In London, Opera Stays in the Conversation

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LONDON—Visits to this city are bracing because it is a place where ideas ferment and people seem engaged with culture as a means of understanding who they are. Opera always seems to be part of the conversation. I wish I could report that New Yorkers cared as much about it as people do here. London has fewer opera companies than New York and does not have the many intriguing little troupes we do, but more people seem aware of what is happening at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and the English National Opera, even if they are not operagoers themselves.

Somehow, wherever I went and whatever I did, people seemed focused on questions of identity: “Who are we as a nation?” “Who are we as the British people?” “Who are we as world citizens and as a world power?” Less often did I encounter: “Who am I as an individual?” – a formulation that is much more American.

I came to the United Kingdom as a speaker at the Oxford Literary Festival, sitting on a panel about the future of Italy, as impossible a task in one hour as sorting out the plot points of Il Trovatore. Italy, despite its troubles, still has the potential to return to greatness, if only its leaders and key citizens would pay more attention to modernizing society (full opportunity for women; addressing the racism that recently has become a nasty phenomenon; bringing equal rights and protections for gays and lesbians) and less time trying to conform to the low common denominator of globalization. 

When I raised these issues about Italy, I noticed people in Britain asking themselves how they are doing as a society. Many are profoundly dissatisfied and have reasons to be, but I also identified causes for optimism. While things are not perfect, I see the U.K. as being more inclusive than many nations of its size and diversity. Wherever I went, I encountered bright, talented women in positions of authority and influence. Their achievements were based on what they did rather than who they were. While issues of race and class still exist, great strides have been made and being “multi-culti,” as they say here, is not only a fact but seen increasingly as a strength.

On March 29, same-sex marriages became legal in England and Wales, with Scotland soon to follow. Not only was there little opposition (unlike the surprisingly stubborn opposition in France and the unsurprising recalcitrance in Italy), but Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was one of the foremost advocates of making this change, as were many other Tories. Quite a contrast to many conservative politicians in the U.S. Similarly, across the political and economic spectrum, universal access to medical care is seen mostly in a positive light, with the knock-on effect that creative people (including those in opera) can devote their energy and thought to work because they don’t have to panic about healthcare coverage.

Strauss in the House

In Oxford I also gave a talk about Richard Strauss in the year of the 150th anniversary of his birth. His operas are much-admired and discussed, and the Royal Opera has recently done outstanding performances of Die Frau ohne Schatten and Elektra. The Bavarian composer is known here in the fullness of his contradictions as a man and an artist—radical and conservative; sophisticated and naïve. I was amazed, at Oxford, how many people could recount versions of Strauss’s visit there just before World War I and the degree to which he was cheered in the streets and lecture halls by students and faculty who admired his recent operas (Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier) and his symphonic output. How many New Yorkers can talk about Strauss’s time in their city?

An unforgettable experience for me at Oxford was attending what turned out to be the last public appearance of the 87-year old Jan Morris, whom I consider to be the greatest living writer in the English language. Although usually called a travel writer, her books and journalism have always been more about identity—as nations, societies and individuals—than anyone else’s I can think of. Her 40-plus books on empires (including Venice and Britain), cities (few things can top Manhattan 1945) and biographies (Abraham Lincoln) all reveal how geography, culture, taste, religion, language and the social fabric create societies and affect individual lives. 

You might know that she lived as James Morris (not the opera singer!) until about 1970, when she had the surgery to complete the process of becoming the person she knew herself to be. Her short but remarkable Conundrum is one of the best “travel” books you will ever read because it masterfully documents a journey to embrace one’s own identity—one’s essence—and quietly but effectively advocates for kindness, which is a subtext in all of her books, even those chronicling the ruthless behavior of the heads of empires. Would that I could take her to a performance of Attila or Don Carlo. I think she would find more meaning in Simon Boccanegra, which is about empire and transition.

In London, I did a lecture called “Opera Bouffet” at Covent Garden about the connections among food, wine and opera, with performances from L’Amico Fritz and La Traviata by Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth and Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes, both in the young artists program at the Royal Opera and with bright futures. At the same time, the company announced its 2014-2015 season, which has more than 25 works from a vast range and many performers with something to say and not just pretty sounds to make. 

What I find most promising is that the Royal Opera is doing at least seven new or rare works in its Linbury Studio Theatre, striking a blow for the importance and relevance of contemporary opera that only a few heavily subsidized German theaters can match. Some of these will be co-produced with other companies in the U.K. and a gentle but firm push seems to be happening to keep opera front and center in the national cultural conversation, and not just a diversion for patrons with deep pockets. It is a hard mix to achieve, but the effort is admirable.

In a spurt of energy fueled as much by intellectual stimulation as strong tea, I got to two plays and a couple of thrilling museum exhibitions. One, about Paolo Veronese, I will discuss in an upcoming article. The other, Benjamin Britten: A Life in Pictures (above, right), at the National Portrait Gallery, puts the composer in the context of his times, his collaborators and those who inspired him. Any society that takes its composers and artists as seriously as its politicians, sports figures and sex scandals (not that these are mutually exclusive) shows a healthy maturity and cultural vibrancy that is especially reassuring in these troubled times.

Picture: Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten by Kenneth Green/National Portrait Gallery in London