In June 2013, on a clear summer’s evening, I staggered out of the London Coliseum and made my way to the Hungerford Bridge. Leaning over the railings, I stared out at the water, took deep breaths, and tried to sort myself out before heading back to Waterloo on my way home. I was there a good fifteen minutes at least, trying to steady my emotions and calm myself down.
I had just emerged from a performance by English National Opera of Britten’s Death in Venice, in a magnificent production by Deborah Warner. It was superbly performed, beautifully staged, and utterly horrible. As it should be, of course – the opera was not well-known to me before I saw it live, but I had both read the novel and seen the Visconti film. I knew what was coming. What I could not have predicted was the level of intensity and discomfort added by the breath-taking score and its staging. There was no directly sexual content, no gory violence, no coarse language that I recall. But it is one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.
I would be very interested to know, were there an operatic equivalent of the British Board of Film Classification, how they would rate Death in Venice – or more particularly, that production of Death in Venice. Because I’ve no doubt that other productions might be more or less successful, engaging, graphic, and so on. And that should affect the certificate granted to the staging.
But of course, there is no operatic equivalent of the BBFC. Even opera DVDs of productions from Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House and elsewhere seem to be exempt from such certification. I presume this is because opera is Art, and Art is Educational, and Education is Good For You, and so one takes the rough with the smooth. (Which is stupendously insulting to film makers, because presumably this means that film cannot be Art.)
This week, I came across Fiona Maddocks’s recent piece lampooning the Royal Opera House’s decision to warn patrons of graphic depictions of sex and violence in several of their recent productions. And I got to the end of the piece genuinely baffled by what I had just read. See, I was under the impression that we wanted as broad an audience as possible to engage with live opera, theatre, dance, music-making and so on. To my mind, that means helping people who might be attending such an event for the first time get an idea of what they’re in for. And just as I can look at the poster, trailer, rating, guidance and blurb for American Psycho and decide that actually, I could do without sitting through that just at the moment, the ROH appears to be trying to do the same thing for opera-goers. Could someone please explain to me why this is a problem?
Just as there is a world of difference between the Richard IIIs of Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen, and the universes their characters inhabit, so too operatic productions can vary wildly in their choice of historical scenario, decisions to emphasise or downplay sexual or violent elements in the libretto, inclusion of flashbacks or other unscripted physical theatre within a scene, moving of (particularly murders and sexual violence) episodes on-stage which might previously have been off-stage. So even if you went to see Don Giovanni last year and it was all psychological menace underlying decorous on-stage behaviour, you might find that the production now doing the rounds includes far more blatant depictions of the Don’s misdeeds. That is the joy and malleability of theatrical interpretation, which allows us to argue endlessly and excitedly about productions we have and haven’t liked. (Or if you prefer, which I don’t, to argue about the ‘artistic integrity’ of various productions.)
The National Theatre invites patrons to call the Box Office if they are concerned about the content and suitability of material; The Old Vic gives age restrictions and details of why they are being imposed, for certain productions. No one appears to have a problem with this. The ROH is now doing the same. Is it because of THAT Guillaume Tell? Probably. Does that matter? Nope. What matters is that the information allows would-be audience members to make an informed decision. It is not ‘a slippery slope’. It also not the ROH ‘apologising for art’. It is most certainly not worthy of Maddocks’s patronising remark that, if you can’t cope with some of the more graphic elements of such productions, ‘live theatre is not for you.’
No one is asking, expecting, demanding that directors blunt their sharp creative edges to ensure that the audience is not upset. Of course, if they were, that really would be something to fight against. But as one of the Guardian’s astute commenters remarks, ‘Since when is a warning an apology?’. I would like to think that we are all keen to encourage new audiences to attend opera. Whether they are seven years old, suffering from PTSD, or just not a big fan of buckets of blood, I see no harm in giving them a sense of what they are letting themselves in for. The friend with whom I saw that extraordinary Death in Venice had to leave at the interval – it was too much for her, psychologically, and she had to get out. She had known that it might be, because she knew the story and how unsettling it was. She decided to go anyway, because having information in advance is a form of preparation, not a means of discouraging attendance. She was mightily impressed with the production, and is glad she tried to sit through it. She had to leave, and blames no one for that at all.