A Note on the Last Night of the Proms 2016


Two years ago I wrote an article about the disjuncture between the iconic Last Night of the Proms and the fantastic series of concerts that precedes it. By sheer chance ( a friend asking about returns an hour after some new seats had been released ) I got hold of tickets for the Last Night of the Proms this year, and attended relishing the chance to test my points from 2014.


In my original article I made two broad points. Firstly that The Last Night of the Proms was so unlike the rest of the Proms series in terms of content, [in]accessibility and structure that ‘The Last Night’ is as good as a misnomer. Secondly I expressed discomfort at the unquestioned, militaristic nationalism, which was part and parcel of Empire and British Colonial endeavours in the time it was first put together.

Both of these points are of serious contemporary importance, both musically and politically. Inequality in the UK has been accelerating sharply since 1979 and economic recessions in recent years have exacerbated this effect[1]. Accessibility to cultural events and life-enriching opportunities is increasingly out of the reach of many, and tickets to the Last Night of the Proms are incredibly expensive. Our tickets were only £44, as they were returns with restricted view – however nearby seats were being sold at online on the day for over £700 each, and all other concert-goers my Prom buddy and I spoke to on the evening had paid well into the three-figure range for their tickets direct from the Royal Albert Hall. I therefore stand by the financial aspect of my point about inaccessibility – despite our fluke, the Last Night of the Proms is not open to the vast majority of people unless they have significant disposable income or are willing and able to Prom for the whole day[2].

The balance of new, British, straight-laced classical and world music was well tempered, with the opening piece well-pitched as an example of new music. It both pushed the boundaries of music today but remained within accessible bounds for non-academic music lovers, which reinforced the Proms’ encouragement of exploration of new music.

Most important was the atmosphere, although having a reputation for ‘upper-middle class tomfoolery’ that could be alienating for some, was on this occasion genuinely light-hearted and warm. I feel that there is an excessive sense of seriousness surrounding Western Classical music, and that contributes to many people’s sense that it is something ‘not for them’. Although it is important to be able to hear the music and not be excessively, unnecessarily disturbed, the Last Night had the atmosphere of a party that is lacking at other concerts, even at other Proms. Perhaps the other concerts in the series would benefit from short addresses from the conductor or other performers to increase the sense of connection between stage and audience and better introduce the work performed? Indeed some classical concerts do take this form, and many performers find the opportunity to address and welcome their audience an essential part of bringing them into their musical world. The sense of being relaxed around classical music is key to its future and central to the continuing development of cultural accessibility.

The nationalistic, neo-colonial tone of the second half received even more attention than ever before in this year of the EU Referendum. The dissemination of EU flags outside the event was seen as a controversial protest, and many feared clashes between In and Out factions. However as a musician I never doubted that the flags of the EU and Britain would be united at this event. It is a simple fact that all world-leading musical ensembles are international affairs –there must be so few exceptions I cannot even bring one to mind. Music has always been a thoroughly international endeavour as far back as the naturalisation of Handel in England and the exchange of composers between courts in the European Renaissance. Therefore even the musical traditions that inform nationalist works are not isolated. At a very banal level, Arne would never have been able to record Rule! Brittania without the use of the Italian notation system and the European advances in Baroque music that were ongoing at the time he was writing it.

I personally felt extremely uncomfortable during Rule! Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, for the first time ever. I am aware that I am more actively politically involved than most people, but I used to really love and feel pride in those numbers at an earlier time in my life. In the context of pressing current affairs and social attitudes, it felt a little excessive to me. However most people enjoyed it thoroughly, and the diversity of flags waving dissipated any sense that this was necessarily a narrow-focused point being made. Conductor Sakari Oramo is to be congratulated on the gentle and uncontroversial tone in which he spoke of music’s inherent border-crossing universality.

A colleague of mine reflected that although the Nationalistic music at the end of the Last Night has deeply entrenched colonial connotations, unless we continue to perform and consider them new connotations and links will never be made with them. This thought gives me great hope. Music is, after all, the ultimate abstract representation. Interpretation of the performer and of every listener is all its essence. We can choose how and when to deploy certain pieces and work to loose them from past contexts, and make them into something meaningful for the new. However, I struggled for days to see how the words from Land of Hope and Glory (‘May her [Britain’s] bounds be wider set) could ever be entirely disentangled from the expansionist colonial programme to which they referred. Later I realised that ironically, if we take the words in today’s internationalist context, Land of Hope and Glory may after all be one of the strongest Remain sentiments expressible. If we can use the words to look beyond our shores, the words and music may be recast as a Liberal call for regional or global unity in “equal laws… by Freedom gained, by Truth maintained.”


[1] Source: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/how-has-inequality-changed

[2] In addition to gain access to the Last Night of the Proms concert-goers must present stubs of tickets from 5 earlier concerts in the series. Therefore queueing on the day for tickets (Promming) is effectively only open to Londoners or people who can afford to both attend Proms concerts and travel significant distances to do so.


Children and Concert Etiquette: Just a Thought

On the 27th July I attended Prom 18, an featuring the indomitable Chloë Hanslip as soloist in Michael Berkeley’s new Violin Concerto, involving pairing the classical instrument with both tabla and at one point switching it for its electric counterpart. The work was book-ended by Dukas’ La Péri and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, two stonking examples of the evocative power of the orchestra. Truly exciting stuff. Unfortunately I was utterly frustrated in my efforts to enjoy at least half of La Péri and the majority of Berkeley’s Concerto by goings on in front of me that simply should not have been happening in that space.

A lady had brought her two young children to the prom. Directly in front of me sat a small boy of five or six years, and on the other side of his mother a girl of about eight or nine. The small boy was extremely quiet throughout, perfectly behaved, although due to his small size his feet stuck off the seat at an awkward angle and so he shuffled occasionally, and his head sometimes wandered around the hall as the music was playing. How distracting. It was far too much for the lady sitting next to him, one before me and to the right, and my goodness did she make it known.

Holding her Proms programme plastered to her right cheek, effecting a visor between her and the child so that she wouldn’t have to see his occasional small movements in her peripheral vision, she huffed and periodically shifted the programme up and down so that the mother of the boy could be in no doubt as to how disgusting her squirming offspring was found to be. At one moment near the end of the first half the young boy leaned close to his mother’s ear and whispered something to her. Despite being positioned directly above him I would not have known had I not been alerted by the violent shushing, accompanied by an aggressive across-the-armrest lean, that the child’s neighbour performed before slamming her programme-visor back to her face. I was seething.

The lady in the row in front of me shamed the children’s mother as if the children were running amok in the aisles. In reality at no point in the concert did I actually hear them, and I probably would not have noticed them at all if it were not for the drama made of out of it by the honourable concert-police. Although I believe this would have happened to some degree regardless of the additional fact I’m about to raise, I feel that the shaming may have been more pronounced and free-flowing owing to a difference in ethnic/racial background between the lady and the young family. Madame Concert Police had paid a meagre £15 for the honour of sitting at the very top of the Rausing Circle in the Royal Albert Hall. She was not being disturbed in a lavish box at the Met (boxes, by the way, were originally for socialising, not for paying any attention to the concert). So too the mother and her children had paid. They had every right to be there as everybody else and they should have been treated that way.

It is particularly appalling that this happened at The Proms. The Promenade Concerts were founded with the sole ambition of bringing classical music to a wider public, for everybody regardless of class, age and background to enjoy. The Proms exist precisely to counter the view that classical music and art music concerts are the reserve and the right of the privileged, the wealthy, the knowledgeable, those who learned to play Chopin’s Nocture in E flat as a fifteen-year-old on the piano in the front drawing room. The Proms exists for that young family and the spirit of that mother. Why else would The Proms’ organisers arrange strategically placed ‘Family Workshops’ before evening performances? Children are a priority, target audience of The Proms and rightly so. Children belong at concerts. That is precisely the point.

I can’t refrain from alluding to the often-forgotten truth that silence and high-brow ‘concert etiquette’ is a very recent and localised Western European phenomenon. Certainly I welcome and prefer it, especially when after months of practice and preparation an audience sits as quietly and comfortably possible to listen to and consider what I as a musician might perform. However live music, as aleatoric composers of the 20th and 21st century have intentionally exploited, necessitates and engagement with humanity. Humanity in all its coughing, shuffling, sneezing, programme-rustling glory. Of course it is somewhat inconsiderate to performers and fellow ticket-holders alike to attend a serious performance if you are suffering a terrible bout of flu, and are liable to be spluttering loudly every few minutes for the duration of the concert. However I was (only mildly) disturbed by quite a few coughs from the audience at the Albert Hall in July, all of which were louder and more distracting that the child in front of me. I wonder by what practice of restraint the lady in question didn’t stand up to chastise every cougher in turn.

If your connection with the music you’re attending to hear is so deep, profound and untouchable that you can’t bear the thought of another’s humanity marring its peripheries, perhaps you should listen to music lying alone in a darkened room, in the comfort of your own home or prison cell. I can’t resist offering the view that such folk may have missed the point of music as an expression and engagement with all types of humanity, and therefore perhaps should be referred to as truly tone deaf.

I approached the mother in the interval and thanked her for bringing her children to The Proms as a show of support and solidarity – however she was so badly frightened by her neighbour she looked terrified as I approached her and I’m not convinced she really heard me properly. I was glad to see she returned for the second half, although she put her slightly older daughter next to the Concert Police, who appeared mollified by this exchange.

One of those two parties shouldn’t have been at The Proms that evening. I don’t think it takes a great genius or too much of a hippie to work out which one I’m referring to.


Image Source: http://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/news/2016/april/proms-that-are-great-for-the-whole-family/


The Game Changer – Review: ENO -Akhnaten


I went to see Akhnaten over a month ago, on Thursday 17th March. After a tough month I was so desperate to see it that I paid up the last of my month’s wages for a same-day returned ticket that cost me a good deal more than I’ve ever paid for a single ticket in my life.


There are a number of reasons. Firstly, Akhnaten is very rarely performed. Its last London staging was over 30 years ago in 1984. Unless fashions change it’s down to luck whether I will have the chance to see this work performed again in my lifetime Secondly I was driven to support the ENO in their moment of crisis. There however were nothing compared to a burning curiosity I had to understand more about the music and vision of Philip Glass. Glass is a composer who, along with a handful of others, pioneered and developed the sub-genre ‘minimalism’. Minimalism and Glass’s ideas have infiltrated and influenced the basis of today’s music – pop, classical, jazz, film and soundtracks alike – more than anybody ever could have predicted they would when they first caused such uproar in the 1970s-80s.

Akhnaten set

For those readers are non-theorists, in the next two paragraphs follows a brief ( (and therefore imperfect) description of minimalism in music.

Minimalism came as part of a wave of ‘reactive’ musical forms that mushroomed in the 20th century, as composers decided that everything expressible with the familiar form and structure of Western classical music as it was had indeed been expressed. Seeking to find new things to ‘do’ with music and new ways to convey ideas and emotions composers attempted various fundamental alterations to the Western Classical Music system. Some deconstructed the scale or familiar tones on which it is based (Schonberg’s Serialist/12-tone technique, atonal music), others dramatically altered the roles of composers and performers in the creative process of deciding what notes to play (‘graphic scores’, Ligeti, Stockhausen). Another approach questioned the concept of what could be considered a musical instrument (John Cage’s ‘Prepared Piano’, Hoffung’s Concerto for three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher). Minimalism’s contribution was, on the surface, less radical in some ways than these other examples, but arguably has had a more far-reaching and fundamental impact upon musical aesthetics in the 20th Century and beyond. Minimalism works by targeting principles of structure in music – from the micro level of the structure of melodies, to the larger structure of a suite or ‘symphonic’ piece, to the macro scale. Let’s say, the structure of an opera.

Minimalism is so called because it is characterised by repetition of small melodic, harmonic or rhythmic fragments with small but usually increasing variations to the repeated fragment. One effect is that, as a gross generalisation, the harmony in music tends to progress more gradually (slower harmonic rhythm) than in typical art music– but this does not necessarily mean that the music or piece has a slower emotional or intellectual development. This potential is something very fully explored in this exceptional production of Glass’s Akhnaten. In this way, Glass’s work often shifts the relationship between the main features of music – melody, harmony, and rhythm – inverting their importance or driving power in relation to one another. It is his rhythms and harmonies principally that create the haunting, and that stick in ones head long after their first hearing. Glass and his minimalist colleagues are not people who write ‘tunes’ you can sing along to.


All this is the basis of my fascination. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Like a sinner entering a church for the first time, so I approached Akhnaten.



The production at ENO is a collaboration between the English National Opera itself and LA Opera. Starring the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten, the production uses fantastical lighting techniques combined with historically informed costume, movement and direction choices that are glazed with the glamour of a knowing orientalism.

Akhnaten robing

The opening music is played over a mesmerising iridescent backdrop that shimmers, imperceptibly changing from green to copper to gold and through marbled combinations of the three through some unperceived technical wizardry. The subtle glowing effect was spoiled for me by harsh white, modernist geometrical projections of vaguely hieroglyphic shapes on top of this screen. As the only clean lines and projections of the entire production they were jarringly out of place. Although I spent the rest of the time trying to fathom the context they were supposed to fit with, I conclude that the producers were not brave enough to allow the music to speak for itself in this overture passage and added them to spoon-feed or ‘occupy’ the audience, which is a great shame.

Nonetheless the use of light throughout the opera performance itself was commendable. Glow-tubes were used in a particularly imaginative and enhancing way in the scene ‘The Window of Appearances’, exuding confidence in the audience’s ability to parse meaning from the kaleidoscopic array of symbols, representations and possibilities presented to them by the cast and crew.

Akhnaten sun


The movement of all actors, and particularly the chorus, was cleverly stylised. Costumes and postures directly evoked Ancient Egyptian paintings and characters. The crucially important ENO Opera Chorus was supplemented by the presence of jugglers, coordinated by Sean Gandini, whose work with variously sized white balls provided a visualisation both of the rhythm and pace of Glass’s music, but also of its structure through measured and coordinated display. Happily it is also historically consistent with the Egyptological stylisation, since the first archaeological evidence of toss juggling in fact comes from Ancient Egypt.

Akhnaten Juggler

Apart from the consistent movement of the juggling balls, all physical action in this production of Akhnaten is paced with creeping intensity. All actors move in ultra slow motion at all times, which results in a peculiarly hypnotic effect. Just as one watches a child growing day by day, it seems as if little or nothing is happening, only for the theatre-goer to realise abruptly that whilst they have been focusing on one area of the stage the entire scene has completely changed. This kinetic effect also cleverly follows the pattern of minimalist music, which develops gradually in minute and sometimes barely perceptible ways to create dramatic and varying emotional and intellectual states.

AKhnaten throne

Roth Costanzo has a truly unique voice. Seething with drama, he has an air-curdling tone that he renders intentionally thin and cutting for much of this performance. Roth Costanzo is an erudite but passionately human performer who really draws his audience into his world. His portrayal of Akhnaten was bold and complex. He fully embodies this man’s belief in his absolute power, whilst throughout simultaneously revealing his palpable frailty and mortality. Although I admire Roth Costanzo immensely I did feel his tone occasionally needed more colour and breadth in the trios to blend and mingle better with the esoteric voices of his two female co-star companions. That said, there was truly exciting chemistry and dynamism between Roth Costanzo, Emma Carrington as Nefertiti and Rebecca Bottone as Queen Tye.

Carrington brings to Nefertiti a full-bodied womanly voice, the depth and resonance of which contrasted wonderfully with the androgynous Akhnaten, making for spellbinding duet and trio work between the two. Glass scored the characters to have a similar vocal range (tessitura/pitch), which processes the unity of the characters as historical figures. The tensions of the dissonances and consonances between the parts is sweetened and heightened by the singers’ differences in vocal tone (timbre), which is especially exciting as their political and sexual relationship plays out in their mesmerising Love Duet.

As Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye, Bottone provides the stand-out characterisation of the production from an acting perspective. Whilst having some of the most demanding vocal lines in the entire piece Bottone pitches her role well, never overpowering the other two lead characters. She is required to emote and move the audience through micro-expression and minimal movements in both death scenes of the pieces, and successfully provides a great deal of the production’s emotional charisma.

Akhnaten Tye


This production of Akhnaten juxtaposes human nakedness and the insinuation thereof with opulence and power. Most costumes for the Pharoah and his Queen are translucent, revealing their bodies as a constant reminder of their humanity. However, like some of the other symbolic work in this production, by the end I felt it was overused. The allusion to nakedness continued in scenes even where the reminder of humanity was less central to the tensions or themes of the scene, such as in Akhnaten’s Sun Aria in Act 2. As a result, by the final act in which Akhnaten is overthrown by his people, the potence of this visual cue was greatly reduced, although still salient enough to be moving. Similarly, the juggling was possibly somewhat overdone. I was particularly disappointed at the end when the balls, which represented Akhnatens religious empire and political reign fell more than once. Surely, this should have been the one point at which the production should have curtailed their theme of developed repetition?


Akhnaten death



Visually fantastic, technically excellent and musically exceptional, this production of Akhnaten is as artistically important as it was enthralling to watch. My minor criticisms of thematic work are personal opinion, and did not affect the fact that this is one of the most incredible works of art I have ever had the honour of experiencing. Glass has changed the musical landscape of the world forever with this piece, even though it is performed so rarely, and this production has set a benchmark for others both within this genre and out of it. I hope it will not be 30 years before it returns to London again.




The Glory of Anthony Roth Costanzo:



Review: ROH – L’Étoile


Bursting out of a fantastical set and laced with bitingly British new dialogue, the endlessly amusing score by unsung genius Emanuel Chabrier sings out at the Royal Opera House in wild Technicolor. Silly, funny and so intelligent, this mad musical treat is a gem of sublimely surreal but warmly familiar pop-art.

etiole advert Image Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/KRhRyJgveXE/hqdefault.jpg


“Let’s stop rediscovering Chabrier every twenty years. Let’s put him once and for all in his true place, right at the top.” Roland-Manuel, Biographer of Maurice Ravel

The top it is, with Royal Opera House’s eclectic production of this rarely-performed work. Chabrier’s music is a revelation. Persistently funny, it retains a degree of elegance and intelligence that draws it into the smartness of wit just as the dazzling tomfoolery threatens to become rather too silly. The opera as a musical work is detailed and engaging throughout. I particularly admire Chabrier’s marvellous and meticulous placing of space, breath and pause, which the knowing performances of the Covent Garden cast put to proper use. Indeed like all good comedy, whilst both the music and the theatrical performances seem random and daft, under the surface of farce is a decisive and intelligent line of thought that gives this work its direction – even if that direction is somewhat squiggly at times.

Chabrier’s sound is both familiar and unique. A contemporary of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, Chabrier was famously influenced by the music of Wagner and yet on first hearing at least, little of this seems to have obviously impacted his individual style in L’Étoile. Fascinatingly Chabrier avoided formal training, which may or may not be why his music is so packed with character, improvisational and compositional skill.

chorus red elephantImage Source: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/feb/02/l-etoile-review-royal-opera-house-london

This current production by Mariame Clément presents the work in a unique and slightly altered form, including new dialogue that frames the human universals packed into this decidedly French 19th Century comedy for a contemporary London audience. Thinking even a little about what makes comedy funny very quickly reveals that comedy is a decidedly culturally and temporally specific thing, especially given that shared political or cultural heritage is most often the basis – or ‘butt’ – of comedy’s joke. Chabrier’s storyline does indeed include a few time-and-place specific nudges that will particularly delight Francophile historians. However, a great deal of the comedy revolves around human universals of love, mistaken identity, and a generalised unwillingness to confront death without a fight. Clément’s restructuring of the work acknowledges and enhances both of these factors by introduction of the brilliantly foppish Victorian ‘English Gentleman’, Smith (played by Chris Addison) and his French Valet, Dupont. Smith and Dupont’s intermittent commentary on aspects of the story, staging, and even the subtitles re-contextualises the work for a contemporary London audience, very often by pointing out the ridiculous in an exasperated and profoundly British way. Although they have been dismissed by some newspaper critics as unnecessary devices, Smith and Dupont were greatly enjoyed by the audience and fitted seamlessly into the existing work.

lazuli smith.jpgImage Source: https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2016/letoile-at-royal-opera-house-london-dramatically-slight/

The star of the show is undoubtedly Kate Lindsay as the obnoxious Lazuli. With a swagger that inspires envy, Kate delivers both comedic high points (Je suis Lazuli) and the serious emotional goods (O petite étoile) with vocal control that beggars belief. Sublime, soaring piano moments are contrasted with perfectly pitched sneezes and laughs demonstrating the full range of this remarkable mezzo. King Ouf’s characterful voice is also excellent (Christophe Mortagne), partnering wonderfully with the rumblingly resonant bass of Simon Bailey as the bluffing astrologer Siroco. The chorus of the Royal Opera House are particularly excellent in this production, as Chabrier’s music gives them both the opportunity to demonstrate both their technical skill and slickness as a musical unit, and to enjoy some strong character acting. The costumes are wonderful, with luscious silks and beautiful detail, as indeed is all the set.

Lazuli chartreuse.jpgImage Source: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/opera-essentials-letoile

In this production the set itself is a special triumph. Just as Clément’s direction and libretto tweaks reframe L’Étoile for its intended audience, the imaginative and eclectic set brings out the fantasy of the Orientalist 19th Century fairy-tale setting with a decidedly British irreverence. In the spirit of Chabrier’s everywhere-and-nowhere-in-particular imagined kingdom, the scenery and costume design juxtaposes Arabian Maghrebi architecture, Bohemian Paris, Ottoman silks, positively Alpine countrysides and more than a touch of Bollywood ‘ouf’ in an entirely glorious celebration of what is wonderful and magical in the cultural creations of humanity. Musical and theatrical operatic devices, such as musical epithets for particular characters, are visually emphasised through apparently random imagery. The poutily gasping face of vintage woman face hails Lazuli in his ‘pedlar’ mode, and scattered bowler hats tend to appear not too long before or after the miserably hatless Smith, for example. The visuals in themselves are culturally humorous with more than a nod to the surrealist and Dadaist movements that influenced Chabrier himself. On the topmost layer, the British context of this production is driven home with clear references to Monty Python and the addition of ‘London’ pigeons in front of classic Parisian, Eiffel tower imagery.

set lipstick.jpgImage Source: http://www.roh.org.uk/news/your-reaction-letoile

The criticisms of ROH’s L’Étoile in the press have run along two main veins: firstly that the production somehow lacks focus, and secondly that the work is somehow too ‘silly’ and not serious enough for the ‘grandeur’ of the Royal Opera House as a venue. In my not-so-humble opinion, such criticisms completely miss the point and spirit both of this particular opera production and of opera as a performing art in general. Chabrier and his librettists did not intend for there to be a geographical, fixed political, or indeed narrative focus to this work and to manufacture one would be to damage the intentionally light and fluffy form of the piece as a product. Clément and designer Julia Hansen have run and run with the potential for farce in the opera, and have produced sugar-sweetness of just enough intensity for a piece that is, after all, only 125 minutes long. This production is intentionally over-full. The excess of visual references to global historical and British popular culture create a world at once familiar and strange, whilst the musical and theatrical pushing of comedy and repetition reflects a slapstick humour Chabrier never really wrote beyond. I suggest that those looking for focus and seriousness find it elsewhere, in its proper place, rather than insisting it appear here. For those seeking a scholarly basis for this suggestion, they need only look to the wealth of writing that links Chabrier directly to the anarchic Dadaist movement within art that I mentioned earlier, and the tendency of his friendship circles towards surrealist and impressionist rebellions against the strait-jackets of the so-called ‘serious’ art forms of their time.

Chabrier’s L’Étoile is a wonderful reminder that really good music does not have to be pinned down by seriousness or ‘focus’, and that there’s nothing wrong with a good dose of silliness on a Saturday night at the theatre. Opera has a reputation for the macabre, the melodramatic and the ‘grand’ that is simply not true of the whole of the repertoire – and shouldn’t be. Art forms captivate the human imagination because of their endless potential to express, and opera is special precisely because it draws together music, theatre, and visual art. Therefore, why should Covent Garden’s glorious theatre restrict itself only to productions that are as gilt and pompous as everybody who has never experienced the joy of opera expects it to be? This production is a masterclass in light opera, and succeeded last night in making an enormous and packed auditorium laugh out loud every few minutes for two and a half hours. Disregarding the brilliant musical foundation of the work, that is an admirable achievement in itself.

set chartreuse.jpgImage Source: https://bachtrack.com/review-chabrier-etoile-clement-elder-royal-opera-february-2016

In sum, the Royal Opera House’s production of L’Étoile is a brilliant night out, driven by Chabrier’s genuinely intelligent music in a production that embraces the joy of being silly. I encourage everybody with a sense of humour and a taste of fun to grab a ticket and go see it. I’ll buy you a therapist if you don’t laugh at least once.




Review: ENO – The Magic Flute


This curious production draws together the simplest and the most technically advanced of special effects devices, running with the original spirit of Mozart’s comic opera The Magic Flute. Driven by the principles of entertainment, ‘magic’ and the spirit of the music, the result is an unusual piece of sung theatre bringing something quite unique to a well-worn favourite.

papageno.jpgImage Source: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/the-magic-flute/2015-production-images

On Thursday 11th March my Opera Buddy and I rocked up to the London Coliseum early to benefit from the Opera Undressed scheme run by the ENO. Opera Undressed offers members on a waiting list the opportunity to buy limited tickets for a massively discounted price of £20 a head, which gives access to a brief pre-show talk, a pair of the best seats in the house, and a cheeky G&T at an after-party with cast and crew. The scheme is excellent and I strongly recommend it to both opera lovers and opera virgins (at whom it is principally aimed). Providing a well-structured and introduction to opera through emailed synopses and the pre-show talk, it is as financially and intellectually accessible as it professes to be. The tone and spirit with which the scheme is delivered decidedly enhances the experience both of the opera in general and this production in particular.

The current production brings together a mish mash of stylistic theatrical devices, from the modern and post-modern to the very old school. The birds of Papageno the Bird Catcher are represented extremely effectively by fluttering folded sheets of A4 papers which make a flock in the hands of chorus actors in black. However in other places the chorus is in specific costume and spatially organised (‘blocked’) in a very traditional way. The use of space is both minimalist, with no specific set or scenery, yet at the same time it is highly technical, shaped mainly by a large square of staging attached at all four corners to motorised pulleys which raise, lower and angle it into slides, mountains, two-storey buildings and many things more besides throughout the show. A key feature of this production is its treatment of the Orchestra, which is raised within the pit to be almost on the same level as the main stage. Fully lit, the music and orchestra are integrated into the performance space, and “The Magic Flute” is the orchestral flautist herself, who ‘lends’ her instrument, and occasionally her talent, to the romantic lead as a talisman in times of rejoicing or distress.

Given the confusing density of different ideas, from different styles and periods of theatrical thought, the production hangs together very well as a piece. It must be said that taking away the trappings of 18th Century costumery and pomp reveals the thinness of the narrative upon which the opera is based. However Simon McBurney has intentionally restructured this piece around the very thing the libretto was created for: special effects.

In Christopher Cook’s illuminating pre-show talk he explained to Opera Undressed goers that the libretto for The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, who in addition to being a friend of Mozart was renowned in theatre at the time for his talent with special effects. The Magic Flute was always intended to be a visual spectacle, and a challenge for the theatre’s in house ‘magicians’. This production makes exceptional use of modern-day magic in the form of digital projections and a telephone-box sized sound-effects studio for creating and enhancing live sets and sound effects whilst the performance is in action. Comedic chalk drawings title the Acts, introduce characters and produce beautiful backgrounds whilst watering cans and scrunchy paper adds to the sound world Mozart created. The ‘tests’ of fire and water endured by Tamino and Pamina in the second act are particularly breath-taking, and so seamless in their execution that as an audience member excited a welcome experience of wonder and awe.

watertest.jpgImage Source: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/the-magic-flute/2015-production-images

However the main thing that seals the production as a success is the strength of character and acting brought by the cast. James Creswell as Sarastro deserves a particular mention for his exceptional technique, resounding and rich voice and entirely believable performance of the sometimes controversial High Priest. The storyline hangs on Sarastro being both a credible ‘good guy’, and his maligned reputation being also understandable. Creswell achieves this tricky balance, whilst keeping us spellbound with his phenomenal voice. On the night we attended Lucy Crowe was ill and unable to sing Pamina, however we did not feel her loss at all. Reisha Adams, who stepped in a few hours before the performance, delivered Pamina’s arias with a clear and glorious tone that established and developed a believable and realistic portrayal of the character’s conflicting and genuine affections. Though one of the smallest solo roles, Soraya Mafi was a pleasant shock treat as Papagena, and the fantastic acting and spookily bell-like voices of the three ‘ancient children’ were confounding in their freakishly mature portrayal of ghostly decay.

Of course the real star of The Magic Flute is the wrathful and bitter Queen of the Night. She is almost always portrayed as a formidable and almost glorious super-power, a diva in a glittering ball-gown and usually with mad and enormous hair or headgear. In this production however, she is a frail, grey-haired old woman, withered and bitter, and very often in a wheelchair. Her venom, her hatred and her manipulative hang-ups make her real, a tangible and almost familiar character from a world we know. Ambur Braid stopped the show with her aria in the first act, presenting an incredible combination of vocal acrobatics with an exceptional level of acting. The way she moved and walked was astoundingly accurate in its depiction of the comportment of the extremely elderly, and this level of energy and character never slipped throughout the play. Although the famous aria in the second half was not the most technically perfect rendition it was one of the most powerful I have seen. Not only did Braid sing the opening phrases of the aria whilst hurtling herself across the stage in a wheelchair, she performed the entire aria, which is one of the highest and most difficult in the entire vocal repertoire, sitting down and very often leaning over as she caressed the head of her daughter Pamina. Not only was this a positively Olympic achievement by Braid, the energy and level of characterisation it brought to the aria was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The emotional power of the frail, wheedling, sobbing mother, stroking her daughter’s hair as she begged her to murder her enemy, was on a totally different level to the foot-stamping, hollering, shrieking poltergeist that usually is portrayed in this scene. As a result the turmoil of Pamina’s character with her conflicting emotions makes much more sense, and the frailties of the underlying story are significantly relieved.

queen of nightImage Source: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/the-magic-flute/2015-production-images

This ‘undressed’ production is certainly very strange, drawing as it does from an inconsistent and confusing range of stylistic influences. However, it is driven by masterful staging and strong character acting, which makes up greatly for the flaws and imperfections of the original story and frames Mozart’s music in a playful but supported, believable world.

Note: This video uses footage from the previous cast/staging of this production at the ENO

Special Thanks to my Opera Buddy, Paris Andrew, who helped me thrash out exactly what I thought about this Opera experience.

Masking Prejudice

This Halloween a woman was sexually assaulted by a group of teenagers in Halloween masks. In a horrendous grotesque of cheap American horror movies she was pushed to the ground and intimately attacked before she managed to fight back and escape from the perpetrators. The media has reacted sensitively to the trauma that the woman has suffered from the ordeal and the police and other services are supporting her as best they can. However in the discussion of the attackers, as far as I have heard so far there has been no comment upon another glaring aspect of this particular case: the fact that the attackers were wearing masks.

Sure, there has been passing comment in a police statement about how the masks must have made the inherently traumatic ordeal several notches more terrifying for the victim, but nothing has been said about how the masks impact on the traceability of the perptrators. Perhaps this is thought to be too obvious. Perhaps the authorities feel that, with our extensively developed technologies of fingerprinting, DNA and our extensive network of public CCTV coverage, the simple wearing of a scream mask does not in any way preclude the potential to track down and bring these teenagers to justice.

I do find it strange that out of this there has not even been a moment of debate about whether they should legitimately have been wearing masks at all that night. I am at the same time not surprised at all that there hasn’t been, because wearing masks at Halloween is thoroughly familiar and accepted. Nobody would even think to suggest that wearing of those masks was in some way potentially pernicious or illegitimate in itself, before the teenagers started upon their illegal behaviour. Of course not. It was Halloween. Everybody was wearing masks… and we shouldn’t be all made to take our Halloween masks off and never put them on again just because some people in Halloween masks commit rape, sexual assault, and (quite broadly across this country and America) stage shopliftings and other illegal and violent heists when wearing Halloween masks. To even begin to think about suggesting banning such a thing just because of the wayward few would be deemed completely absurd, and it would never get anywhere.

After all, Halloween is part of our culture. It is innocent fun. Yes, the masks are sometimes scary, and they upset some people – especially old people. But those people are missing the point completely or just overreacting. The vast majority of kids who wear Halloween masks are just having a bit of fun. They’re good kids with good intentions, and they’re revelling in an aspect of our popular festive culture…


Covering your face is banned in most public places in the Netherlands. And there are lobbies for it to be banned by law legally all over the Western world. Covering your face in public is threatening and shouldn’t be allowed, say lobbyists, and a large percentage of the general public. People are very vociferous about it. They get very upset. Extensive radio reportage, public debates and reams and reams of newspaper articles have been dedicated to this matter over recent decades, in this country too. The images accompanying such debates however have been of grown women. Muslim women wearing the veil.

Due to technicalities in international human rights laws anybody wanting to ban the veil has to deny (or conceal) any direct prejudice against Islam by posing the issue as a question of security. Those who urge for the banning of veiling in public consistently cite discomfort, anxiety, a sense of rejection or hostility provoked by the barrier between their face and the face of another. When laws are passed, they cannot be framed in a way that clearly and directly discriminates against Islam (for aforementioned legal technical reasons). When the veil is banned, it is banned indirectly, by laws using terms such as “face coverings”.

Halloween masks also cause members of the public discomfort, anxiety, and a wariness of hostility from the other that is often far more legitimate than any that is affected by encountering a veiled Muslim woman on the street. The number of cases of robberies, assaults, and instances of intentionally frightening and threatening the general public perpetrated by costumed, masked youths in the name of Halloween is beyond enormous. Why then don’t we hear all trick-or-treaters being condemned and being met with lawsuits from those who accuse them of disrupting the unity of social life?

The answer I suggest is because trick-or-treaters are “our own”. It is “our” culture, “our” festival. We know it’s all really a bit of harmless fun. We know that the ones who commit crimes are simply bad eggs, or at best misguided. We know that their criminality is nothing to do with the fact that they covered their face, and that all the little minds behind Halloween masks are not robbers and rapists in the making. But where is this sensible logic when it comes to the year-round issue of the Burqa, which is much more than a one-day-a-year frivolous cultural choice?

The understanding and passive acceptance of Halloween masks does not come into the same category as debates around the veil because the latter are not really about people covering their faces in public – they are about Islam. To some extent, they are also about racial and gendered power dynamics. Overall, what they are really about is visible ‘otherness’ and the mainstream society’s own anxieties. In fact in the countries where veils are banned it is often around or less than 1% of the whole population who wear such coverings as are banned. The issue is deeply complex, and there is plenty more to be said about it. For example, nobody ever complains about Christian nuns in their wimples and habits, although many of those get-ups look remarkably like hijabs and jilbabs to me. What seems quite plain, though, is that the framing of laws affecting the wearing of the veil in terms of security and “face-coverings” is nothing more than a techno-legal mask for the real issues: ignorance at best, and at worst Islamophobia. If we admit that, though, we find ourselves in a situation that creates far more discomfort than the sight of a woman in a niqab.

War Hits Home

I have never been interested in history. I always found it rather pointless and, as I grew older, I developed a thorough distrust of it. For the anthropologists out there I came down more on the Sahlins, rather than the Obeyesekere, side of that particular debate. History is so often inescapably bound up with human politics, power play, nationalism and other suspicious hegemonies that I resist believing that we can ever even know what happened only a few short decades ago, let alone in previous centuries.

This ambivalence about history has certainly coloured my attention to the Centenary of WWI, and I confess to never quite being moved by Remembrance Day. What could I have to remember? I was born fifty years after all of it ended (conflating, as they are in Remembrance Day, WWI and WWII). That is two generations. I grew up in an era that was no longer defined by those events; the 1990s were decidedly not a post-war period.

However we are all taught to be affected by the ‘World Wars’. Our [sometimes controversially nationalistic] instincts are induced with such strength that on one occasion, when a trumpeter hadn’t been found to play the last post at a Remembrance Day service, after playing it to an empty church on the organ’s trumpet stop I found myself standing, although completely unobserved, keeping the minute’s silence all by myself without really quite knowing why. It is automatic. Among the clearest of my early childhood memories one of the most distinct is of observing the minute’s silence in the middle of a reception class PE lesson and a spontaneous discussion about the war that followed. Memorial, with its component ‘civic’ or ‘civil’ rituals, remains a key part of how we learn to be Britons today, or ‘Europeans’ of a particular kind, if you prefer. Just ask an American friend about a war, or take one to a church or village memorial. When I have done this with mine they have not really known what to make of it, and generally confessed to never having thought about the death in the World Wars before. It is just not a part of their psyche, and by contrast somehow it has been moulded into our living national, historical and everyday identity, whether it means anything deeper for us or not.

Today I came back to the city I grew up in, Hull, for a short visit to run some errands. Whilst waiting for a bunch of my shoes to be heeled I went to wander around the Ferens Art Gallery, an exceptional institution with a fascinating and beautifully curated permanent collection. As I moved into the temporary exhibition room I found myself amidst Edwardian dresses in glass cases, facing a projected slideshow of photographs from Hull during World War I. The first few were like so many others I had seen of the World Wars: blank, generic male faces in Dad’s Army get-ups. Then after a few more slides my feelings changed. There were photographs of men and women alike, of Hull City Hall hung over with banners for recruitment and surrounded by swarms of people – Hullensians, like me. Real people. As I looked at the next slide of the East Riding Fourth Battalion a little voice in my head said, “they all died”. I thought I was going to vomit.

As the slideshow went on there were pictures of streets I know in Hull bombed down to the ground. Hull was the most bombed city per square metre in WWII – more than London, for its size – and was the target of focussed attacks throughout 1941. People forget that this so-called crappy little city (I’ll deal with that perception in another post) was an extremely important port and site of industry, as well as taking the brunt of ‘spare’ bombs dropped by German planes flying over Hull on their way back home after a round of blitzing. These are facts I have known for much of my life, but facts alone don’t really register. Until I saw photos of streets I knew well razed to the ground, rubble, in pieces, I hadn’t registered any of these ‘facts’.

The slide that got to me the most by far was a picture of Holy Trinity, Hull’s iconic parish church that stands in the Old Town Square. I sung a carol service with school there every Christmas of my life from being tiny, and remember standing aged 5 in the freezing cold stone arches in my itchy red felt beret. My friend’s father is the vicar there now. It has been thoroughly central to my life. When I saw a picture of it during the war with the buildings to the left of it flattened to a pile of pebbles, and saw clearly that a Zeppelin had missed it by metres, I really thought I was going to vomit.

The exhibition showed me that my life, my home, and all the places I knew, had been profoundly shaped, even made what they are today, through and by all that went on in those World Wars, in a much more meaningful way than learned patriotic habits have ever done so. Suddenly the roll of honour became a deeply precious artefact, and I scanned through and took in as many names as I could. I was tugged at by the endless links to my own life, as the longest rolls of honour were taking from the Wilson Shipping Company. Arthur Wilson’s family home, Tranby Croft, was made into a girls’ school in the 1950s – my own beloved Hull High School for Girls. The gap had closed to a single degree of separation, which is not much at all.

The other thing that was particular commendable about this exhibition is its easy devolution from androcentrism. The images were of women and men in the war equally, nor was any big deal made of the presentation of women in the war. It was handled as a simple fact, that men and women were alive and both underwent extraordinary ordeals toward the war effort. There was even an area focussing on children, displaying beautiful coloured certificates given to a little girl who had collected hundreds of eggs and a young boy who had comforted the wounded in a local hospital. It is the first time that I have ever seen a World War exhibition or presentation of any kind that managed such a balance, at least without making a scene of itself for doing so. Any potential for pernicious nationalisms was also checked by a corner calling to mind the many German-born settlers who lived in England prior to the First World War, and the racial prejudice they faced here, and in Hull, although they had long since come to call it their home. A truly excellent exhibition.

I didn’t think anything of this Centenary until today. Which is appropriate, since today is indeed the very day war was declared. Finally I realised that the World War is not just a nationalist fairy story or a collective nightmare we once had, but it really happened. One hundred years ago today a very real war was declared, and in that and the one that followed lives were wasted. So too were the places I walk in day by day. To be given a way to realise that was very special. I retain my reservations about history, but the Ferens showed me today that this memoriam need not be nationalistic or seen as a glorification of violence and death at all. It can rather be a story of human living now; it is a matter of heritage. “When War Hit Home”, the exhibition was called, and more than any Remembrance Day service ever has done, hit home it did.