This article appears in The Times today.
THIS MONTH the English National Opera begins a revival of one of the stupidest productions of modern times. It is Mozart’s Don Giovanni as interpreted by the Catalan director Calixto Bieito. When it was first staged at the Coliseum, in 2001, it generated copious news coverage on account of its depictions of drugtaking and oral sex. The ENO followed it a few months later with a Bieito version of Verdi's Masked Ball that opened with a scene of 14 men defacating. Bieito has since directed a Hamlet who rapes Ophelia in the nunnery, and a Macbeth that includes necrophilia and, inevitably, more oral sex.
Scatological, violent and sexually obsessive theatre is nothing new. The squalor and ugliness of the plays of Jean Genet are an obvious precedent. Rarely, however, can these characteristics have been deployed with such remorseless irrelevance and by a director of greater technical incompetence. Of the initial staging of Don Giovanni, the critic Michael Billington — who, on this evidence, will believe anything — marvelled that “however controversial Bieito’s version may prove, no one can deny that it’s based on close attention to the music and a clear-sighted view of character”. So close, indeed, that when the disguised Don Giovanni disperses by subterfuge his potential assailants, he does so by singing Meta di voi qua vanado (”Half of you go over there”) with nobody on the stage apart from himself. Perhaps it is Bieito’s way of conveying the Don’s anomie; it is impossible to tell.
It is not my purpose to advise Times readers to avoid this production, though I should sooner poke my eyes out and sell my children into slavery than sit through it again. I draw attention merely to the reasoning that the ENO deploys in its stated justification for reviving Bieito's work: “We cannot dispute that opera is interpreted as boring, 19th-century and out of date. Controversy happens in other art forms, why not the opera? It should be given a platform. Film and theatre reflect what is happening in the 21st century. It is violent, it is controversial, but it’s modern and will appeal to first-time attenders.”
The unmistakable defensiveness might be taken for cynicism, for however critically reviled, Bieito’s productions sell. Sex usually does. Yet the populist clichés of relevance and accessibility are ingrained in British public life. A year after new Labour came to office, John Tusa, the managing director of the Barbican, wrote in this newspaper: “I’m worried about the Prime Minister because he is signalling that Oasis is as important to Britain as opera; that chat shows are as important as novels; that soap operas are more valuable than live theatre . . .” What Mr Tusa omitted to mention, and perhaps could not believe, was that philistinism in political office has its counterpart among his fellow promoters of the arts.
In 2002, not long after the two Bieito spectaculars and a Marriage of Figaro that with pleasing symmetry was literally as well as metaphorically a load of rubbish (it was set on a scrapheap), the ENO’s artistic director, Nicholas Payne, resigned. Ructions ensued. Senior figures in the performing arts wrote a huffy letter to this newspaper proclaiming him a martyr for the cause of transforming opera from a “middle-class trophy art form”.
The strategy appears to be that audiences whose interest in being seen exceeds their desire for spiritual enrichment will be deterred if arts professionals vandalise the message in retaliation for the shooting of the messenger. What patronising nonsense. The arts are enjoyed predominantly by the middle class, but that does not make the arts middle-class. Social reformers from William Morris to Arnold Wesker have brought the arts to workers and trade unionists without belittling their audience in the manner of an “appeal to first-time attenders”.
There is nothing illegitimate in modern stagings of classic works. Opera-goers who complain that directors ignore the composer’s intentions commit the “intentional fallacy”: we do not know the composer’s intentions when we listen to music, or the author’s intentions when we read a novel, other than through the work itself. Even if we have an account of the artist’s own interpretation, it remains only an interpretation; an artist is no more a definitive interpreter of his work than he is a definitive judge of its quality.
What is wrong with so many modern productions is not that they are radical interpretations, but that they are not interpretations at all: they are accounts of the director’s own psychological states. In the case of Calixto Bieito, you know that whatever opera or play he is staging, it will come down sooner rather than later to sadomasochism and lavatories. Unfortunately, Bieito is merely an extreme, not an exceptional, case of what the arts establishment has wrought; Nicholas Payne’s supporters need not have worried at the loss of their champion. The ENO describes Bieito’s Don Giovanni as “uncomfortably up-to-date and in-your-face”. The message is equivalent to Classic FM’s issuing compilation CDs with titles such as Time to Relax: the power of a piece of classical music lies in its immediate emotional impact on the listener, rather than in its development of an argument.
The ENO’s defence of the artistically controversial is, in all senses, artless. Whether in the form of a director’s vapid bombast or a commercial radio station’s bonbons, classical music is increasingly marketed as popular music. Popular music is not controversial at all: it is ubiquitous. Objective standards of aesthetic excellence, on the other hand, do require a platform. Unfortunately those entrusted with the public service of advancing them, and funds with which to do it, show scant interest in the task, and even less aptitude.