Opera – imagining the possibilities

It’s been a stormy week for the opera world, as I’m sure everyone is well aware, following a number of extraordinary remarks from critics of leading British newspapers regarding the physical attributes of Tara Erraught in Glyndebourne’s current production of Der Rosenkavalier. There was (quite rightly) a loud shout of protest from a number of singers, directors and other writers – among the first to speak out being mezzo Alice Coote, who has sung the very role in question in internationally acclaimed productions all over the world. What needed to be said in defence of this particular situation has been expressed, with great eloquence, by Alice, Trevor Bowes, Deborah Orr and others; and I am very glad that some of those critics have subsequently acknowledged the criticism and apologised. The situation has also – as a BBC Breakfast presenter rather ham-fistedly attempted to explain this morning – pushed opera into media centre stage. So since we are now actually talking about opera at a moment when more people than usual seem to be listening, perhaps it’s time we took the trouble to consider the issues at stake.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way first. Am I an opera singer? No. I am a professional music researcher with a broad and detailed knowledge of classical music, who attends as many performances as I can reasonably afford to get to. Have I seen the Glyndebourne production that began this debate? No. Alas, my working life has prevented me from attending (which I regret deeply, since Rosenkavalier is one of my favourite operas). Does this make the rest of this blog post invalid? Absolutely not, because I love opera, I love music, I have enormous respect for all the musicians, dancers, designers and crew who works together to create live and extraordinary events for us to enjoy. All of us. And we should stand up for what we believe to be important. Opera is about people, emotion, thoughtfulness and beauty (which is not the same as saying that it always has to be beautiful – a deliberate lack or corruption of beauty can be extremely powerful and used to tremendous effect, musically and dramatically).

But more than that. Opera is not literal. It can’t be. It is on a stage, in a theatre, featuring a set and costume design which may or may not have anything to do with the historical period (or indeed the location) in which the action is set. More than that, in its long and colourful history, opera has featured men singing the roles of women; women singing the roles of men; characters throwing on clothes of the opposite sex and apparently becoming immediately unrecognisable to lovers, friends and relatives – shades of Superman, anyone? – people playing gods and monsters, dragons and dead people… You get the idea.

With the extraordinary advancements of film technology over the past few decades, we have become extremely used, extremely quickly, to the notion of being able to create and manipulate the visual. TV shows from the 1990s suddenly look clumsily, embarrassingly ‘fake’. But they didn’t at the time, as far as I remember. They looked real. They looked real because we watched the screen, we followed the speech and actions and emotions of the characters, and we filled in the rest to make it real to us, because we cared about it.

Last week’s uproar makes it painfully clear that we have apparently become so conditioned to expect that literal, visual interpretation that we have forgotten about that central seed, so important to all art: imagination. And you know the great thing about imagination? It’s totally unique to each of us. How many times have you been to a film version of a story that you’ve loved dearly as a book for years, and found yourself saying at the end, ‘Well in my head, I always thought that character was a red head/had a moustache/spoke with a Northern accent?’ Artists – writers, composers, painters, and many others besides – give us the gift not only of their creations, but the invitation to bring our own thoughts, feelings and emotions into play as we engage with what they have made.

There has also been a certain amount of debate sparked by Alice’s strong conviction that opera was all about the music. I remember all too well, as a cocky undergraduate, arguing against this very thing. But now I find myself agreeing. Because what is the one thing that survives from production to production, regardless of the era, country, planet, even, in which the director chooses to set the action? The work of the composer and the librettist. Sometimes it’s cut, translated or otherwise edited. But it’s why we go, isn’t it? We go because we want to hear great musicians doing wonderful things – and we want to see them do it, live. And being a great singer, by the way, means that the physical gesture of the music – the phrase, the line, the emotion – is there in your body.

So it strikes me as a splendid irony that Rupert Christiansen, in his ‘I stand by every word’ article published earlier this week in The Telegraph, has apparently inadvertently made two points that nicely back all of this up. First of all, he writes that Tara Erraught ‘cannot visually embody any conventional idea of Octavian’. Well… good. Why should she? Whose convention, and why should we adhere to it? We are not passive receivers, we are human beings, and in engaging with a range of interpretations we can be challenged, uplifted, and learn something new about the artwork and ourselves. Secondly, he writes that Octavian was conceived ‘as a Principal Boy-type and most successfully incarnated in the past by taller or more strapping mezzo-sopranos’. And here I point to this lady: Eva von der Osten, the first Octavian.

Eva von der Osten

Funny, don’t you think? She almost looks line a woman. Not a tall or particularly strapping woman. But a woman, coincidentally, who sang major Wagner roles all over America, was the darling of the Dresden opera-going public, created the role of Octavian, and even directed the premiere of Strauss’s Arabella. I’d be willing to bet that if we’d be fortunate enough to have had a ticket for that first night, on 26 January 1911, of Der Rosenkavalier, we would have been utterly moved, utterly convinced, and utterly unbothered by the stature of the singers. If they created those roles as brilliantly as the finest singers do for us today, their artistry and our own willing and open imaginations would have made it as real as anything we experience in our lives. And what an experience that can be.


Following the very valid point from one reader that I hadn’t included any of the write-ups from that premiere performance, here are a few fragments from ‘“Der Rosenkavalier” at Dresden, The Times, Friday 27 January 1911, p.10:
‘The first performance of Der Rosenkavalier ended after three and a half hours of music in a blaze of triumph, before perhaps the most critical audience ever gathered together in a theatre [… After discussing the centrality of the Marchallin’s role:] The by-play of Fräulein von der Osten as Octavian was particularly admirable. […]The earlier part of the action [in act 3] went splendidly, thanks mainly to Fräulein von der Osten, than whom a better Octavian could not be imagined. […] At the termination of the work every one concerned was recalled some 20 times […]’

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