Royal Opera House swaps glitz for grunge in Gus Van Sant adaptation

The Royal Opera House (ES Magazine)
The Royal Opera House (ES Magazine)

Pity the parent of the child who develops an expensive hobby. Football, for example. Ever since Euro 2020, my eight-year-old has been going through school shoes every three weeks. He insists (insists!) that we have Now TV for the Premiership at £30 per month and as a surcharge for Spurs being quite decent these days, we must pay £25 per month for the Champions League on BT Sport. At the time of writing, the only seats available to watch Tottenham live are ‘Informal Dining’ tickets vs Aston Villa — at £599 a pair.

If only he were into something a little less elitist, a little less arcane, a little more accessible. Like opera. You can get change from a tenner for two tickets to the Royal Opera House. Lovely building. World-class performers. Incredible scenes. You even get to sip a beer while watching them. Opera is civilised like that. ‘The only elite thing about opera is how talented the people are who do it,’ says Oliver Leith, 32, the company’s current composer-in-residence at Covent Garden and, I am delighted to hear, an Enfield boy like me, Enfield not traditionally being a hotbed of high culture. ‘Watching the singers rehearse, memorise all the music and movements, emote, understand — it’s Olympic levels of ridiculousness. But that’s the only elite thing I can think of in opera. The people who work in opera are from the greatest array of backgrounds you could imagine.’

Leith is about to unveil his debut full-length work, Last Days. It is as good an example as any of how far actual opera has strayed from the cliché of opera that so many still hold, notably the Conservatives’ Dominic Raab, who tried to take the piss out of Labour’s Angela Rayner for going to Glyndebourne this summer. The implication? A working-class Northern woman has no business going to the opera unless she is a fraud or a hypocrite or both. Know your place!

Anyway, Last Days is an extremely loose adaptation of the 2005 Gus Van Sant film inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain, co-created with the librettist/director Matthew Copson for a cast of eight (tickets from £5, BTW). I will admit when I watched the film, which mostly consists of a Cobain-esque musician named Blake wandering around a house mumbling, I didn’t immediately think: whack a few bassoons in there and we’ve got ourselves an opera! But actually, says Leith, at the story’s heart is a highly operatic dynamic. ‘The film deals with the everyday. It’s about mundanity. But the fact that we know that the musician about mundanity. But the fact that we know that the musician will die at the end really raises the stakes. Every interaction is heightened. And that’s a beautiful thing to play with in opera.’

“I had the palpable sense of watching a human being doing one of the most impressive things our species has learnt to do and without breaking a sweat”

It is not, to be clear, a Kurt Cobain opera. No arias based on ‘Territorial Pissings’, alas. ‘It’s more about the Kurt Cobain archetype; he is a person who gets used up by the world. Which is quite operatic.’ Van Sant was happy to have them be as loose as they want. Leith makes it sound like a bit of laugh — on the day we speak, he has just finished tuning timpani. ‘Honestly, I am having so much fun.’ And Leith is part of a generation of composers who enjoy all the meats of our cultural stew, as Homer Simpson once put it. ‘I don’t really have a genre,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve always been flexible in the way I move across things. I work with pop people sometimes. I write in a classical idiom most of the time, but basically I’d work with anyone. I would very happily compose a piece for a metal band.’

Musicians have evolved — and so have audiences. Those who have grown up in the streaming era tend not to recognise distinctions and hierarchies once considered immovable. The American composer Nico Muhly has staged an opera about catfishing at the English National Opera and written songs with Björk; Bryce Dessner, guitarist in The National, composes chamber music and produces records for Taylor Swift. And is a figure such as Anna Meredith electronic or classical, or does anyone actually give a damn? Still, it might surprise you that the largest audience segment by decade at the Royal Opera House is 20-29-year-olds. And sure, young people benefit from subsidised tickets (£30 Glyndebourne tickets are available to under- 30s, too, if you can get someone to give you a lift). But it shouldn’t be so surprising that culture evolves with its audience.

In any case, in recent years London classical fans have been abundantly served. There is the Grimeborn opera season at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, and Shadwell Opera in the old East End, in addition to the surprisingly cheap Holland Park season. There have been chamber recitals at superclub Fabric as well as Bold Tendencies, which features an annual season of classical, dance and opera in the former multi-storey carpark in Peckham. Its 2022 programme has seen Stockhausen, Aphex Twin and, on a recent spellbinding late summer evening, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 performed by pianist Jeneba Kanneh-Mason with the Philharmonia. I was in the audience for that one — it was magnificent. I had the palpable sense of watching a human being doing one of the most impressive things our species has learnt to do and without breaking a sweat. Every note was felt. The fact it was performed in a car park, at sunset, with trains hissing and cars beeping and a crowd that genuinely looked quite a lot like the streets around it — well, it’s the sort of alchemy that everyone in the arts wants.

‘That’s something we wanted to embrace in our programme this year,’ says Hannah Barry, the curator of the series. ‘In the last 15 to 20 years or so these words like “immersive” and “experiential” have come up a lot in the arts. But in the end, if something is very pure or extreme, it immerses you in that world — and no one needs to tell you that it’s going to, that’s the intention, it just does.’ She, too, is deeply bored by conversations about who is allowed to like Monteverdi. What she puts on is dictated by what she thinks would be cool in that space. There has been ballet this season; next year, she is thinking about wheeling in a church organ. ‘Somehow it computed in my mind: “Wouldn’t it be wild to do an organ programme next year? And to put the organ at the bottom of the ramp?”’ The point is, she says, that it could be exciting for any number of reasons: organs are loud, the music is weird, there is a new generation of excellent organists apparently, it is ‘fundamentally architectural music’ and so it will attract different people. ‘It doesn’t have to be about young people. Some people come because they’re on a date, others are with their family. It’s lovely if you’ve got one friend you go to these things with all the time, but what’s really nice is to go to different things for different reasons with different people.’

A point rather lost on the Raabs of this world. And with recent culture secretaries generally seeing it as their mission to destroy as much British culture as they possibly can, the future for classical musicians looks pretty bleak. It feels doubtful that the BBC’s five orchestras can survive the licence-fee freeze. There are dark rumours of BBC3 disappearing just as audience numbers soar. The business of making a living as a working musician is becoming ever harder, as Rayner clearly perceived. She later revealed she went to Glyndebourne at the invitation of a neighbour, a violinist.

And opera crowds are far from the cliché. Okay, there are some down in the £250 seats, where you will occasionally see Michael Gove, but upstairs it’s mostly just people who are properly into the music. Like Binker Golding, the heavily tattooed jazz saxophonist, who has been a regular at Covent Garden ever since he paid £3 to see Richard Jones’s seminal production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (a banger) back in 2004. ‘I was around a bunch of people who were quite similar to me: in their late teens or early 20s, either heavily into music or musicians themselves. And there was a real sense of community up there. That whole experience of the evening was what got me hooked. If the productions are that good, if it’s a composer I like, what have I got to lose?’ He reckons he has been over 100 times now and still prefers sitting right up at the top. ‘I just don’t believe in individuals restricting themselves as far as the arts are concerned because of class,’ he says. ‘And perhaps there are people in that building who didn’t feel I should be there? I mean: I literally don’t care. I’m going whether you like it or not. I just took that opportunity, I never waited for permission.’ It’s there if you want it.