‘I blame Princess Diana’, was my guest’s response to it all. Certainly, there is much we might lay at the feet of our long lamented People’s Princess, but I struggled to see how the current situation was her fault.
The situation in question was as follows: a sizeable group of offended opera goers sought, with an extended imitation of disgruntled livestock, to bring the third act of the Royal Opera’s new production of William Tell to its knees. And there they were again, booing and braying their way through the curtain call, making sure the production’s director Damiano Michieletto knew their unease was intended personally.
Certainly, something was to blame. Lady Di’s candidacy, my friend patiently explained, was down to the fact that it was she, or rather her demise, that wrested loose the Great British public’s collective stiff upper lip. The immediate cause was a scene in the production in which a group of soldiers forced an innocent woman to drink champagne before pouring the rest of it over her hair and dress, molesting her with a handgun and finally tearing off her clothes as a prelude to what appeared to be a hastily executed gang-rape. It was horrible to watch, and, at times, uncannily realistic.
The less immediate cause was a growing feeling that the audience has had enough of controversial modern productions which they think betray the house’s consistently high musical standards. Having paid handsomely for their tickets for Rossini’s great but seldom-staged opera about Switzerland’s Robin Hood, they wanted racing violins and stratospheric tenor parts but also alpine landscapes and dancing. Cheated with a field of shale, woollen tank-tops and an unsettling scene of sexual violence, they felt entitled to blow their own alpine horns to the tune of Mary Whitehouse saves the day. Aesthetic displeasure is never so vocal as when cloaked in moral outrage.
For my part, I’ve nothing against Princess Diana. I’ve nothing really against booing either, in reasonable proportions. As for the production, I thought it rather good, mining bravely into the often ugly psychology of heroism as well as laying bare some of the horrors of military occupation. The rape scene, needless to say, was meant to be discomforting, reflecting what is, after all, an all too appallingly common aspect of warfare, as Alexandra Coghlan noted in her Spectator review. Rossini and his librettist, the superbly named Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis, had also meant it to be discomforting, with Austrian soldiers forcing the Swiss women to dance, egged on with a vulgar ballet score – the ‘pas des soldats’ – which gets faster and faster, more and more uncomfortable. There is no dancing in Michieletto’s production, something which befits the ideas of courtship current among modern-day soldiery.
What I am against, however, is the unstoppable rise of the knee-jerk reaction, and the concomitant, seemingly irrepressible urge to brand everything with a personal ‘like’ or ‘dislike’. It’s a blight which affects our civic life in all its dimensions. Indeed the snowballing of barely digested ‘offence’ has become such a familiar part of our once notably even-keeled society that it sometimes feels public discourse concerns little else.
In the realm of the arts, the phenomenon is perhaps appropriate to the kinds of populist products devised specifically to elicit them, but entirely inappropriate when applied to an artform like opera. Opera certainly has its place for instantaneous applause, but taken as a whole it tends to comprise so many different elements, all applying their diversely calibrated pressure on the drama, that it takes several hours and sometimes days after the fall of the final curtain for the whole to sink in properly.
Art is there to hold up the dreams, desires and values of a culture for its sensuous contemplation. Whether any individual happens to want to click ‘like’ on its facebook page is, by a distance inconceivable even to Stephen Hawking, the least interesting thing about it. The worth of any work of art consists in how it gathers weight and resonance: it will win admiration – perhaps gradually – by commanding and meriting it. Individual preferences, to which the ‘creative industries’ are increasingly enslaved, should really carry as little weight as a toddler’s deciding she no longer likes carrots. But since a rather audible number of first-night opera audiences (at Covent Garden, at least – you don’t hear them at the Coliseum, where rape scenes are all too common) seem no longer to want carrots, I suppose opera will eventually have to go the way of everything else and divest itself of any ambition to get to the emotional heart of potent and pressing dramatic scenarios. The Royal Opera already has a Facebook page, after all. What’s not to like?