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Opera without angst

Elke Heidenreich sings high praise of the Glyndebourne Festival

At the Hamburg airport, the young composer Marc-Aurel Floros and I learn that all flights to London have been cancelled due to a planned terror attack. We have a flight to London and tickets for two operas at the legendary Glyndebourne Festival, that were not exactly easy to come by. We are both opera lovers, fans, aficionados, we want to get to Glyndebourne no matter what, and there's no time to lose. We don't want our trip to fall prey to the so-called axis of evil which has just reared its ugly head. Instead of flying to London, we'll take the next plane to Birmingham, if necessary without luggage. From there trains travel to to Brighton, where there are hotels and taxis that can get us to Glyndebourne in half an hour. Not easy, but doable.

In the evening, on the famed Brighton pier that extends far into the sea and almost looks nice from a distance, we travel from the axis of evil to the axis of idiocy: slot machines, noise, junk food, carousels, scooters, haunted house, the whole inane entertainment machinery that – to judge from the drunk or scowling faces - doesn't make anybody happy.

All photos © Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2006, Mike HobanThe Glyndebourne opera house. All photos © Mike Hoban, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival

Would opera reach such people? Or are we long since a two class society: here the simple folk with their simple pleasures, there the cultured elite with opera, theatre, and concerts? When I see the entire Bavarian government, Roberto Blanco and the Gottschalks rolling into Bayreuth, I know that things have gotten pretty mixed. But would I be seeing these pin balling, tattooed and pierced youth from the pier at the opera, for instance tomorrow in Glyndebourne?

I don't see them there because they can't pay 160 English pounds for a ticket, as we can. But secretly I ask myself how much money they're spending on the pier in Brighton – it's not cheap there either, looks deceive. Opera is enormously expensive. It's part of culture, this old, wonderful art form, from which funds are constantly slated to be cut. The corrupt city "fathers" in Cologne put millions into lucrative garbage channels, while opera has to fight for every penny. For instance, if there were no sponsors for the children's opera in Cologne, a unique enterprise that has been extremely successful in bringing twentieth century music to chilren for ten years, then the emperor would have no crown, the centipede wouldn't have thirty green rubber boots and the queen would have no red velvet coat. And the children would have no unforgettable performance to shape their lives the way the opera shaped my life for good when I was a child. The boys on the Ballermann Pier in Brighton never had this chance.

all photos © Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2006, Mike Hoban

And so Glyndebourne - what awaits us? What we see first: an old, genteel country estate in Sussex which has been in the Christie family for generations. An opera house, which stands unobtrusively on the green meadow. Sheep on this green meadow, which is not a green meadow at all but rather a cleverly laid-out English park. Rich people in beautiful clothing with bountiful picnic baskets. Lots of old people, few young. And the anxious question: will the music, will the opera be an accessory to the picnic or will the music reign, make us forget the bomb threats and the duress of our trip. Can it do all that?

No problem.

Handel's "Julius Caesar in Egypt" is played, "Giulio Cesare in Egitto," five hours of music with an hour and a half of picnic in the middle. Five hours of music and joy. George Bush? Forgotten forever at one point. Tony Blair? Already forgotten. Julius Caesar? His realm also perished, like that of Cleopatra. Handel? Floros says he didn't have a single soldier and yet his realm continues to survive, three hundred and fifty years on. The realm of art, of music. It's the only one that lasts, of that I am certain, the only one that counts, the only one that can rescue us from this insanity, brutality, power-hunger, stupidity, intolerance, ugliness, cheapness. Five hours: a feast for the poor beleaguered senses, pure emphaticness. Every gnostic critic's yammer pales. We've gotten accustomed to taking everything apart, butchering, viewing sceptically, questioning and we've forgotten how to feel, to see, to hear, to enjoy, to open our hearts. Of course, there's always something to criticise. So what? That's true of lovers, man and woman alike. But I don't question their existence as a result, I don't write off artworks, performances, opera houses or theatres just for the fun of it.

Who would seriously deny the importance of nearing artworks, both intellectually and analytically? And yet, we all respond affectively as viewers, something hits our feelings directly. The Italians – recently at the Verdi festival in Parma – let it out. The English do too, as I have now seen. Only in Germany does the half-cultured intellectual sit in his chair, his mouth pursed, fearing abandon: he might make a fool of himself. I spent an entire evening disputing Floros' theory that Germans can't do it, they don't have the elegant levity, but now I lay down my weapon: he's right. This Glyndebournian Handel, bubbling with life, would not be possible in Germany. We would wrinkle our noses and demand the seriousness that Schopenhauer, Kant, and the disastrous Adorno condemned art to. In Leipzig's Gewandhaus, it's engraved in the wall: "Res severa verum gaudium" - true joy is a serious thing! You've got it.

Giulio Cesare Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra Giulio Cesare. Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra

German opera is watched by experts who will not abide enjoyment. The point is to be tortured. Woe be to new music with tonality, woe be to old music that's not taken with deadly seriousness. I'd like to see this sort of thing in Germany. Cleopatra dancing erotically to Handel, or Caesar and Ptolemy doing a ballet which shows the delicate balancing act of power, with two heavily-armed counter tenors cooing each other in minuet steps. It's unspeakably funny, deeply threatening and yet breathtakingly elegant and sensuous. And never, never does it destroy the music. The music must always be taken seriously. That's rule number one in opera. They know this at Glyndebourne. Germany could do with learning this lesson again, then the opera houses might be less empty. But here we have this bad habit of letting film and television celebrities direct, people who voluntarily admit that yeah, they're interested in theatre but they never really had a clue about opera. Which then becomes clear.

Now I'm writing myself into a rage. I wanted to tell about Glyndebourne. I've already forgotten who staged, who sung. The names are not as important as what happened on the stage. The names I can look up. The force that came from the stage remains in me. All I know is that the beautiful, dogged Emmanuelle Haim conducted Handel with her fists, with her entire body, strange, but it sounded better than it looked.

"Julius Caesar" is not your everyday Handel, although Handel has it better in Germany than other, near forgotten composers. Glyndebourne, which began as a Mozart theatre, is always digging up unusual things. In Cologne, Bonn, Düsseldorf, the Fidelios, Cosis, Barbers all run at the same time as though there was nothing else, as though it would be impossible to coordinate. At least Cologne tries a little contemporary music, even commissions pieces and then has to take the punishment of the local critics. Ignore, continue! That's the only way for opera to survive and even in Glyndebourne, Handel is followed the next day by Prokofiev, a classic among the moderns.

Betrothal in a MonasteryBetrothal in a Monastery

The audience: notably younger. The piece: an extremely banal farce, "Betrothal in a Monastery," an inane story of mistaken identities, but how entertaining the staging! How much power in the music, how much playfulness on the stage, how much eye-winking about the fat fishmonger, who thinks he will get the beautiful young maiden who has long since disappeared with someone else. I'd listened to the opera on CD at home and was expecting the worst. In Glyndebourne, it lives – the audience laughs, reacts, is happy. In the room of twelve hundred sold out seats there is that delightfully relaxed atmosphere that used to be the norm in opera houses.

Of course opera used to be something for the elite but precisely in the country of its birth, in Italy, it quickly became entertainment for the masses. In old books, you can read in astonishment about the sensual pleasure of the opera, even about erotic encounters in the loges. (Wouldn't that be nice!) But it's not like that any more, and it doesn't have to be either. But to sit dull and stuffy on a chair without feeling anything and then to stand eternally and disgruntled in line during intermission for a glass of white wine, there's got to be more to it than that.

In Glyndebourne, one feeds the body and soul during the long intermission and then again after the performance; after four or five hours, people don't disperse right away. They sit around on the lawn, on the tables they've brought along, on little walls and blankets, drinking the rest of the champagne and discussing the performance. My attempt to sing Cleopatra's aria "Si pieta per me non senti, giusto ciel', io morirò!" was met with applause. Yes, they call, wasn't that wonderful? It was wonderful and those of us below showed this to those above, again and again, and the sparks flew. That's how it should and can be at the opera. But with us, Floros is right, enjoyment always has something to do with denial, with guilt. It can't please, not for the sake of pleasure I must chasten myself right away. Pleasure means: feeling mediocre, thinking, being. Anything that smells of pleasure has to be avoided. Art should hurt.

To hell with that.

Maybe we just have to learn how to address art gratefully, happily and not turn everything into a solemnity. Here the sublime, there the trivial – do they have to be divided so that we end up with the nonsense on the Brighton pier? There were several there that would have got a kick out of the opera, but maybe they don't know it exists. In my large circle of friends and acquaintances, I have trouble finding someone who will go with me to the opera. And if I succeed, a door opens, there's astonishment: So nice? We didn't know that. Just as disgraceful is the sentence "I envy you, I don't even get around to reading." Those who need it, do it, whether it's opera or literature.

Giulio Cesare. Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra David Daniels as GiulioGiulio Cesare. Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra David Daniels as Giulio

So what do we know? Only whatever is being shown daily in television and in the hype of the kitschy pedestrian zone. And the gnostics among our critics aren't contributing to a change, to a heightened enthusiasm. That would be, however, "a consummation, devoutly to be wish'd." (Hamlet)

The original impulse behind the foundation of the opera in Glyndebourne was a man's love for music and for his wife, who was a singer. He built a building for her, for himself and for their friends which grew bigger and more important with time, he opened his park for music lovers. Up until today in its third generation – for seventy years – he has opened it to total strangers, so that they can share his love and joy. We can only say thanks and bow.

All the political craziness was back at the airport in London the next morning: endless delays, heightened controls, raw nerves. We had a treasure in us, nobody cold take it from us. Strength, peacefulness, thankfulness, beauty, tone, happiness. The world is not in good shape. Art is. Still. Music reconciles, breaks open, heals, irritates, awakens, permeates. Makes us people. "Only musical ecstasy gives me the feeling of immortality," writes the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran. E stands for Emile, M For man.

Orpheus awakes Eurydice and rescues her from the underworld with his music – the ur-myth, the first operatic material. And not even Orpheus trusts the stuff. He turns around to make sure she's still there, and then she's gone for good. He should have just let the music do its thing! It can waken the dead, on Judgement Day it will be the trombones. I'm looking forward to it. Onwards. Make lots of noise, drown out the Muzak in airports, elevators, show them what music really is. Life-saving. Envigorating. Precious.

We have to make our audiences love opera again. The old has to be preserved, the new has to be introduced with care. No shallowness, beware, no comfortable reposing; it has to be demanding, but with lust, love, passion. Without interpretive rage and dissection. Without the need to be more shocking. Not that it should be over-harmonised, but we've already suffered through enough nakedness, blood, sperm and Nazi boots on the German stage. In Glyndebourne, we can see how others are doing it. Understand what a gift we have in opera. Thousands of people listen in darkness to a single human voice, they are moved and thus connected to each other. They give themselves up to it and their abandonment makes them vulnerable. And wherever there's a wound, there's porousness: "there's a crack in everything, that's how the lights gets in," sings Leonard Cohen. Where the linden leaf lies. (explanation) Where we are unarmed. That's where opera reaches us. To die for.

I have to go to Glyndebourne to be able to feel deeply, finally. I have seen lovely performances in Germany, but the sensual pleasure in play is missing. And a certain generosity of the heart. Let's all sit together in the dark operatic half-circle, the real aficionados, the critical critics, the innocent pleasure-seekers, the curious beginners, without contempt for one another, only with this shared joy of hearing music.

It was wonderful in Glyndebourne. My fighting spirit is greatly strengthened.


This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 25 August, 2006.

Elke Heidenreich is a journalist, author and host of the literary talk show "Lesen".

Translation: nb - let's talk european