Monday, March 19, 2012

Pearl-clutching and contemporary arts criticism

A month ago, Jessie and I took our seats in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House for Exposure: Opera, a set of "snapshots" from new operas in various stages of completion. Also with us was my mother, who knows her repertory opera rather well - and who, incidentally, is largely responsible for my career ambitions as they currently stand.

As anyone would expect, the output was hugely variable. Jessie and I were particularly taken with Luke Jones' cabaret-jazz influenced A Fetus In America; my mother, with an excerpt from Raymond Yiu's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, made all the more exciting by the influence it drew from Chinese music and literature; and all of us loved the stunning vocal harmonies of Marc Teitler's Sea Shanty, the heady portrait of a famously unsettled writer in Elfyn Jones' The Trial of Jean Rhys, and the unsettling dual narrative of Jamie Man's Kenny and Taiye.

None of these works was perfect. Indeed, we're not even certain any of them are anywhere near completion, or whether they will ever make it to the stage, though we certainly hope so. But, since Better Strangers still holds the ambition of commissioning its own new works, we found the evening inspiring and hopeful, and left full of ideas for the years to come.

Which is why I am slightly alarmed by the media's reception of Judith Weir's Miss Fortune, which premiered at the Royal Opera House's main auditorium last week.

Judith Weir is dear to both of our hearts. Her art songs have challenged us both over the years, and we look to her as a prolific and current example of a female composer. We've been chattering excitedly about going to see Miss Fortune in the coming weeks since that evening at the Linbury Studio, and I know that I desperately wanted it to succeed. Not just because of Judith Weir, but because of the soaring optimism we felt as we left Exposure: Opera. Because of that reinforcement of what we'd known all along - that opera isn't dead, or even sleeping.

We haven't seen the production yet (though we'll certainly talk about it on here as soon as we do), so I'm prepared to allow for the possibility that Weir has work to do on the music and libretto yet. The Guardian's review contains some excellent constructive criticism from someone who has even seen the score. The work was also unfavourably received by critics at Bregenz last year. The opera itself is what it is.

It is not, however, is wholly representative of all new composition, which is where The Telegraph's review tries to place it. It is not conclusive proof that all non-repertory opera is worthless.

"Opera is the only artistic arena in which good money is regularly thrown after bad."
During the editing process for this post, I showed it to my dad, who said "This is reminiscent of some of the crap that was thrown at Pinter when he first started out." A quick check of Wikipedia shows that he is referring to inital critical responses to The Birthday Party, now one of Pinter's best known works.

Indulge me in following the reviewer's vision of an acceptable artistic process, using his same example of Harvey Weinstein's films. Yes, films use data gathered in focus groups to anticipate what their target audience might want to see. How infallible is this policy? How much "good money" went into Scream 4, for example? Or the (admittedly impeccably polished) turd that was Nine? The Brothers Grimm? Yes, Weinstein has some excellent titles to his name. He also has some awful ones, which he made because he thought they'd sell. I don't know how often we, the artistic community, have to repeat this, but commercial viability and artistic excellence are not the same thing. Michael Bay is living proof of this. Half of the popular music Top 40 is proof of this.

Furthermore, what would a focus group in the opera world look like? Who decides what an acceptable audience sample would be? Would it be the same middle-aged rich white people, bored executives and  music students that normally fill the Opera House's auditorium? Would it be geared towards audience development? Would the result be derided as populist, and therefore inferior, as so often happens with new operas and theatrical works? (Spoilers: almost certainly, and I bet Igor Toronyi-Lalic would be first in line with the rotten tomatoes.)

Modern art is about risk. It's not going to be to everyone's tastes. Not all of it will stand the test of time. We can't predict how popular it will be either in its intended setting or in the future. To go back to films, who would have thought back in the 80s that Withnail & I or The Wicker Man would be considered cult classics today? No-one, which is why no money was thrown at them. Wagner's Tannhäuser and Beethoven's Fidelio both flopped at early showings, and these are now considered repertory works. Great art is often divisive. I honestly can't believe I am saying this, here, now, because to me this is all so blindingly obvious as to be cliché.

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