Tuesday 16 July 2013

Might opera contain the secret recipe for everlasting life?

When I first attended the Buxton Opera Festival in about 1990, I remember looking around the theatre and realising that I was almost certainly the youngest person there.

It was therefore somewhat disturbing to have a virtually identical experience on Saturday evening, diluted only by the presence of the comparatively youthful Mrs Hann.

We were attending a performance of Ottone in Villa by Vivaldi, arguably his earliest opera, first performed in Vicenza in 1713. (I write “arguably” because there is some evidence that he wrote an opera in 1705 under another composer’s name, like J.K. Rowling in reverse.)

I could not help wondering, admittedly rather uncharitably, how many people in Buxton Opera House could remember the premiere.

The problem with early opera, which I adore, is that the contemporary public may find it a bit dull. The singers tend to come on in turn to belt out their individual numbers, in which the words of each aria are typically repeated several times.

We know that Venetian theatres of the time kept their audiences’ attention engaged with a range of ingenious special effects. Nowadays directors tend to do it through costumes (or the lack of them) and dance.

Having the lead soprano and a number of attractive young hangers-on disporting themselves in bikinis certainly kept me awake even in the searing heat of last weekend, but it won nul points from my geriatric companions, who could be heard at the interval loudly condemning the production as “absolutely disgusting” and “very, very silly”. Though I noticed that hardly any of them were appalled enough to miss the second half.

Perhaps frequent attendance at an opera house is a key to longevity. (Sceptics will doubtless contend that it just makes your life seem longer.) However, I do begin to see why theatre managements are so obsessed with trying to draw in younger punters, through initiatives such as English National Opera’s unappealingly named “ENO Undressed”.

The message being not that you should turn up anticipating a Spencer Tunick nude photo shoot, but that you need not don any finery to attend a performance. Though the custom of getting dolled up in black tie seems no bar to near sell-outs at the various country house opera festivals around the country, sadly excluding the North East.

Still, something clearly needs to be done when I rank at the youthful end of the audience spectrum and the insidious cookies on my computer long ago decided that the most appropriate companies to advertise to me were vendors of pensions, annuities, equity release schemes and funeral plans.

Which is a mite disheartening when one has two children under the age of five. Perhaps I should make more use of my all but redundant Google Gmail account, which will apparently analyse the content of all my messages to ensure more accurate tailoring of the products and services I am most likely to buy.

For now, please let me try to persuade all of you, whatever your age, to give opera a try if you have not already done so. Don’t worry too much about when it was composed. The most enjoyable night I have spent in a theatre so far this year was at an English National Opera production of Charpentier’s Medea, first performed in 1693, but I also wholeheartedly endorse George Hepburn’s recommendation yesterday of Britten’s Peter Grimes, which had its premiere in 1945.

Medea, not Peter Grimes

There is much Britten opera around in this centenary year of his birth, and all of it is well worth your attention.

What is so good about opera? It contains some of the greatest and most memorable music ever written, performed by singers and players of truly staggering virtuosity. It has an ability to engage all the senses in a way that no other art form can match, and it indisputably constitutes one of the highest pinnacles of human civilisation.

Apart from which, it can and should be huge fun.

Buxton’s real secret may lie in the famed therapeutic qualities of its spa water. However, we should surely also consider the faint possibility that opera holds the secret of an exceptionally long life among its audiences, if not quite the immortality it bestows on its greatest composers.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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