Expert, intelligent discussion about art may not have the mass appeal of, say, football, but, if we believe that art is an important part of a civilised society, then it should be an integral part of public discourse. However, Michael Church’s one-star review published in the Independent on 20 June shows neither expertise nor intelligence. Perhaps one could make allowances for his lazy mistakes (attributing the decision to have just two performers playing both protagonists and victims to the composer, whereas it is in the original play by Heiner Müller), but more significantly, his main criticism is that the composer “had no interest in voices at all” and, therefore, “this staging of his ‘opera’ was a shameful waste of money and talent”.
Let’s just consider those criticisms for a second. Quartetto’s subject matter is highly upsetting: it’s merciless in its depiction of emotional and physical violence, a horribly toxic relationship, rape, betrayal, and the inevitability of a dystopian future. Francesconi chooses to illustrate this through some extreme vocal writing. And frankly, given what the characters go through, it’s not surprising that their lines are, in Church’s words, “jagged and gasping”.
Obviously stipulations on word limits inevitably prevent a thorough analysis of the production, but there were some worrying omissions. Was it dramatically effective? Were the singers’ performances convincing? It seems this critic’s chief concerns only serve to convey his own prejudice against new and unfamiliar work. To Michael and others of his ilk I offer this advice: Opera is changing. It’s a living and evolving medium that makes its own rules about what defines it. Venues such as the Linbury should be applauded for supporting contemporary work and taking risks with their programming, not berated for daring to present a production that isn’t broadly popularist. Art can be upsetting and disturbing, as well as lyrical. So please, if you’re going to write about it, do it with integrity.
Chief Executive, Sound and Music