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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

When Outrage Catches the Buzz

By Norman Lebrecht / May 8, 2003

Regime change on either side of the river Thames is producing dangerously unforseen consequences. At the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner announced his new era on Wednesday with the most foul-mouthed, blasphemous, sexually explicit, self-referential entertainment ever to be seen on the uncensored London stage. Jerry Springer - The Operawas a shocker that turned a respectable first-night audience into a baying chat show mob, yelling 'loser!' and 'Jerry!' until the ersatz host and his warm-up man emerged to tranquilize them with practised smiles.

A production of this kind would, a decade ago, have provoked spluttering editorials and questions in the house. The absence of outrage signified a climate change in public opinion that Hytner must have sensed when he plucked the show from the adventurous Battersea Arts Centre. A Carmelite nun might perhaps have been disturbed by the sight of Jesus in nappies - but not for very long, because Springer - The Opera constantly sends up its own assertions. Every line, both verbal and musical, is ambiguously literal and self-critical - a triumph of post modern irony.

Ostensibly a parody of the unutterably watchable US confessional box, now in its twelfth season of I-slept-with-a-transsexual prurience, Springer - The Opera throws open a pandora's box of identity issues and moral conundra. It deconstructs theatre, opera, television, celebrity power and, not least, audience manipulation by obliging a sophisticated theatre audience to behave like mindless television goons. It is, among other things, poisonously funny, angry and slightly mad. If this is how Hytner sees the National, its future will demand serious watching.

Across the river, another venerable institution is undergoing generic alteration. The Royal Opera House, in Antonio Pappano's first signature season as music director, will present the semi-sung annals of a London serial killer and will start building a Wagner Ring designed by the world's hottest architect. Neither will please opera purists. Getting Daniel Libeskind to redesign Valhalla is a nod to celebrity culture rather than a cerebral re examination of German myth. As for Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, the purist objection is that it is not opera. The piece was conceived for Broadway and played successfully in the West End with a fifteen-piece band and actors who could just about sing. It has been staged with moderate success by smaller opera companies - Opera North in Leeds and the Lyric in Chicago - but never by one of the operatic monoliths, never by a real, Royal, opera house with eighty musicians in the pit and singers who can hardly act.

So why aren't we storming the ramparts to demand the restoration of proper theatre at the National and normal Wagner service at Covent Garden? Because there is every sign that Hytner and Pappano have caught the mood of the moment and sensed the need to bring down barriers between their genres. Hytner, a successful director of grand opera in London, Paris and Munich, knows better than anyone that Jerry Springer is no opera. Nor is it a stage musical, a play with songs or a satirical cabaret. It is all of these things and more. The score, by Richard Thomas, has flashes of fresh melody richer than Les Miz. It lacks a show-stopper. We do not go home whistling 'Chick with a Dick with a Heart', or God's aria 'It Ain't Easy Being Me.'

Musically, its strength resides in unconcious flashbacks, sometimes to Sondheim and Mel Brooks of The Producers but more often to the much misapprehended Kurt Weill who is fixed in the public mind as the Weimar revolutionary of The Threepenny Opera rather than as the composer of Street Scene, his 1947 attempt to set an authentic American opera on the stoop of a New York brownstone. This underplayed masterpiece, which contains the finest vocal sextet since Cosi fan tutte, is the generic starting point for Springer, a show founded on ensemble rather than solo singing. Body-miked and artificially boosted in the National's boxy acoustic, the music does not sound anything like opera (unless you listen to opera on jogging headphones).

Its roots lie more in contemporary visual art, with its unfettered licence to shock. Springer -The Opera is continuously in your face in a manner that owes a royalty to Tracy Emin. Nothing is prohibited, consequently nothing offends. Staged small, in Battersea, Edinburgh or embryo, it elicited a cynical smile and a stifled yawn. Transferred to the large Lyttelton stage with a dazzling cast and a second half from Hell, it succeeds in capturing the moment, defining Hytner's agenda and, surreptitiously, mocking all those terribly-well-made straight musicals that his predecessors, Eyre and Nunn, put together and transferred to the West End. So 20th century, my dear.

Springer - The Opera will also go West but not, I suspect, much further. It is too riotous and irreverent for Broadway, too obscene for television, even for Channel 4 which arrogates (against all evidence of its recent productions) the right to shock. Perhaps the most heartening thing about Jerry is that it shrinks the presumptions of television, its progenitor, to be regarded as a cultural trend-setter. The show arose from an early-1990s North London cabaret group, Kombat Opera, which employed a singer-actress Lore Lixenberg to deliver Anti-Heckle Arias when the audience got overheated. Its writers, Simon Munnery and Stewart Lee were commissioned by BBC2 in 1999 to do a series, Attention Scum. This was nominated for the Golden Rose of Montreux and then cancelled by controller Jane Root who, with her BBC-1 sister Lorraine Hegessy, has done more to dampen the nation's creative impulse than any oligarch since Cromwell. Lee, who went on to write and direct Springer, brags of this rejection in the programme.

Still, maybe Root was right. Jerry Springer would not work on TV. It strays too close for comfort to television's valueless void. Your living-room box is not wired to convey irony. Jerry Springer - The Opera can only work as live theatre, or opera, or whatever. By tearing down barricades of convention, it achieves a contemporary relevance that electronic media can only mimic. It confirms the precedence of live art over video, of goers-out over couch potatoes, of London as a hub of ideas rather than a club of Armani suited media types. It forsees a future and, by Jerry, it works.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001