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Fight for relevance

14 Nov

Yesterday morning as I was scrolling lazily my Instagram timeline came upon a brilliant opera singer being all happy to be promoted as the Beyoncé of opera.

After the initial flutter of excitement that an opera singer gets featured on a mainstream media outlet (coverage is that rare, to make any reference becomes a cause for celebration), started to wonder why once more the mainstream has to equal the achievements of opera singers to pop ones.

Why couldn’t they refer to the scores of amazing women of colour that have treaded the boards of opera houses the world over and forged careers that lasted longer than Beyoncé’s whole life? And why are PR people, record companies and artists happy to conform to this dialectic? Why don’t they have some fight in them to go against that populist nonsense.

Why shouldn’t mainstream publications know who Marian Anderson, Shirley Verrett and Leontyne Price have been in the classical world?
With such well documented careers it’s never too late to educate others and keep those fantastic artists relevant as a historic reference and also as the important pioneers they were.

Accepting the status quo of media coverage is to accept that opera is no longer relevant and it doesn’t have its own heroes to offer to the mainstream. Which on its own is too depressing to contemplate.

Exclusion by design

8 Nov

barbican head pic

Was looking at the future programming of the Barbican Art Gallery this morning and was amazed to find out that their Box Office has gone cashless on the 1st of November. I find it extraordinary for a major venue subsidised both by the Arts Council and The City of London to instigate this measure under the guise of speed of transactions and/or safety. Surely in the middle class bubble the management of the Barbican operates in, nobody is without a bank account…but looking further afield and it was reported in 2017 by charity Toynbee Hall that 1.7 million people don’t have a bank account and crucially:

  • 94% of people without a bank account have a personal income of below £17,500 per annum, and 91% live in households where the total income is £17,500 per annum.
  • 55% are in council housing, while 24% are in the private rental sector
  • 31% are between the ages of 20-29 and 26% between the ages of 40-49.
  • 70% are recorded as having nothing in savings, while 20.5% have between £1-100.
  • 73% primarily use another financial product, such as a Post Office Current Account or credit union, while 27% are cash-only.
  • 5% are recorded as saying they get to the end of every month without any money while 35.5% are recorded as doing so fairly regularly.
  • 42% currently use, or have previously used, debt advice services.
  • 53% are either “very confident” or “fairly confident” using email and social media websites, and leaving feedback on shopping websites.
  • 44% use a smartphone

It’s clear the demographic the Barbican is excluding is near the poverty line and their life must be hard enough to not be allowed to use any pocket money they have to buy a cinema ticket, theatre or concert ticket at the Barbican. Why this form of social apartheid is allowed to go on unquestioned is stunning to me. If the small cushion of public funding is meant to encourage venues to be as open as possible to all, that surely means people without a bank account should have a way to access their services too.

Please consider writing to the Barbican to voice your opposition to this blatantly exclusionary policy. Their contact address is info@barbican.org.uk and ask them to forward your message to Sandeep Dwesar their Chief Operating & Financial Officer.

cashless barbican

The notice on the Barbican website explaining the change of policy

A bass with no balls

9 Nov

This morning was a strange one, watching the smug permatanned face of Donald Trump pretend to be presidential for five minutes before returning into the usual idiotic drivel in his acceptance speech. As I drunk my cup of coffee and ate the sad remains of a slice of carrot cake I thought I’d catch up with Instagram.

One of the first posts to see was by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov. A triumphant photo he took with Trump, congratulating him, with prerequisite misplaced Americanism, for his election. After over 100 likes, the comments from disaffected fans mentioning Trump’s record on LGBT issues started coming in, the post was unceremoniously deleted. Isn’t it wonderful when anyone thinks that in this day and age simply deleting a post on social media will make it go away.

Sorry Ildar in order for you to have that post ready to go the moment Trump won, you are indeed a big fan of his. Which in itself is fine. But at least have the balls to back up your belief in him when the going gets hard. Deleting it was really stupid. You are a good singer but proved to be a spineless human being in this instance.

Fat gate mark 2

10 Feb

Being a performer is tough. You are exposed to criticism at every turn and it is expected. But it was horrendous that the Evening Standard would go on to body shame Allan Clayton less than two years since the uproar at Glyndebourne. Whilst it is fine to criticise all aspects of a live performance in a professional manner to make disparaging remarks on the bodily appearance of the performers most certainly isn’t.

Barry Millington wrote in his review of the Magic Flute last night 

Not least that of Tamino, sung by Allan Clayton, who is vocally in excellent trim but needs to spend more time at the gym if he is to be stripped regularly to his boxers.

It had never occurred to me that Tamino was meant to be a male model type and it seems absurd why bad looking critics in their 60s obsess what an extraordinarily talented singer like Allan Clayton looks like in his pants on stage.

As long as a singer’s physical state doesn’t affect their performance it is nasty to body shame the person in the spotlight, particularly when they have sung excellently. As Richard Morrison’s and Rupert Christiansen’s comments about the looks of opera singers were brushed away with merely a flutter of an apology I think venues should go nuclear on reviewers that keep on making such needless comments.

After all the opera companies have a duty of care to their performers and should do something about rogue reviewers that use their press ticket privilege to offend.

Reading Clayton’s tweet this morning brought a lump in my throat…we have all been there, on the receiving end of a bully at some point in our lives. We also probably told them to fuck off too…but it should not be left unchallenged.

Bullies like Millington should be stripped (pun intended, dear Barry, boy) of free access to performances if only to make them realise that it is not a valid line of enquiry in a review to suggest a singer visits the gym more frequently. Our society is obsessed enough with looks as it is, we should not be giving a free pass to critics to add another burden on the already pressurised life of opera singers.

The whole point of beautiful singing is its transformative quality, if a 50 year old soprano can convince me she is a 15 year old geisha then I have no problem with a Tamino having a bit more meat on the bone. Actually the whole insidious barihunk lark is acting as an acceptable form of body shaming apartheid that has been trickling like poison in operatic circles. The very idea that an exceptional singer won’t get cast because of the lack of musculature should be an alien concept but sadly it isn’t.  

Yes, I’m a gay man…I enjoy the nude male form but I’ll be damned if I enjoyed more a singer’s performance because they have a six pack. Singers have enough issues to obsess about as it is. Critics, back off and can we all please stop and think how normalising fat shaming on stage is bad for the art itself. 

My radio début…

15 Jul

cropped-wig-mirror.png

Worth warning you that tomorrow afternoon I will be a guest on The Opera Hour hosted by Richard Scott.

In a previous life I had appeared as a TV interviewee but never on radio. So tomorrow will be at my best behaviour chatting all things opera and playing some favourite arias…no panic it’s just live radio! Hopefully I will make some sort of sense…but certainly fun will be had.

So tune in online on Resonance FM at 16.30 BST or if in London on your FM radio. The programme is also repeated on Monday at 10.00 or listen on demand right here.

Have a listen ENO

14 Jul

I do hate to add to the mass of frenzied and at times uncalled for attacks on ENO. But as a follow-up from their new season launch in April I decided to upload my recording of the press conference. Especially in light of John Berry’s , the artistic director’s, announcement four days ago that he is stepping down.

What made it remarkable was his rather dampened mood at the presentation and the obvious defeated attitude. Didn’t want to comment at that point as it was obvious, with their run-in with Arts Council England and the placement of the Company in special measures that more changes were upcoming. As the current state of ENO is rather pitiful and its future beyond 2016 is seriously in question I think it is in the public interest to have access to the full statements by the people at the top.

It is notable the usual unwillingness of the top brass of the company to answer questions in the open and instead urging those present to have an informal (and off the record presumably) chat over a cup of tea. It almost backfired on them as a number of journalists and arts correspondents made their displeasure heard loudly at the end of the presentation. The shrinking audiences and terrible turn of their finances would have made us believe a more humble approach was needed but somehow they still foolishly did not take open questions.

Now that John Berry has gone and with him a certain misguided obsession with international co-productions and to be the thermometer for Peter Gelb’s new production endeavours, surely is the time to open the conversation on who ENO is for and what work they are producing. London has a world class opera company down the road and a huge number of smaller and much more flexible outfits who are encroaching the contemporary commissioning landscape that ENO used to dominate.

They are reaching the point that they look rather aimless and more of a House that is rather in love with its stylistic tropes and self-image. When compared to Opera North and Welsh National Opera their quality, value for money and breadth of reach in programming is pitiful. I have enjoyed many productions at ENO over the years and am rather in awe of the Chorus and Orchestra but the management has let down all those hard working people and played with their livelihoods and the Company’s reputation.

The sound quality is not crystal clear, but it is good enough to have a listen through and make your own judgement. I sincerely hope the underlying arrogance displayed on the day has crumbled alongside the outgoing Berry regime.

ENO season launch 2015/2016 live tweeting extravaganza

21 Apr

ENO Season Launch 1516Tomorrow morning between 10.00 and 11.00 the English National Opera will hold its annual season launch. Like the last three years I am present and will relay the news as it breaks. Below you will see a live stream of my tweets and even further down will be tracking the official hashtag used by ENO for reactions by other twitterati. Join in the fun!

My tweets

 

 

My blog posts on the previous three launches

2012/13:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/eno-201213-season-and-the-broader-london-context/

2013/14:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/season-launch-by-an-eye-witness/

2014/15:  https://operacreep.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/eno-season-launch-20142015/

Can you hear the Germans laugh?

3 Jul

KJ GreatAll hail the queen of GREAT music

If you have a strong constitution you can watch her talking about the Proms (an event she has never performed for in the Royal Albert Hall) 

 

The usual disappointment

9 Jun

star facePoliticians…they are all too quick to jump in with leaks and playing to the populist newsmedia gallery.
This morning Harriet Harman was scheduled to give a speech on education and the arts at The Roundhouse. This morning her office, presumably fed soundbites to The Guardian with veiled accusations of inaccessibility directed at the Proms and the Royal Opera House.
You can read the piece here: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/08/harriet-harman-state-arts-public

It is desperately depressing that politicians once more prioritise their own promotion and offering click bait to a newspaper site that reflects inaccurately the actual content of their speech. 

The complete transcript can be read here: http://press.labour.org.uk/post/88265413304/speech-on-young-people-and-the-arts-by-harriet-harman

Slinging mud at premier artistic institutions is never a good tactic when you hope to become the next culture secretary. I would also like to know how she can tell by looking around her while in the audience of the ROH if any working class people where in the audience (I have asked her on Twitter, we may get an insight at the special skills required for such audience segmentation readings…see below). With ticket prices starting at £8 and many free events and exhibitions the ROH is trying to open up further. They run a busy programme of insight talks for both ballet and opera which are open to all.  The Proms, for all their overdrawn programming and unsuitable main venue still allow for day tickets at the princely cost of £5. And broadcast every single concert for free on Radio 3.

Blaming them for the lack of access is the most counter-productive move possible. The subsidy for the arts in the UK and in comparison to most of continental Europe is very small and most of the institutions give excellent value for money. What they need from politicians in return is a stable funding basis so they continue to develop and not having to dread more cuts. The NHS is seen as the sacred cow that no government want to be seen to be tampering with but they have no issues with cutting most national art institutions nearly 20% of their funding. All under the logic that the arts are some luxury we can’t afford in recessionary times.

As the speech itself points out the issue lies with access to arts education and not allowing those disciplines to be the great unknown to the school children of the post-Gove era. The posh and the good of Britain always have had plentiful access to ballet, opera and classical music. The only way for the wider populace to come into contact with the arts is via the media and education. Why can’t simply Labour promise to fund adequately the important artistic institutions of the country and to also reverse the cuts to educational resources and funds for training. If the arts are

fundamental to what it is to be human

then Harriet don’t waste time attacking the very flagship institutions that create the art forms that we aspire to partake in. Spread the love not the negativity.

My take on the coverage of Rosenkavaliergate

23 May

Rosenkavaliergate wig multiSince last Sunday when the reviews for the production of Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne came out a worrying pattern emerged, the major opera critics (FT, Guardian, The Times, Independent, Telegraph) chose to focus on the appearance of Tara Erraught, the bubbly fast rising Irish Mezzo who is cast as Octavian. Instead of getting into a critique of the production the critics felt that their own jaded pre-conceptions of what Octavian ought to look like cloud their judgement to such a degree that they didn’t see any further than the surface.

Their direct insults not aimed at the costume designer or the director (who, may actually required a less manly looking Octavian, after all) but a wonderful young singer who had just made her debut at one of the world’s most celebrated operatic stages. In the coming days all and sundry had an opinion about the attack but somehow had very little to say about the production. Richard Jones gets a wink and a carte blanche while Erraught gets thrown to the dogs.

Some tried to read feminist theories and male conspiracies in the story and wrote about grumpy old men berating a defenceless young female. It all got to an idiotic conclusion with a puff piece blog piece on the NPR website.

What we should be talking about is about the quality of coverage of opera in the mainstream media, the capability of the reviewers to see beneath the superficiality of appearances and manage to convey the overall picture of the production and the achievements within. Only Michael Volpe, the manager of Opera Holland Park was willing to look into the broader ecosystem of how opera houses attract audiences and what expectations they cultivate. It has been for a very long while less about the music and more about selling an entertainment package. The houses are complicit in this drop in standards of reviewing by encouraging superficial gut reactions on social media and by advertising productions with glossy advertorials, frequently featuring models (Raymond Gubbay and the Royal Opera House have done that so many times). When I worked at the Royal Albert Hall I remember an audience member being sorely disappointed that the model in the posters of Carmen had no resemblance to the singer singing the part.

It may seem silly but raising expectations beyond the reality of the artform is a sure way to create despondence and mis-selling the show concerned. The houses by not focusing on the productions and the artists are as disrespectful as those reviewing Neanderthals that have no connection with the world outside their own little clique.

Everyone has been far too eager to have a piece of the action over the last few days, including a rather flatulent piece by a fellow member of the cast that made its way to a rather boring corporate site. I am looking forward to seeing the production live on June 8th and you can all join me in cinemas around the world and online. Strauss gives so much to talk about in a rich work like Rosenkavalier. Not just Tara Erraught lost out on having a triumphant first appearance at Glyndebourne she deserved, Strauss also was let down by the short-sightedness of those present that should have known better and did not rise to the occasion.

The abhorrent reviews by
Rupert Christiansen: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalconcertreviews/10839018/Glyndebourne-2014-Der-Rosenkavalier-review.html
Michael Church: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/der-rosenkavalier-glyndebourne-opera-review-perversely-cast-9395750.html

The searching and even-handed piece by Michael Volpe can be read here: http://slippedisc.com/2014/05/opera-festival-director-it-is-inappropriate-to-mention-body-shape/
The thoughtful and personal response by Elisabeth Meister can be read here: http://elisabethmeister.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/big-boned-and-thick-skinned/

The non apology by Christiansen has amassed over 120 comments…that must hopefully be a good time for him to pause and think.

The review by Fiona Maddocks in today’s Observer (25 May) can be seen as the coda to this overdramatised saga that lasted too long and it was fuelled by self interest and loathing.


This post was first published in my weekly newsletter, you can read and subscribe to it here: http://operacreepnewsletter.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/operacreeps-week-no4/

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