Place in the World
Excerpt from Graham Vick's
2003 Royal Philaharmonic Society Lecture
a place in the
world it must be of the world. Now a world of multi -cultural nations,
where rapid information technology has brushed aside all assumptions,
down all absolutes and created a culture of doubt, suspicion and
Dominated by the philosophy of the market place the high financial
popular culture put a strain on high culture in terms of accountability
justification, however, the moral high ground is no longer available
retreat into the idea of universal good and ancient snobbery
until now we have perpetuated the civic heritage of the nineteenth
privileged élite opening the doors of its great institutions for
and enlightenment of the people in essentially 19th century
This ethos dominated the 20th century and in the 1950s and
formed the series of structures and institutions which we now call
companies. Surely it is not surprising that such values are at best
and at worst alienate what is now a broad-based inclusive 21st
century society. The rules of opera
going which are the guarded privilege of an ever smaller section of
society are in growing conflict with the need for openness – open
communication and exchange between art and the society which sustains
which it is, in return, bound to nourish.
to this tension has, however, largely been devolved to outreach
education workers, studio theatres and most recently strategic
anything to keep it away from what is called the “work itself”. I do
to devalue the very important and often exciting work done in this
many years: the sadness is that I have yet to see any real impact on
audiences or the stages of our main theatres.
separation meant to protect the core work has only succeeded in
The future health and development of opera depends on it embracing the
contemporary society and that means being a part of it and being
change as rapidly as society itself. Companies lurch from crisis to
have to find a way of recovering a fundamental sense of adventure,
and interaction – a modern world demands nothing less. However, the
keep everybody happy from paymasters to tired and cynical reviewers,
conservative and wealthy to the modish and wealthy has created a
climate of catch-all in which it is sometimes difficult to understand
we’re being offered vision, excellence, audience pleasers or a
who can produce the glossiest international brochure. When Lilian
founded Sadlers Wells and the Old Vic her motivation was the need to
social deprivation and the acute drinking problem on the streets
why she did what
she did. Can we all say the same? Why do our opera companies exist?
they’re there? Because they have a payroll? Because they receive public
subsidy? Or because they are the best possible way of serving this
form and the taxpayer given the available money? Because we cannot get
from accountability. Whether we like it or not, those who pay taxes
see some return. This is not Government policy but the culture in which
live. It is after all, society which produces the government and not
way round. So it saddens me when those who would resist change or
resist the exciting challenges and possibilities offered by our rapidly
changing society, hide behind cheap shots at Blairite policy and
correctness. Equally unworthy is the absurd notion that the choice
protecting the excellence of art for arts sake or accept dumbing down.
crude oversimplification reflects badly on our desire and willingness
and grow and on the quality of intellectual debate which surrounds this
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Copyright 2003 Graham Vick. Reprinted with permission from the Royal Philharmonic
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Mr. Vic's comments have a ring of truth to them regarding accountability. As an institution, Opera, doubtless, will survive because it has tradition behind it. Society, on the other hand, despite its oft-viewed crass nature, is ever threatened with extinction by the government which it has created; this due to the myopia which accompanies the myriad illusions which government fosters. Nowadays, neither government nor society is particularly accountable for what it does. The pleasure which opera gives should be enough to sustain it amidst the devolving world of concentrating capital.
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I agree with most aspects of Graham Vick's Lecture. But some considerations about opera performances in the XXIth century are lacking:
Why is the "star making" machine no longer working ? Why are the so-called "great singers" of our time so deprived of personality in the colour of their voices, of sensitivity in their singing, of stage presence in the opera house ?
The answer is that they are selected only on one criteria (Musicality) which is not important for opera-lovers, but very important for the actual Toscaninis: they must be good musicians, they must be always in rhythm, if not in tune. But how many opera lovers in the audience can detect a slight difference of rhythm between the orchestra and the singer ? They would much more complain about the ugly voices and the coldness of most of interpretations. Martha Modl, Maria Callas, where are you ? In the current system you would not have been allowed even to sing in the chorus !
So it's good that new people go to the opera house. Those who could attend during the last golden age of opera (Caballe, Sutherland, Horne, Ludwig, Fischer-Dieskau, Nilsson, Crespin, Vanzo, Freni, Ghiaurov...) will stay at home with their recordings.