Operastagecoach BLOG

A sermon, a narrative, and a prayer for theatre and opera

Religions and festivals go together like eggs and bacon. Easter, or eoster, was the name of a pre-Christian festival celebrating the arrival of spring, which in our maritime climate has always been a somewhat movable feast. No, I hate the idea of fixing the date of Easter. It’s bad enough having lost Whitmonday. But the Easter idea of Jesus and resurrection naturally fits the theme of a new way of life, springtime, conversion, a resolve to change. We make new year resolutions on January 1 these days. However, until 1752, when Parliament finally switched England from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s Day used to be March 25th, Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation recalling when Jesus was conceived nine months before Christmas Day. New year resolutions and the renewing of baptismal vows fitted together well, when Easter was just round the corner. Our tax year still begins then, except that, when Parliament legislated for the change in 1751, omitting 11 days, March 25 as far as the taxman was concerned became April 6. People rioted and demanded "Give us back our 11 days." Nobody took any notice. It was only a different way of counting. Before calendar reform the day after March 24 1750 was March 25 1751, which is a bit mind-boggling for us today, though it was of course perfectly logical for them back then.
 In the Church calendar there are major festivals like Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. Then there are red letter days or saint’s days, and even minor festivals. Yesterday was the feastday of St Benedict, author of the most widely followed Rule in Western Christendom explaining how best a religious community may live together: a red-letter day in Benedictine monasteries. The Church celebrates its saints, many of them martyrs, some of them doctors or teachers of theology, some apostles, some evangelists, some bishops, or virgins, or matrons - which is what the church traditionally called older not unmarried female saints. Of course we have no mechanism for canonising anybody in the Anglican church. But the last Pope made more saints than all his predecessors put together. The catholic church has a clear process to work out whether somebody was a saint, involving witnessed miracles. Yet Pope John-Paul’s tidal wave of new saints may have been a bit of a devaluation of the whole idea. A saint’s day is a festival or a feast day, a time to indulge appetites and relish whatever is on offer.
 That is probably where the Church and a modern Arts Festival have something in common. An Arts Festival is a feast of performances and discussions and exhibitions that are special. It is not ordinary fare. And we certainly need our festivals in Britain. I am a critic and I have been travelling a lot over the last seven years around the world checking out performances and the circumstances of the live performing arts, researching for a book about the “ecology” of opera and spoken theatre. Did you know, for example, that in Britain there are now only two ensembles of actors – one at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford though it seems impossible on the RSC website to find out which actors make up the company, and one at the Dundee Rep where there are 17 actors (you need about 14 minimum to be able to act a Shakespeare play)? The point of having a theatre company is that it is a bit like having a parish church. The work the company does belongs to the people living around who are served by that company. The Church of England as our national church is rooted in the community up and down the country. Of course it does not always thrive in the specific local instance - but the principle of the local parish is well understood, and the Church is part of the social and cultural landscape and matters even to people who only occasionally want to use what it offers. The Church is a bit like a national spiritual health service. But then that is also what the live performing arts ought to be.
 Do you know how many opera companies there are in the United Kingdom? Opera reviewing is my work. There are five companies: two in London, one in Cardiff, one in Leeds, one in Sussex, and one in Glasgow - except the one in Glasgow has no permanent chorus. In fact, none of these so-called companies has on its books a roster of solo singers who can perform their repertoire. There are no longer any opera ensembles either in Britain. But opera and theatre in many other parts of Europe, and above all in the German-speaking world, depend on ensembles of contracted actors, singers, dancers, musicians, dramaturgs, wigmakers, dressmakers, scene painters, stage carpenters, electricians, box office staff etc – employed, pensionable, and funded at least 50% by the local taxpayer. That is the norm. So, for example, Coburg which has a population of 42,200 inhabitants has a Stadttheater which is a theatre and opera company that employs 225 people and has a budget of 11 and a half million euros (about £11 million). It employs guest artists but it also has 18 singers, 15 actors 9 dancers and an orchestra of 54 all on contract - and in 2007 it sold 100,000 tickets which means everybody in Coburg can enjoy a regular diet of theatre and concerts and plays. In the season just finished their repertoire included performed Wagner, Mozart, Massenet, Shakespeare and Ibsen. Coburg is one of about 75 to 80 opera companies in the German-speaking world. Germany has 250 theatre ensembles as well as almost 80 opera companies. Is Germany really that much richer than Britain? Or is it just that they make the costly choice to have theatre and music? The trouble here in England is that people of course don’t miss what they have no memory of, or have never experienced. Shakespeare played in King’s Lynn according to legend. But actually in the country that bred Shakespeare our theatre and especially our spoken theatre is in much greater trouble than even the church. And as for opera, well it has never been native here - and it is not going to get much more popular because there is so little of it and the ticket prices are out of reach for a lot of people. It’s worth thinking about this in King’s Lynn which is proud of its Hanseatic link. I have been visiting the beautiful 1908 art nouveau theatre in Lübeck to write about their outstanding new production of Wagner’s Ring. Of course greater Lübeck has a population of 212,700 which is considerably more than the 135,000 in the area governed by the Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk. But I have to say that thanks to the medieval wealth of Bishop’s Lynn, your town’s churches are far far greater than Lübeck’s.
 The reason the Germans can do it is that the Germans have a totally different constitutional relationship between their national and regional tiers of government and their local government. Lübeck has effective control over how local money is applied. Read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and you see that its tradition of local government stems from its being a Hanseatic town. The upper tier of government in Germany has always been constrained by a federal structure which today both embodies the Hanseatic tradition and reflects the past liberties of the Holy Roman Empire. Bismarck’s Empire and the dozen Hitler years were disastrous aberrations. A German mayor and local town council can and do insist on using their own money as they want, and refuse to allow central government to take what it likes from what is raised locally.
 So if we think there’s something wrong with Westminster, and that centralisation is not serving us well, I think we are right. And once again the Church sets an example of a whole England-wide web which is rooted in the local community and backed by a well-established habit of practical engagement with the running of the church by local people. This church is dedicated to St Margaret, Queen of Scotland and generous philanthropist whose relic it once very profitably enshrined. So, in medieval times on the festival of St Margaret, there would have been services that recalled her to mind. In a way our churches are permanent arts festivals - with their beautiful music and pictures and their stained glass and aspiring architecture all together designed to ornament a gathering of the local community in a social forum that is uniquely dedicated to thoughtful consideration of how people should be, what responsibilities they owe, and how best they should acknowledge their needs and the needs of their neighbours. It may well be that in an age like ours which feels alienated from religious enthusiasm, there is too little real understanding of what the church offers and the job the church does. Our real error these days is to see culture as an individual avocation, a sort of hobby, something you like to do yourself, and not a communal endeavour.
 I suppose this Festival founded after the second world war was rather like Edinburgh and Aldeburgh in wanting to make up for what was not available. The second world war was the first time our national government had ever subsidised the arts - to underpin the sense of national identity by helping to remind our forces that what they were fighting for was also our culture, our sense of identity. The Salzburg Festival was created by Richard Strauss and that great wizard of German theatre Max Reinhardt because Austria had lost its empire and its soul. The Bayreuth Festival, on the other hand, was suppressed after the second world war for six years until the American authorities in Bavaria were satisfied that it had been purified of the evils of Naziism - and Frau Winifred Wagner, the composer’s English daughter-in-law who had been infatuated with the Führer, was banned from any involvement with the management.
 What is the real mark of our culture today? Our thing is the computer with universal access to the internet, and all the wisdom and knowledge that information technology has rendered easily accessible. The web is not all porn, thank God. Our culture today promotes private choice, so long as it harms nobody else. We live in an age which has seen a technological leap forward comparable to the invention of printing. Our cultural and religious memory (culture and religion are inseparable really) used to depend on oral story telling, probably with ritual that developed into narrative theatre. Centuries before Christ, Greek religious rites and festivals created indelible theatre classics. Writing was the first step in the mechanisation of memory which has eventually led to the computer. Of course many cultural forms can be mechanically reproduced - and the arts thrive in a way because everybody’s everyday diet can now include pop music, films, classical music and books which can conveniently be paused or switched off whenever it suits the user in his or her own private world. We love mod cons.
 But there is something irreplaceable about live performance, which is that it is demanding and inconvenient - just like going to church. It happens for a small finite audience in a certain place at a certain time, and if you are not there, or if you fall asleep at it, you miss it for ever. The live performing arts, and especially classical music from which the Kings Lynn Festival is built, are as rewarding as you the audience make them by being ready to experience and consume them. And why would you do that? Because there is no better way to keep fit mentally and spiritually. Going to the theatre and concerts is like working out. What you get out of them depends on what you invest in them.
 How does one invest? As an audience or audience member one invests by using one’s imagination. And it is not all about whether it’s the best in the world, or world class. Because of course it has to be true that live performing arts cannot be very widely available - at least when it is really fine actors or players. And in fact the best only emerges because there is a pyramid at whose base the standard of performance is much more ordinary. But what’s wrong with ordinary? After all it was Shakespeare’s Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream who uttered the crucial critical reaction when the young lovers were exchanging clever rude snobbish remarks about the entertainment the Mechanicals had provided. Theseus said: "The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them."
 Church demands the fertile soil of imagination too. When George Herbert explains to us the doctrine of Grace in that sublime poem "Love bade me welcome", he is reminding us that it is not a question of our fine qualities that justifies our joining the feast, but the simple fact that the table is laid and ready and the food is there. God gives. Goodness and love provide. Herbert is of course talking about the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving, the Celebration, the central experience the Church supplies - a meal that we call sacramental which is shared and which is sacred. The theatre and the music that we love and that nourish us are a different and yet an authentic part of that meal of creation in which we all share in our own different ways. A festival is a feast of the good things and the beautiful things that have been created. It is a feast of the ideas embodied in those wonderful imaginative works of art - which express our being better than we individually know how. All you need to take pleasure from a festival is the appetite for its kind of nourishment, and the fascination of wanting to learn from and to love that distillation of memory which is the heart of the creative arts, and the essence of all culture. As Shakespeare put it in a Sonnet: “Oh learn to read what silent love hath writ / To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.” You may wonder if that’s the same love that George Herbert says “Bade me welcome”. But I say – love is love.

A sermon delivered in St Margaret's Church, Kings Lynn on Sunday July 12, 2009 at the opening service for the Kings Lynn Arts Festival

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