Saturday, 11 January 2014


What do opera, ballet and rock'n'roll have in common?

My son and I spent the morning at the Royal Opera House, for the final dress rehearsal of 'Manon', Massenet's operatic interpretation of Prevost's 1731 novel 'L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut.' Torn between reason and passion, the classic conflict, Grieux falls for the convent-bound Manon when she is only sixteen, and steals her away to a garret in Paris – where she betrays him cruelly and breaks his heart. Years later, the spoilt femme fatale hears that her former lover has committed to the church and is entering the priesthood. Fickle Manon cannot resist the ultimate challenge: winning back the heart of a man who has turned to God. This echo of Grieux's abduction of the child Manon en route to a life of devotion is irresistible. Both, need I say, are doomed.

Across Covent Garden, I joined my two daughters at the Coliseum, for the English National Ballet's exquisite 'Le Corsaire'. Based on the poem by Lord Byron and scored originally by Adolphe Adam at the Paris Opera almost a hundred and sixty years ago, it recounts the tale of swashbuckling pirate Conrad who falls for harem girl Medora, and features the famous Le Corsaire pas de deux, one of classical ballet's most cherished pieces. The ENB, under the guidance of former Royal Ballet principal turned ENB Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, is the first British ballet company to perform it as a complete work. Full of Eastern promise, sultans of swing and slaves to the rhythm, it concludes with a dramatic shipwreck but also happily ever after, in contrast to Manon's manic demise.

All of which had me pondering, perhaps incongruously, the countless rock and pop gigs at which I've spent my life. What struck me is that there's a distance between audience and artist in ballet and opera that we simply don't experience in rock'n'roll. No active participation. We sit still and silent, never daring to cough, enthralled by these complicated and highly-disciplined art forms that explore the human condition with great power and passion, in ways we are incapable of ourselves. Though we may know the names of the principal performers, have followed them a little, know something of their private lives, they are as other-worldy and removed as if they hung on other planets. At a rock gig, however, we are on our feet the moment the band appear, clapping, cheering and singing along, responding to our idols as they welcome us into the show and seduce us into taking part. We get these people, we have relationships with them, we've got to know them inside our own homes. We know, or we think we know, what makes them tick.

Opera and ballet are much less about individual performers, much more about the art form. Rock is about its superstars. The common theme, the bridge, is love, and the common denominator is music. Add music and love together and we get hope – as expressed through soaring strings, heart-stopping harmonies and entrancing dance, via agony, tension, and joy.

It got me wondering again where we might be without music: a universal currency out-done only by sex.  Or is it? Whereas sex is often inappropriate in the circumstances, music almost never is. Any time, any place, anywhere. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing at any given moment, music can give us pause for thought, allow us to express and feel emotions, help us rise above the worries and struggles of our day. We happen to hear a piece that takes us back, or we choose to escape our problems for a while by immersing ourselves in it deliberately, and it washes over us, drowning the negatives. It's no accident that the music that touches our hearts the most deeply arises from pain and sorrow. Even the blackest night delivers dawn, a glimmer of light as we are about to give up. However we hear it, whatever we listen to, wherever we partake, music lets us feel. Most songs are about emotions, and the greatest songs last a lifetime. Can hold us. Can move us beyond words.
What's it all about, Alfie?  Big question. Do people really think all that much about the quest for the redemption of the soul, for release from the psychological prison cell? Most of us avoid this kind of thing most of the time, and quite right. We need to get out of our heads more. The occasional excursion to the opera or the ballet gives us an excuse to 'go there'. These tidal waves of stories offer an overview. A little insight into the struggle to come to terms with the inner self. Oh yes, we remember, we have choices. We can opt for self-awareness, make an effort at transformation, or we can simply ignore all that and hope it'll go away. Hope, again. Opera and ballet delve into realms otherwise uncomfortable or inaccessible. They allow for the possibility of death as rebirth. They extend us opportunities to dream, to fantasise, to live beyond ourselves, if only for a couple of hours. To experience existence through the eyes of others. To imagine. To put things right, if only in our heads.

Here's the thing. Things. Eternal truths. Even as it is taking us out of ourselves, music gives us permission to creep back into our hearts, poke around a bit, get a sense of who we really are. Hold a mirror to the soul? Too scary. More than most of us could take. But buy a ticket or put a record on, and it's a whole other encore.

With thanks to Christopher Millard at ROH, and to Max Westwell at ENB

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