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It’s complicated

The ever-alert PR people at the English National Opera (why can’t we have a company like this?) have assembled a “what if?” video to promote Nico Muhly‘s impending Two Boys, and thrown in an admirably scruffy “reality” actor to boot.

36 comments

  • armerjacquino says:

    Heh- funny that the photo should be taken outside the John Snow, too.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/14/gay-claim-ejected-pub-kissing

    • sterlingkay says:

      I think that’s the point, isn’t it? He’s going in there with that “Interested in men” sign knowing that gay couple had been famously thrown out for making out there.

      Very cool video….ENO’s PR is always great. Every time I’ve seen anything at the Coliseum (last time for Terry Gilliam’s Damnation of Faust) it’s been packed with the kind of youngish audiences the NYCO would kill for. One wonders how London can support 2 big opera companies and NY can’t. I don’t think it has anything to do with ENO performing in English…I think folks go there in spite of that, rather than because of it.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Yes, I get that it’s the point- just clarifying because I didn’t know whether the story had made it to the other side of the Atlantic!

      • brooklynpunk says:

        “One wonders how London can support 2 big opera companies and NY can’t”

        …not re-hashinh the entire story all over again..doesn’t the fact of British Governmental subsidies have something to do with it?--(those fucking Brits, eh..?)

        Something that seems remained unsaid, in public--but as we are entering into the dubious 30th anniversary of it ..is ..all the Artists/administrators/backstage workers/fund-raisers/--and potential FANS.. that have been felled by AIDS…. I THINK this has had an affect--perhaps--nu?

        • kashania says:

          Absolutely. The percentage of gov’t funding for the arts is lowest in the US. From what I hear, the UK doesn’t subsidise to the same extent as some other European countries, but I’m sure the ENO can rely much more heavily on gov’t funding than NYCO.

          This little film was probably fairly expensive to produce. It would represent a sizeable chunk of a company’s marketing budget.

        • m. croche says:

          Another factor to consider: during the post-war era through 1990, there was an important diplomatic purpose to US government sponsorship of the arts.

          The Soviets had decided fairly early on that they would co-opt imperial and bourgeois high culture not only because they decided they liked it, but because it helped legitimize the Soviet Union as a “civilized” country. And so the music-industrial complex was developed there and treated as a showpiece for international consumption.

          From what I remember (which is subject to the usual hedging) one of the impulses for the founding of the NEA was similar -- to maintain cultural “parity” with the Soviets. Van Cliburns, after all, were great publicity for the US. With the collapse of the communism in Russia, this rationale for government spending on the arts disappeared and it was precisely at this time that you began to see conservative attacks on the NEA.

          Now this is quite obviously far from the whole story behind arts funding in the US (the US is still interested in exercising soft power, obviously, and those-who-have-say may have decided that traditional forms of “high culture” is not so useful a way to spread it) but I do think it’s a significant part of the picture.

          (By the same token, I’ve always assumed that one of the reasons for the Germans’ comparatively extravagant levels of funding for music was also diplomatic: a post-war initiative to remind the world of the good Germans and to forget the bad ones.)

          • manou says:

            That is a very interesting and thought-provoking angle -- thank you.

            Another more prosaic point is that although the US do not directly fund the arts, they do allow donations to various arts bodies to be tax-deductible, thereby allowing individuals to target their specific contributions as they chose, whereas in European countries the subsidy comes from general taxation and is therefore taken from contributions from all kinds of people who do not necessarily support the arts per se.

            You are endlessly told in the UK that the supposedly elitist silk-and-satin-clad opera audiences are being subsidised by “horny-handed sons of toil”…

          • oedipe says:

            m. croche, as usual, yours is an insightful comment. But I disagree with one little word of great importance in what you wrote. I would leave out “only” in the following phrase:

            ‘The Soviets had decided fairly early on that they would co-opt imperial and bourgeois high culture not (only) because they decided they liked it, but because it helped legitimize the Soviet Union as a “civilized” country.’

            As a matter of fact, the ideology of the Soviet Union and of the other communist countries was characterized by a deep-seated antipathy towards “high culture”, intellectual pursuits, and “useless” art. Creativity was kept on a leash and the only motivation for not crushing it altogether was, indeed, the desire to appear as “civilized” countries in the eyes of the West.
            Examples of this hatred of culture abound, but I will mention just one that you are certainly quite familiar with: the destruction of “bourgeois” art during the Cultural Revolution in China.
            This populist mentality -at the very heart of communist ideology- was based on the supposedly democratic, egalitarian notion that culture is elitist, a luxury that the masses have no use for.

            A similar populist streak has always been present in the American psyche. Now that the competition with communism and the pressure of keeping up with the Soviets is gone, this populist streak -the preference for the lowest common denominator- is coming more and more to the fore, from the highest to the lowest levels of society. So you get the likes of Peter Thiel, the Pay Pal founder, who claims that culture is a waste of time and who is ready to pay for youth to drop out of school. A few threads ago, someone on Parterre wrote that culture is elitist, the less of it the better… So what kind of image do Parterrians think “elitist”, “bourgeois” opera has with the general public?

            State subsidies are undoubtedly very important, but they are not the only factor ensuring the survival of the arts.

          • m. croche says:

            Hallo Manou and Oedipe and thanks for the responses.

            I’m very sympathetic to Oedipe’s claim that the communists-in-charge never had an ounce of actual interest in cultural pursuits and merely supported them for reasons of public image. It’s a claim I personally would be cautious in making in that ascribes pure cynicism to the historical actors and even unspeakable monsters can have a taste for fine art (see Göring, Hermann.) Now: oedipe and a few others on this site have lived through this history in a way I haven’t, so I think they’re fully entitled to take the most cynical possible view of government actions during that period. I can’t emphasize that enough.

            But I always had the feeling (one supported only by a moderate amount of research, not sustained by detailed contact with primary sources) that when the Soviets turned their back on the RAPMovites in the early 30s, they closed the door on the type of anti-high-culture demagoguery that oedipe so rightly deplores. I’ve had the feeling that the artistic results of the Proletkult movement were too extreme for them, too unartistic. Stalin, I believe, genuinely enjoyed Maria Yudina’s piano playing. Of course, as oedipe pointed out, all of the unruly elements of high culture were treated with great suspicion.

            The Chinese case is not entirely dissimilar. When the communists came to power in 1949, they restructured the Chinese opera companies and “reformed” education, performing style and repertoire. But I think some of the key functionaries were genuinely interested in artistic products. Zhou Enlai was actively engaged in nurturing performers and troupes in the late 50s through the 60s. Again, this was in part for reasons of state -- he was especially attentive to minority-culture performers, integrating them into a national circuit of schools, troupes and venues. But those who were sponsored by him continue to go out of their way to praise him and his engagement in culture of the period (no matter how misguided it might seem to us.) And even during the wholesale destruction of the cultural revolution, former actress Jiang Qing took a detailed interest in shaping the Eight Model Plays which became the standard for performance at the time. The content is mostly appalling, but the technical standards in the film versions are very high. Even now, older folks retain a genuine affection for them. (I don’t.)

            So I certainly understand where oedipe is coming from in his comment and would in certain moods agree with him completely. But I’d merely like to keep open the possibility that some functionaries in authoritarian governments genuinely have an interest an art (however debased that appreciation might seem) while wishing to bend it, implicitly or explicitly, to the services of the state.

            (As for oedipe’s final thought: state subsidies always come with string attached. So does any form of patronage -- private and corporate sponsorship can be enlightened or unenlightened, depending on the circumstances. Alas, great patrons have always been in short supply.)

      • Regina delle fate says:

        Most of that “youngish audience” seems to be there on hugely discounted tickets, which are advertised in a very low-key way, but Intermezzo seems to have a hot-line to most of the special offers. A tip -- you don’t need to book in advance for ENO productions, indeed it is inadvisable to do so as there are almost always tickets available at the Half-Price ticket office in Leicester Square and if you follow Intermezzo there are even better bargains to be had online. Friends bought £80 stalls seats for opening night of Boccanegra for £25 and they’re not pensioners or students.

  • La Cieca says:

    GAY SNOGGING PUB EJECT SHOCK!

  • brooklynpunk says:

    I hope SOMEONE ( if there’s ANYONE LEFT…) at NYCO is watching this..and taking notes….

  • Kernita Makilla says:

    Is that the same John Snow, THE Mister Snow I plan on a’marrin’ “when the flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees” and “the birds’ll make racket in the churchyard trees”

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Can I POKE you???? What does that mean in UK English?

    • operacat says:

      Per FACEBOOK: “The poke feature can be used for a variety of things on Facebook. For instance, you can poke your friends to say hello. When you poke someone, they will receive a poke alert on their home page.” Purpose? Who knows.

  • kashania says:

    As a facebook junkie, I find this utterly witty.

  • grimoaldo says:

    why can’t we have a company like this?

    asks our esteemed hostess -- but would a company like ENO be successful in the US or well thought of by parterrians?
    They do everything in ENGLISH and opera translated into English is decidedly sneered upon and the very idea rejected with horror in most of the comments on the subject I have read here.
    However that does give them a distinct identity, they are not looked upon as a poor man’s Covent Garden the way NYCO was perhaps perceived as a “lesser” Met.
    Also they have tended to use mostly British or Commonwealth singers many of whom are for some reason lampooned here by “Nerva Nelli’s” alter ego the Vicar of whatsits. I have never understood that joke and by the way Nerva or the Vicar, how do you even know who Ava June, for instance, was?
    ENO has been up and down over the years but it does have a strong “brand” identity and a lot of its productions create a “buzz”, something it seems to me NYCO, not that I know much about that company, could use.

    • Henry Holland says:

      They do everything in ENGLISH and opera translated into English is decidedly sneered upon and the very idea rejected with horror in most of the comments on the subject I have read here

      I theory, I have no problem with opera in English. Yes, some translations are poorly done, but for me the biggest problem is mushy diction. I went to the Los Angeles Opera Turn of the Screw a few months ago and I’d say maybe 75% of the words came across, even though there’s only a 13 piece orchestra. I know the text well, but I still had to rely on the titles at various times, very frustrating.

      As for ENO, the Coliseum isn’t very singer friendly and I’ve heard productions there, such as an otherwise well-sung and directed Doctor Faust where they might has well been singing in Serbian, that’s how bad the diction was. If that’s the case, just do it in the original language and I’ll read the titles.

      Re: kashania‘s comment above, I checked and per their website “ENO is supported by an annual Arts Council grant, which for the financial year 2010/11 is £18.3 million” which at current rates is a little over $30 million. Not bad, but not a patch on what the 3 Berlin houses split each year, something like $110 Euros (roughly $160 million) a year between the 3 of them.

      • armerjacquino says:

        It’s not quite fair to blame the diction, or at any rate the diction alone- the Coliseum has a horrendous acoustic with a massive dead zone. I’ve been unable to hear singers from the back of the stalls that friends have told me they could hear perfectly in the upper circle.

        • Regina delle fate says:

          I’ve been going to the Coliseum for ENO performances for close on 40 years and diction has undoubtedly deteriorated. In the 1970s most of the ensemble has come from the company’s much smaller home at Sadlers Wells and they had a person on the staff who was responsible for coaching diction. And they invited guests like Janet Baker and Norman Bailey whose diction was exemplary. Last night we had a Amelia/Maria Boccanegra from whom barely a word could be heard (now they use surtitles which sort of negates the point of singing in English). But Armerj is right -- the “Colly” was never intended as an opera-house -- it’s an old musical-hall/variety-theatre and there are dead patches in the acoustic. Often, you get more of the text in the cheaper seats, but patrons in the stalls -- especially on the left hand side -- are always complaining about inaudibility. Very muted response to Mr Tcherniakov’s very grey, post-Soviet-era staging, by the way, and only a few desultory boos, so they won’t be able to cash in on the scandal factor…

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        What percentage of text comes across on an average night at an Italian or German opera in the original language though? Do you seriously believe it is 100%, and that it was only 75% in the case of the Turn of the Screw because it was in English? Or was it just that you happened to notice, because they were singing in your native language?

        I don’t think all the text comes over even when it’s Tebaldi singing in Italian -- it’s just a fact of operatic performance that text is not going to be intelligeable all of the time.

        • Henry Holland says:

          I’m pretty sure mushy diction is universal, no matter where the opera is being done and whatever language it’s being done in and sure, I noticed the Britten because it’s in English and I know the opera so well. It’s why I was never a big pearl-clutcher over supertitles, they’re far from perfect but they’re an aid. At least with MetTitles and the little screens like the ones at the Wien Staatsoper, you can opt out. I didn’t turn mine on when I was in Vienna for Billy Budd but the diction was very good that night.

      • kashania says:

        Thanks for that. $30M represents the complete annual budget for an opera company producing around 6-8 productions a year. I wonder how much the NYCO gets. I tried to research it but gave up.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Ava June stopped singing at ENO more than 35 years ago. By the time I started going in the 70s, she was still on the roster as a beloved stalwart from the Sadler’s Wells days but the last new production she did was Menotti’s The Consul in the late 70s, and prior to that a Butterfly which was, by most accounts, a tad “veteran” at that stage. She could still be effective as a Katya Kabanova of a certain age, and one of her biggest successes was as Gloriana -- which might be available as a pirate recording as it was broadcast from the Proms. And she had the tough task of replacing Sylvia Fisher, for whom the production was originally mounted. I’d guess that June was an artist a bit like Sheri Greenawald -- a soprano I adore -- or maybe Lauren Flanagan (although I always think of Flanagan as the American Pauline Tinsley). These people were estimable artists, fondly remember by those who saw them, and their are achievements are well documented. As ENO/SWO was a true ensemble in those days, one had an amazing choice of singers in the repertoire pieces: June was one several Toscas including Anne Evans (not really her role), Lorna Haywood, Josephine Barstow (perhaps her biggest vocal mistake at the Colly, but she was absolutely magnetic on stage) and Elizabeth Vaughan (a regular guest). One of the most exciting Trovatores I’ve ever witnessed was a Mackerras conducted ENO performance with Rita Hunter, Katharine Pring, Tom Swift and Neil Howlett -- singers routinely scorned in here by people who probably never heard them live. They may not have been Price/Corelli/Cossotto/Milnes but they were far better singers than many you hear in this opera today in prestigious European houses.

      • Nerva Nelli says:

        “I always think of Flanagan as the American Pauline Tinsley”

        This does a gross disservice to Pauline Tinsley, who could handle bel canto roles-- I mean handle them *well*, not shriek through them in poor Italian like Flanigan (sic)-- and dramatic fare such as Elektra and Bruennhilde, the while being a credible Mozart Elettra on records.

        Why *shouldn’t* I know about such singers? I spent much time in Britain als Kind and heard many if those whom you mention ( never June, though), plus many (including June) are to be heard on recordings, if some rather less than was warranted. Plus many of them (Tinsley, Vaughan, Ryland Davies, Howells, Hunter, Haywood, Barstow, Evans, Masterson, A. Remedios ( not Ramon to my knowledge), Bailey along with such immortals as Hammond-Stroud (the ONLY POSSIBLE choice for Faninal and Smetana’s Krusina at the Met, as per Fiend’s nasty auntie Joan) and the dire Anthony Raffell.

        You forget, among Toscas, Phyllis Cannan (“bags of voice” said OPERA, which is the DAILY READING MATERIAL of my flat mate the Vicar, who has absorbed the late HDR’s attitudes writ large) who also starred in the loony ENO RUSALKA video as the Foreign Princess opposite Eilene Hannan--who would be dynamite if the role never went above a G--the fun Ann Howard and the poorish Treleavan and worse Rodney Macann.

      • Belfagor says:

        Let’s hear it for Elizabeth Vaughan, who sang a Maddalena di Coigny at WNO years back, and stripped the paint from the walls -- she was so demented, exciting and opulent of voice. More recently, she sang an Old Prioress at ENO, when in her early 70′s (I think) and stole the whole event. Presence for days.

        ENO made most of its mark for me doing repertoire that did not produce associations of regret when performed in English: I’ve not heard the recent bel canto forays -- but remember much new stuff, Shostakovich, Janacek, Busoni, Britten, Handel, Dvorak, Humperdinck etc etc --

        It should be remembered that the years of the ‘triumverate’ -- Mark Elder, David Pountney and Peter Jonas ended with a season of solely Mozart and 20th century opera which, though brave and intermittently exciting, left the company with a huge deficit and since then (early 90′s) has not had a great track record of artistic policy, knowledgeable leadership, or a secure ensemble of singers……..

  • rofrano says:

    I was 100% sure that the above photo was DANIEL STEPHEN JOHNSON!

  • louannd says:

    It is cute and certainly targeting the right audience, perhaps, but I am always somewhat disappointed by ENO trailers because there is never any singing in them. Call me old fashioned, but I really want my commercials to actually show an opera, or at least some semblance that it is an opera we want you to see. Of course I realize that this opera has not been probably rehearsed anywhere near to the level where its ready to be filmed, but still, trailers are supposed to grab you. This reminds me of those commercials that prominently feature “really dumb men” who say “really dumb things” to their girlfriends. Now, here is a commercial that grabs you -- NYCO hire these people to do your publicity:

    • ianw2 says:

      ITS LIKE THEY FILMED MY LIFE!

      I also find the absence of any of the actual music in these viral videos puzzling, but more understandable with this particular one since its a brand new score.

      The ROH videos are AWFUL. High production values doing everything to convince you that its not an opera house. It seems like a bait and switch to me.

    • Belfagor says:

      For the ‘Two Boys’ publicity, at least the music used is by Nico Muhly, a dance piece ‘I hear the air before me’ -- as he hasn’t written any opera before, it would be doubly misleading to accompany the film with a recognizable operatic chestnut.

      Neat idea, but, for me, takes too long to make its point, and doesn’t really whet the appetite for what is apparently, a seamy little story.

      And is new opera about singing these days? I think there’s a huge problem hearing elongated vowels, heightened phrases and forceful projection communicating contemporary everyday life, slang, the little realities -- I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I have sat through so many contemporary operas and thought, fine, but why is this being sung to me? Is the medium the right one for this story?

      Hip and relevant is hard to do in such an unwieldy medium as opera. As (for me) ‘Anna Nicole’ showed -- would have been so much sharper as a fringe show with superior actor voices

  • louannd says:

    Oh, even better, higher this company to do your PR!