What’s Needed is a Culture Shift

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a new English version by Robin Norton-Hale, new orchestration by Alison Holford, OperaUpClose, directed by Lucy Bradley, musical director Sonia Ben Santamaria, Arcola Theatre, Monday, 4th December, 7.30pm

Opera is the greatest of the performance arts. But there’s no doubt it has a perception problem. Money. Opera is rolling in it. Or so it seems to the casual observer of, say, Glyndebourne. Entertainment for rich people with the right clothes. Attendance at the opera is a social signifier of some very specific characteristics. You are the right sort. You went to the right school. You know when to wear white tie. It’s a great place to network if you know the right thing to say. In other words, you know how to behave as a member of the ruling class. 

Opera isn’t usually connected with rebellion, with transgressive, anti-social behaviour, with the new. It’s the ultimate insider art form, a prop, a support, a fortification of the status quo. Opera lovers know who they are. It’s a secret society, with arcane rules and traditions, catnip to the cognoscenti.

But we need some traditional art forms, don’t we? Some kind of continuity? All this obsession with the new, where is that leading? To chaos, surely? What’s wrong with spending an evening having my delusions massaged?

Where did this kind of feudal, imperial, hierarchical, flat out filthy rich face of opera come from?

I guess operas like Eugene Onegin (in its original form) don’t help. Russian aristocrats hanging around extensive estates getting excited about their sensibilities, about things that they’ve read in books, mostly by Byron, that scoundrel, while their serfs get on with the work, largely out of sight, except when they are singing or dancing, the whole accompanied by a sumptuous soundtrack. Little did they know what history had in store, a signal lesson to all of us with a lot to lose.

The ultimate question is: is opera, shorn of its extravagant wealth, of its aristocratic characters and settings, of its enormous orchestras, of its plush theatres, is it still the greatest?

Unquestionably yes. Opera can deal with the largest concepts, the most complex themes, whatever the context, whatever the subject. No other form comes close. Perhaps it’s not so much wealth that’s the problem (now he tells us) but opera’s sheer scale.

And we all know what scale means: large scale, individualistic, competitive and, yes, say it, masculine. The opera isn’t called Eugene Onegin for nothing.

But, transgressively, the buzz word for today, for now, is ‘disruptive’. Tech, the industry quartered in Silicon Valley, California, loves ‘disruptive’. Tech, too, is individualistic, inward looking, competitive, isolationist; in a word, masculine. No wonder tech, just like opera, has a perception problem; it’s unfriendly to women. A bit like Eugene Onegin.

What’s needed, clearly, is a culture shift. For tech, that’s a lot to ask, but for opera?

There are, out there somewhere, fixed ideas that are very hard to budge: a country’s economy is just like a household’s; poor people are less valuable than rich people; art can make you a better person; men are more important than women; girls should be taught to be more like boys but boys should never, never be like girls. This is just a short selection.

The shock of the new. How hackneyed that phrase sounds. When it does come along your (my) response often is: this doesn’t work. Yet, in fact, it’s confronting. You don’t want it to work.

Theatre, in its obsession with the inner life, with intense emotion, seems to have driven itself into a cul-de-sac from which it can’t find the exit. Opera’s sheer power, contained in its form, means it can’t be constrained in this way. Opera is always larger than the sum of its parts, concerned with a fundamental, central imperative, which is probably why money and power was attracted to it in the first place.

Others productions, adaptations of Eugene Onegin have taken the focus away from the eponymous hero. John Cranko’s ballet of the same name inevitably puts the emphasis on the prima ballerina dancing the role of Tatiana, the man simply partnering. But in traditional ballet the central female role is often the slave of circumstance, flung to and fro by events out of her control.

This adaptation of the opera takes a different and, ultimately, radical approach. The men, the males roles, are almost irrelevant. This isn’t the tale of a man following his honest, creatively destructive path, hacking a way through life’s temptations no matter what the cost. (Onegin might end up alone at the end but there’s something suggestively heroic in the subtext somewhere that has always been just a bit unpleasant.)

Here the men can do what they like, kill each other according to some obscure social norm, and it makes not the slightest difference. The drama resides somewhere else altogether.

The drama is found in the interactions of the female characters. And given how male focused this story, whether Pushkin novel or Tchaikovsky opera, this is some achievement. More importantly, it isn’t about replacing like with like, women substituting for men battling over the spoils, a zero sum game. Somehow this production hints at a new kind of of dramatic contract, one which involves a kind of outward looking, collaborative, ‘if one wins we all win’ approach which somehow doesn’t lessen the stakes.

It isn’t just that the production considers the relationship between the sisters, Olga and Tatiana, but it successfully broadens the subject to involve even the minor characters, that the issues have repercussions and reverberations beyond the central imperative. The drama is cumulative, rather than reductive, as is the original.

This is a very difficult, confronting production, both to watch and to write about. More power to CloseUpOpera for taking a courageous approach to re-working a classic. It seems only right that if there is to be a cultural revolution, it should begin with an art form so closely associated with holding firmly to the traditions of the past, but which, at the same time, has the cultural clout to really make a difference.

Paul Corcoran