February 21, 2004
Thar fyar char arve clarssarcarl myar zarc

Thomas Adès has been much touted as Britain's version of the future of classical music. I don't see it, myself, that is to say, I don't hear it. His much touted opera The Tempest just sounds to me like every other Brand-X subsidised recent opera that I've ever heard, tuneless and pointless. The result of having the words sung opera-style by opera-style singers is that you can't hear them, and the result of the orchestral backing is to turn everything into emotionally meaningless modern-music wallpaper. I listened to quite a lot of it on the radio last Wednesday, and it just sounded like re-heated Schoenberg left-overs. Now I'm watching it on the telly (the Scotland v. England rugby having finished), and although it is being sung in "English" – i.e. operatic wah-wah-wah Arnglarsh – they have subtitles for you to make out what the hell is being sung, which are needed, let me tell you. For if you care, I mean, which I do not.

There are two rules for this kind of operatic composition. First, the singers sing "tunes" that are almost, but not entirely, constructed of randomly tuneless notes. If they sang truly randomly, then every half hour there would be an actual tune, just by the law of averages. This never happens. Second, the particular form the non-tune-ness takes is that each note has to deviate by about four or five notes from the previous note that is sung. Often this results in mere see-sawing. Occasionally the next note is higher than the previous one and the one after that goes still higher, or the same thing downwards. This non-tune has no connection whatsoever with any meaning that would, without all this non-music churning away, be discernible from the words, in the event that one could hear what they were.

In this version of The Tempest, Shakespeare's plot has been approximately kept, with the obligatory moral promotion of Caliban and moral demotion of Prospero (this I learned from a Radio Three announcer rather than from the damn thing itself), but Shakespeare's words have been rewritten by someone now alive, in the manner of the appalling and superfluous New English Bible (may it burn in Hell). This was probably wise. I once saw an opera done in the same musical manner by someone called Humphrey Searle, based on Hamlet, and using Shakespeare's original words, thus:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .thart. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . .bar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .quarss. . . . .
. . . . . . . . .nart. . . . . . . . . .ars. . . . . . . . . . . . .
.Tar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .charn
. . . . . . .ar. . . . . . .bar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .tar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . thar. . . . . . . . . .

Etcetera. Not a success. By being made to listen to a modern-operatically fucked over version of Shakespeare's original words you were constantly, for every single second of this absurd ordeal, reminded of the difference between artistic excellence and artistic idiocy. So replacing the Shakespeare Tempest with an idiot Tempest for this Tempest was a wise precaution.

This Tempest does seem to be a little better than that Searle/Hamlet absurdity, but only a little. To be exact, sometimes everyone sings fast and incomprehensibly in the idiotically up and down style. And on other occasions everyone sings v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-l-y, in the idiotically up and down style. It is this tiny concession to theatrical effectiveness and meaningfulness which presumably has got all the critics gibbering that this is a Great Occasion, the Most Hotly Anticipated piece of blar blar blar, etcetera, ever in the whole of human history since the last piece of garbage like this we tried to make other people besides us excited about.

This is producer art. Everyone agrees that it is great, except almost everyone. And, without caring tuppence about it, almost everyone is paying a great deal more than tuppence for it. If the people who say they like this nonsense had to pay for all of it, it would surely cease at once.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:39 PM
Category: Classical music