Musical Notes: Opera in the News

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Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The opera house is not always a comfortable place to be. Throughout its history, composers, singers, directors and producers have delivered performances that challenge their audience. The latest of these 'challenges' opened (for a run of just six performances) this month at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage's new opera Anna Nicole. It is based upon the character of the late Playboy model, Anna Nicole Smith, who in 1994 most famously married the über-rich oil tycoon J Howard Marshall when he was 89 and she was only 26. Marshall died in 1995,13 months after his marriage to Smith, who herself died of an accidental mix of prescription drugs in 2007.

Anna Nicole is the 50-year-old Turnage's third full-length opera, following Greek (1968) and The Silver Tassie (2000). Part of the controversy surrounding this work is the inclusion of an explicit sex scene. Turnage's collaborator on Anna Nicole, lyricist Richard Thomas, was previously involved in another controversial production, Jerry Springer: The Opera. Turnage himself describes his 2½-hour work as a 'comic horror story'. The title role is sung by the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, whose costume incorporates fake breasts to emulate Anna Nicole's (also fake) 42DD figure.

The work has had a mixed reception, with some questioning whether the title character is a suitable subject for an opera to be staged at the Royal Opera House, while others have questioned whether it is an opera at all, or more a stage musical – not an easy distinction to make in any case. At one extreme, Stephen Pollard, writing in the Jewish Chronicle Online, described it as: "a tawdry, smug, cheap, vacuous, pointless, trite, dull, unfunny, juvenile waste of time. "

Sam Leith on the other hand, writing in the Guardian, acknowledged: "Mark-Anthony Turnage's new work Anna Nicole has done the impossible: it has actually made me want to go to see an opera." If he is not alone, then the Royal Opera House must be congratulated for the attempt, even if it was only for six performances, an extraordinarily small number over which to amortise the enormous costs of a modern stage production.

Opera must never allow itself to fall into a comfortable complacency by putting on only stock repertoire; audiences must be jolted and challenged from time to time, however much they may dislike it. It is one of the art-form's functions. Some such operas disappear from the repertoire soon after they appear, while others retain their position in years to come. I have no doubt that Anna Nicole will see a revival in due course, if only because it has Mark-Anthony Turnage's name on it.

Birmingham Opera Company

Although not a current production – it took place in December 2009 – but none the less radical in its own way, was Birmingham Opera Company's post-modernist English-language production of Verdi's masterpiece Othello. A recording of this production was shown recently on BBC television, giving the opportunity for me to comment on it from (almost) first-hand experience.

Rather than taking place in an opera house or other theatre, it was staged in the vast open space of a disused warehouse, almost bare apart from vivid red carpeting, with no seating for the audience, almost no set and few props. It is not until the opera has started does it dawn on the audience (who are required to remove their shoes – the analogy with a mosque is no coincidence, as transpires later in the performance) that at least some of their fellow audience-members are in fact members of the cast, who move and perform among and around them. Apart from the principal singers, the 250-strong chorus and actors all live and work in Birmingham. Searchlights illuminate the scene.

It seems scarcely credible, but this is (I believe) the first time that Othello has been sung professionally in Britain by a black actor, Ronald Samm. Iago is sung by Keel Watson and Desdemona (curiously pronounced here Des-DEM-on-a rather than Des-dem-ON-a) by Stephanie Corley. The producer is Graham Vick and the director Peter Maniura.

The chief male protagonists of the opera, Othello and his supposedly-trusted majordomo Iago, are both dressed (initially) in military camouflage fatigues. No specific time-setting nor place for the piece are indicated.

I am not normally a great fan of modern-setting productions of operas – I am something of a traditionalist in that respect – but this was a totally absorbing presentation which worked for me.

Till next time, happy listening.

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