the air — while for others (check out footage of an elderly Richard Strauss) it all comes from the wrist: graceful, fluid and utterly detached. You could cut off Toscanini and poker-down-the-back-of-his-tail-coat

War on waste

No wonder we have a problem with classical music in this country. The week started in celebration. The stats are in and it turns out that Radio 3’s breakfast show has enjoyed a rise of some 64,000 listeners — a not-to-be-sniffed-at11 per cent increase on last year. Meanwhile Classic FM’s listenership is also up significantly,

Russian ragout

There is famously no door into the late-night diner of Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’. Its three silent patrons are trapped behind the plate-glass window — specimens of urban disaffection and isolation. In Richard Jones’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk it’s the windows that are so disquietingly absent. John Macfarlane’s designs propel the action of Shostakovich’s final opera

What’s in a name

Janacek is the master of the operatic title. Think of the slippery, sleight-of-hand emphasis of Jenufa in its original Czech —Her Stepdaughter — or the elegant misdirection of The Beginning of a Romance. It encourages the suspicion that when Janacek christened his final opera, deliberately truncating the title of Dostoyevsky’s Siberian prison camp-inspired novel Notes

Accentuate the negative

A chaste act of adultery and a silent conversation: these are the encounters at the heart of Un ballo in maschera. On paper Verdi’s opera is a hot-blooded political thriller climaxing in a regicide, but in the watching it’s something entirely other. Just like the buoyant score, whose ‘aura of gaiety’ seems so at odds

Half-heard truths

If you’ve ever had a text or email thread spiral wildly and unexpectedly out of control or clocked a couple having a blank-faced argument in Tesco or a mother remonstrating with her toddler even though you couldn’t hear the words exchanged, then you understand the importance of the human voice. Command of tone, timbre, pitch

Follow the lieder

If a symphony is, as Mahler famously put it, ‘like the world’, then songs and lieder are like seeing that world in Blake’s grain of sand. Their span may be short, but their emotional horizon is infinite — a lyric window on to an epic landscape. And yet there’s something about a song recital that

Salon Strauss

An opera without singers, a Strauss orchestra of just 16, and an early music ensemble playing Mahler: welcome to the Oxford Lieder Festival, where familiar repertoire is getting a reboot this year thanks to some brilliantly ambitious programming. When it comes to classical music, we’re used to living in a bifurcated world. On the one

Soap opera

Previously on Giulio Cesare… English Touring Opera’s new season caters cannily to the box-set generation by chopping Handel’s Egyptian power-and-politics opera in two, playing each half on consecutive evenings as edge-of-your-seat instalments in a sort of baroque House of Cards. Will Cleopatra outwit her wicked brother? Will she and Cesare ever get together? Will Sesto

Vice and virtue

‘Can the ultimate betrayal ever be forgiven?’ screams the publicity for The Judas Passion, transforming a Biblical drama into a spears-and-sandals soap opera in a sentence. Thankfully, this really isn’t the premise of composer Sally Beamish and poet David Harsent’s new oratorio. Instead, the two authors pose a more interesting problem: is betrayal still betrayal