‘People Do Not Sing When They Are Feeling Sensible.’

Scene from ROH production of Wagners's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Lissy Lovett:  I go to the theatre quite a bit, maybe once or twice a week on average.  I’m lucky enough to see a lot of different kinds of things, Big West End musicals, straight plays in the subsidised sector, fringe productions, but I have only ever been to the opera twice.  Once was to see some modern thing that I didn’t understand one bit at the Coliseum a few years ago, and then I went to see La Traviata at the Royal Opera House at the end of last year.

The first thing that struck me about the whole experience, is that in venues of that massive size, I’m used to see lights & speakers everywhere.  We were sitting in the Amphitheatre right at the top, and if I squinted a bit I could almost believe that it looked exactly as it would have done in 1858.  The proscenium arch was completely clear of lighting bars & speaker stacks.  Which meant, I guess, that the orchestra & singers aren’t amplified at all?  Is that the case?  Because if so that’s really amazing.  I’m not used to seeing singers who can sing that loudly!  In your average West End musical everyone will have their own radio mic. I guess thinking about it that must be a modern-ish innovation, but it’s completely standard in theatre now.  I’m finding it still quite hard to get my head around one voice being able to fill a space that large.

Josephine Grahl:  I don’t think I’ve ever seen any opera where the singers or orchestra were amplified, although there are some modern operas where the composers specify the use of microphones. Occasionally the subject of amplification comes up in the opera world and a lot of people get hot under the collar about it – people sometimes accuse the big opera houses of secretly miking singers or orchestra – but if you think about the way in which opera singers sing, it would totally change the experience to mike them up: you could do it but the singers would probably have to sing in a completely different way. I think the absence of amplification makes the experience more exciting because – for some operas especially – just getting through the part becomes a genuinely impressive physical feat in and of itself. And also there’s an incredible emotional charge to some of the quieter passages – like this bit from La Traviata  – where the singer has to do something amazing: fill a huge theatre with her voice but also convey the delicacy of the passage.

That’s an interesting point about the tidying away of all the electronic kit and the lighting and so on. Partly it must be to do with the slightly traditional (read: snobbish?) side of opera: red velvet and gilt doesn’t go with cables and electronics. But I also wonder if it’s partly about helping along the suspension of disbelief? Baritone Thomas Allen gave an interview to the Guardian recently where he observed that “People shouting, albeit in a very musical way, does seem an odd way to express oneself”. Getting past that idea of just singing, all the way through, is quite a big step, I think. In some ways the musical, where the singing tends only to happen at moments of extreme emotion, makes more sense than singing everything including the utterly banal parts of the text.

LL: I think there are a few sound designers who would claim that they could mic & amplify in such a way that that you wouldn’t be able to tell, but I’m not sure that they’re right.  Though to totally contradict that, I’ve been surprised in the odd straight play to suddenly notice a radio mic nestled in an actor’s hair when I hadn’t noticed the amplification at all!

More than the singing straight through, the part that really troubled my suspension of disbelief was the perfunctory way some of the plot, and in particular changes of heart, were dealt with.  If someone makes a decision on stage in Shakespeare, very often they get a whole beautiful soliloquy to make it, and you can see the process that they are going through to get there.  In La Traviata, people’s emotions seemed to turn on sixpences – Alfredo went from being happily in love, to convinced Violetta was the worst woman alive in seconds with no visible or audible journey and Annina owned up to selling all of Violetta’s stuff when she’d be told not to, with no apparent reluctance.  I suspect that one is meant to get a lot of that emotional stuff from the music, but I felt that the music & the story didn’t always fit together that well.  In something like Wicked I feel, even though it’s obviously a fantastical story, the whole thing is much more internally consistent, with music, plot, acting & visuals all working together, which for me is much more believable.

An image from the musical Wicked.

JG: Yes – the music has to do a lot in opera. And it often succeeds amazingly well. The final act of Tristan and Isolde, for example, is practically devoid of action. Tristan and his friend Kurwenal basically just sit around staring at the sea waiting for Isolde to arrive. Without the music you’d just be thinking ‘for Pete’s sake will someone please DO something now!’ but when you see and hear it performed it seems totally gripping, full of longing and tension. Although with Wagner, you know, opinions differ…

Actually Wagner’s quite an interesting person to mention with reference to your point about music, plot, acting & visuals all forming a coherent whole. His idea about opera was that it ought to be a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – a total or universal work of art – which would unite opera, drama and visual arts into something which had universal relevance and was a peak of culture. I’m not sure he succeeded in that! but I do find that opera generally and Wagner in particular is much more understandable and gripping when you see it live than when you just listen on the radio.

LL: ‘for Pete’s sake will someone please DO something now!’ was very much my internal monologue whilst watching the recent-ish Waiting for Godot revival at the Haymarket Theatre Royal.  The whole thing would have been enlivened no end with a bit of singing.

I’m not sure I’m ready for Wagner!  Maybe another couple of entry level operas before going on to the hard stuff…  Did/do Wagner’s operas have fixed set designs and costumes then?  Or did he want them to & to have a hand in that?  OR did the just think that the greatest visual artists of the day should be designing them?  I love the big-headedness of thinking you can make ultimate art.

JG: Wagner didn’t insist that his works should be performed in a certain way, but he did think the sets and costumes and visual appearance of the opera should all be seen as a whole. Like, the sets aren’t just a backdrop, they’re part of a great visual and musical Experience which supposedly goes beyond the potential of any of those arts taken separately.

LL: For the true opera buff, are your average musical songs a bit too simplistic?  I don’t listen to classical (is that even the right word?) music at all, so I think that in some ways I’m always listening to a language that I don’t entirely understand and missing things.

JG: I wouldn’t say that musicals songs are simplistic but I think they sometimes have less work to do. You know that quote about musicals – is it Stanley Donen who said it? – ‘When they can no longer speak, they sing, and when they can no longer sing, they dance’. A song in a musical is usually the emotional climax of a scene, but in opera, it’s all singing: the music itself has to move you from the bits where they’re introducing themselves to the bits where they’re vowing to leave their loved ones forever. So you’re probably right about the text sometimes seeming quite cursory.

In my experience (which may not be particularly reliable) it does seem that straight theatre and especially fringe has in the last few years taken to using music in a sort of opera/filmy way to enhance or intensify a certain mood. Do you think that this is more usual than it used to be? Or is it something that’s always been done and I just happen to have noticed it? It can be very effective – particularly in a low-budget or minimal production – to have a lovely bit of music at a really intense moment… although if it’s *too* obvious you do end up thinking, is this just a cop-out because the actors aren’t able to sustain this emotional level through their acting?

LL: That’s a really good point about underscoring.  I’ve only just started noticing it too (the first time it really struck me was in  the Donmar’s Jude Law Hamlet at the Wyndhams back in 2009, not that that was fringe!), so I wonder if it is on the increase.  And I wonder if that’s fashion, or whether it might be with the rapidly decreasing cost of audio-visual equipment it’s just increasingly within the grasp of smaller companies?  Back in 1999 I ran the tech for a fringe show in Richmond which included some video sections – this was *just* before DVD players were in an affordable price range & so I had a video, which ran through the entire play, which I had to keep putting on pause and judge it so that the next bit of recording popped up when it needed to; it was an absolute nightmare.  If that play had been on only a couple of years later, we could have just used DVD and it would have been much easier.

I was initially surprised at the ROH that Bob Crowley’s La Traviata design was from 1995, but once I thought about it a bit more there are West End shows that have been running for longer than that.  I was slightly taken aback that as the curtain raised on the second half of the second act a table *actually got applauded*.  The audience in general seemed very keen to clap almost anything which I found a bit odd.  I found myself clapping just to fit in, rather than because I actually wanted to.

A still from the current ROH run of La Traviata

JG: Yes – it’s particularly odd to realise how much the performers expect that and take it in their stride! You can see the conductor pausing after an aria for the audience to applaud. I mean you’d be really weirded out if you went to see Hamlet and after ‘To be, or not to be…’ the audience all started applauding… And in the opera, here we all are, frantically suspending our disbelief that anyone would express themselves in song like that, and when they do, the production then pauses for us all to applaud!

LL: The other thing that I couldn’t figure out was how all the numbers worked.  This is a bit rough & ready, so please do jump in in the comments if I’ve woefully misunderstood something.

At the ROH, they put on maybe 6 main stage performances a week, to 2,256 seats, which cost between £9.00 and £820.00.  There are a lot of performers involved, I think up to 120 on stage at any one time, though I don’t think there were that many for La Traviata.  There was a big orchestra too.

To go back to Wicked, there are 8 shows a week in the Apollo Victoria which seats 2,208, and tickets cost £17.25 to £92.50.  There are far fewer performers, a cast of only 36 and I would guess a correspondingly smaller orchestra.

So, fine, the Royal Opera House will be employing far more people, with their bigger casts and orchestras, having several shows on in rotation, and having to employ more technicians to turn around the sets all of the time.  But they’ve got a big house at the ROH and are charging typically orders of magnitude more for their tickets than they are over at Wicked.

What, then, are they doing with their Arts Council subsidy in 2011/12 of £26,342,464?  This is a huge amount of money, more than any other arts organisation in the UK, and I just can’t see where it’s spent.  On outreach and education I guess, but what else?  I struggle to understand how shows like Wicked are able to happen on a purely commercial basis, but the Royal Opera House, with it’s £820.00 seats, needs that much of our money to survive.  I have no problem whatsoever with Arts Council subsidy for the Arts (and indeed I would be a hypocrite if I did since it pays my salary), but I can’t really see how the Royal Opera House gives good value to your average taxpayer.  I didn’t personally feel that comfortable or welcomed there, and I’m white & middle class.  I felt that they’ve got a bit of a way to go before I really feel that opera is *for* me, in the same way as theatre.  I’m willing to concede though that much of this might just be down to my own prejudices rather than any deliberate doing on their part!

JG: The Royal Opera House would point to all the outreach they’re doing and the number of tickets they sell that cost under £20 – although they’re a tiny proportion of the total tickets available, and they sell out very fast. And the subsidy was cut under the coalition government, although the Royal Opera House was spared the really brutal cutting that most arts organisations got. But I agree with you, the subsidy is not just high but surprisingly high. In this climate, you end up wondering: does an organisation that can attract these levels of corporate sponsorship and sell tickets that cost nearly a thousand pounds need money more than, you know, ten theatre start-ups putting on productions for peanuts and charging under twenty quid for all tickets? I’m really uncomfortable with it.

As far as I can tell – and like Lissy, I encourage readers to jump in in the comments if they know more – what the subsidy does is to remove the element of risk that’s always there in the theatre, even (especially!) in big-budget musicals. For every Wicked there’s a musical or two which closes in weeks or loses millions; the recent BBC4 documentary series The Story of Musicals was really interesting on the number of huge flops there are for every success!

Inside the Royal Opera House.The Arts Council subsidy basically means that the ROH can constantly show modern or obscure works as well as reliable favourites that will make money. In theory, I’m happy with that. In my ideal world, all arts organisations would get a generous subsidy to encourage risk-taking and innovation and obscure works and all sorts of marvellous things. But in the current political and economic climate, I’m really uneasy about the ROH getting a large subsidy to show opera to extremely affluent audiences while other organisations go to the wall.

LL: One thing I must applaud was the decision to have two intervals & to make those intervals quite long – that’s a show / drinking time ratio that I can really get behind.  It’s slightly confusing to me that with the mark up possible on overpriced gin & tonics, the average commercial venue isn’t doing the same.  I guess that’s got something to do with the tiny bars that many theatres have, but I for one would welcome the return of the second interval.

JG: Yes! I have to say I’m a big fan. Although the West End ought really to catch on to this idea: you’d have thought that having a tiny bar is more of a reason for having long intervals, not less….

Lissy Lovett thinks the arts are for everyone, whether they like it or not.

Josephine Grahl blogs at Nothing was disastrous

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About Lissy Lovett

Exec director @Mimbre_Acrobats, comedy and theatre editor @thefworduk, chatting @ South London, Norwich, theatre, football, reality TV, feminism, beer

4 thoughts on “‘People Do Not Sing When They Are Feeling Sensible.’

  1. I listen to a lot of classical music, and go to half a dozen performances a year, but I’ve never been to an opera, so I was really surprised to read about the applause, which is so so frowned on in classical music venues.

    Every year when the the Proms start there is someone on Today complaining about the plebs applauding between movements, and someone like Mark Elder, or Myleene Klass, defending them. Now I suspect that they are just opera goers.

  2. Great post! I found it really interesting reading because I fall somewhere in the middle: I’ve been a lifelong lover of opera & classical music (I pretty much like most music, to be honest) and like Susan I’ve been to a fair few classical performances, but I only had my first trip to the opera last Saturday night, to see Don Giovanni at Covent Garden. Now I wish I’d gone before as (and it seems really silly and obvious to say this) the visuals made *such* a difference to my appreciation of the music!

    I’d wanted to go to the opera for years but with one thing and another had never got round to it. However I’d read about opera etiquette so wasn’t surprised at the applauding. The night I went (which was the opening night for a new cast in a long-running production) they weren’t applauding every aria, but most of them, particularly the big famous tunes and/or ones where the singer has impressive pyrotechnics to perform. I could definitely tell the levels of applause varied from aria to aria and singer to singer. For example, the audience baffled me by giving a tenor who bored me to tears but had, to be fair, a lovely voice, the biggest applause of the evening, whereas the much more talented female singers (one of whose voice literally sent shivers down my spine every time she opened her mouth – Hibla Gerzmava) got less. I think perhaps the tenor had more of a fanbase in the room. (Also perhaps it wasn’t his fault – I have a feeling, but am probably wrong, that Mozart kinda meant that character, Don Ottavio, to be a deliberately boring parody of the usual tenor hero…).

    Ok, long digression is long. I think one reason for the applause being different to the classical concert convention is that opera runs on even more of a star system than the rest of classical music – add to that a narrow repertoire of operas that actually get performed regularly (much narrower than revivals of plays/musicals in my opinion) and so half the pleasure for regular opera-goers is in thinking “How will X new star interpret X old warhorse aria?” Bigger claps for those who impress, more perfunctory claps for those who don’t (booing if you’re in Italy, apparently!). But I suppose it’s still funny from a theatre point of view – as if we applauded the big soliloquies in Shakespeare plays!

    I could go on – can you tell I haven’t had much of a chance to talk to anyone about this?! But if you, Lissy, or anyone reading this feels moved to learn more about opera, I would heartily recommend The Good Opera Guide by Sir Denis Forman – it’s very tongue in cheek and totally demystified the opera world for me while still communicating love for the genre & its achievements.

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