Newspapers are ephemeral things, and it is now getting on for more than two decades ago, but I seem to remember that once upon a time the press would regularly trot out stories about how the British were an arts-loving nation, and how London was a world centre of the performing arts, and how opera in particular was getting more and more popular especially among young people. These articles (which perhaps only exist in my faulty memory) would be accompanied by pictures of the said young people queuing round the block to get tickets at the Royal Albert Hall or the Royal Opera, bathed in glorious sunshine, everyone blonde, everyone happy. That was in the 1980s. It was a different world then.
I have been going to the English National Opera at the Coliseum for over 20 years, and I wonder where all the people have gone, let alone all the young people. For the opening night of Simon Boccanegra there were acres of empty seats up in the balcony, seats all with excellent views and acoustics, which were to be had on the day for a mere £10. Moreover, with allowances for the one or two bits of silliness that distinguish the company, it was an excellent production, with a stellar cast, and an orchestra and conductor, not to mention the chorus, who are world class.
One of the glories of Boccanegra, which is set in Genoa and tells the story of a retired pirate, is the way it evokes the sea; the libretto constantly mentions the sea, and several scenes are set by the sea. Naturally, the ENO production sets are all indoors, evoking the exact opposite to the freedom of the sea – claustrophobia. Oh well. I suppose they know what they are doing.
It is true that Boccanegra is not one of Verdi’s most popular operas. It is quite dark, for a start, but it contains some wonderful music and though the plot is complicated, it has a theme that we can all understand and have all experienced, namely the complex intersection between the private and the public sphere. It seems to be inexplicable that a production of Boccanegra does not sell out. But neither does a production of any other opera I have seen at the ENO recently.
This makes me sad. The ENO balcony has always been the place where those who really love music congregate; I do not want to cast aspersions, but the crowd at certain other venues often looks as though it were there to display itself rather than to appreciate a performance by others.
If the British are losing their taste for opera, this is not just bad news for the ENO, but for all of us. A life without music is a life less happy. Moreover, the decline of serious music is a sign of cultural impoverishment, and I suspect that religious practice tends not to flourish in times of cultural impoverishment. The correlation between opera-going and Mass-going may not be immediately obvious but both do require knowledge and dedication, and both bring immense rewards. Incidentally, opera as an art form sprang from oratorio, which sprang in turn from the Mass. If we are losing our interest in Verdi, one of the greatest and most popular composers of all time, what are we going to be interested in? Without Verdi, what’s left?