Two of this week’s news stories have made me reflect upon some of the cultural differences between the Britain of 90 years ago and the Britain of today. The first was the news about the cancellation of the co-production by ENO and the Bristol Old Vic of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. I found this story striking because it’s the sort of thing that is comparatively rare today in this country: singers may cancel and opera companies may change their long-term plans, but productions that have already been announced aren’t often pulled. However, cancelling productions was par for the course during the 1920s.
Operatic culture between the Wars was, frankly, a mess. With no operatic subsidy until after World War Two, money for opera was in extremely short supply and although there were endless fundraising schemes to prop up opera financially they never came to much. Seasons were routinely announced and then cancelled, and in the spring of a given year it was often unclear whether the operas promised for the same summer or autumn would actually be performed. Foreign opera companies sometimes considered coming to London but couldn’t be sure they’d sell enough tickets and usually thought better of it.
Performance standards were also by and large pretty poor, even at Covent Garden: scrappy old sets and costumes were recycled; singers of varying standards sang in different languages within the same opera, and so on. There was much talk of the wondrous things that could happen if only there were an opera subsidy. You can feel the world of opera straining to become its post-World-War-Two self.
People are sometimes inclined nowadays to lament that opera in the UK is not what it once was. But looking at what operatic culture was like here in the interwar period can only serve to focus the mind on the riches we are lucky enough to enjoy today. Make no mistake, opera companies face many challenges, financial and otherwise, something that Michael Volpe has written about frankly and perceptively on numerous occasions. Clearly these are serious and not to be underestimated. Yet from the audience perspective we need to rejoice in the number of opera companies we currently have in this country, the high standards of singing, acting and production that we take as the norm, the fact that a performance probably will actually take place, and the fact that if we go to hear an opera in Italian there will not be somebody singing one of the roles in Swedish. Maybe this is the golden age and we need to revel in it. Let’s just hope that the Orfeo cancellation isn’t a sign of times to come and that public funding cuts and the like don’t send us hurtling back to the operatic world of the 1920s.
I’ll save the other big news story from this week for another time, once I’ve calmed down about it. No prizes for guessing what it was.