Last Friday I made my first visit to the warren that is the Barbican to review the ENO’s world première of Sunken Garden on behalf of A Younger Theatre. Marketed as an “enthralling multimedia ‘occult mystery'”, it was always going to be a little off-the-wall, combining 2D and 3D film, live performance, sung and spoken dialogue and a blend of musical styles – as well as a pretty zany storyline. Librettist David Mitchell himself described the project as “a bit bonkers” in an interview with Sameer Rahim – but hey, what’s wrong with a bit of bonkers every now and then?
In fact, in the end I thought the whole thing was rather wonderful. Ok, so the plot was a little baffling and I wouldn’t have always been able to follow it without the aid of the programme. Yet the way in which technology was used to create a new kind of operatic experience was thrilling to witness. The emphasis was no doubt on production rather than plot, but in this respect it certainly had the wow-factor and was an exciting vision of a road that opera and theatre could go down, with all this new wizardry to play with. So, I wrote my mostly positive review, revelling in the fascinating evening I’d just had. If you’d like to read my thoughts in full, have a look here. You may disagree – please do, and please tell me why! Anyway, it was therefore a bit of a surprise to see sweeping – and sometimes pretty vitriolic – negativity from other critics. Michael Church at The Independent (here) accused van der Aa of “remarkable arrogance” – mainly, it seems, for the lack of interval, which quite honestly seems a little trivial – while at The Telegraph Rupert Christiansen was positively fuming at having been put through such torture, as he saw it (the full rant can be found here). Phrases such as “dismal”, “toxically flatulent”, “this thing – I hesitate to grant it the honorific label of opera” and “unmitigated piffle” made the one-star rating unsurprising, and demonstrated a pretty hefty objection to what I saw as an imperfect but still impressive work of creativity.
Of course, that’s the nature of criticism – and the nature of theatre. Audiences have opinions, instinctive responses; they disagree, we have debates. The violent negativity and apparent refusal to see any positives in the work do make me slightly uneasy (Although the wickeder side of me enjoyed reading it. I did laugh.) but I’d never be against a critic – indeed, an experienced expert – putting forward their opinion. What seems most disquieting about Christiansen’s piece (and I’m sure he’s not alone in these notions: this is a perfect example but certainly not a personal attack) are its more subtle implications: of what ‘Opera’ is, or should be, and of the value of a young audience’s opinions – and, more worryingly, those of young creatives.
The reluctance to even call Sunken Garden by the “honorific label of opera” implies a definition of the genre as something of a certain standard; something elite, deserving of honour, respect and homage. On a basic level, an opera is actually defined as “A dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists”. Well, unless Christiansen got lost in the Barbican and ended up in the wrong room, I’m pretty sure that’s what we were both watching… Maybe I’m sounding petty and being over-literal with this review. Yet my point still stands. The implication is that Sunken Garden is a young new breed who isn’t allowed to join this ‘gentlemen’s club’ of opera; that this grandiose and magical thing called ‘opera’ has to be elite, to have rigorously high quality control, to earn respect and honour. Even the phrase “I hesitate to grant it” implies privilege and prestige. But why? There’s an awful lot of experimental theatre out there – and some of it really is awful – but I don’t think many people would stop calling it ‘theatre’ just because it doesn’t succeed. Then again, some of it is truly spectacular; and the only way that writers, directors, performers, composers and indeed audiences can discover what works and what doesn’t, is by experimenting and risk-taking. Van der Aa is doing just that, by creating a new vision: this does not divide it from the world of opera, but tests and stretches what opera can be. By all means productions should be judged critically, but whole genres and their potential should not be stifled or boxed up in the process.
Then we come to the question of age. I too “sensed a youngish first-night audience” – and at twenty-one I guess I’m included in that – who, it is suggested, are attracted by the “trendiness” (do I detect a shudder behind that word?) of technology. This may be true, but it would be patronising of me to suggest that an older generation than me didn’t ‘get’ this opera because they don’t understand or appreciate technology; it thus seems just as patronising to imply that the young don’t ‘get’ opera and are blinded by some fancy 3D films which prevent them from having supposed ‘good taste’ or true appreciation for this genre. I can handle a computer and smartphone, but I wouldn’t call myself a techie whiz-kid: the eleven-year-olds I look after in my job are much more technologically up-to-date than I am, so it’s not my devoted love for hi-tech science that inspired my review; rather my admiration for creativity and talent. One commenter on the Telegraph certainly seemed to think that we young’uns are too naive for this kind of thing, recounting how “One youngish chap next to me said ‘Wow, fantastic!” when this torturous think [sic] finished and I suspect he has never been to an opera where the music and singing carry everything without resorting to gimmicks”. Why is a “youngish” (not even young…) person who likes this opera automatically assumed to carry an opinion that is uninformed and worthless? This attitude is patronising, ridiculous and – for a 21-year-old budding critic – pretty worrying.
The same ideas seem to be applied to the creator of the project. The accusations of “arrogance” levelled at van der Aa by Michael Church, which stem from the length of the show and its lack of interval, seem partly (if not primarily) inspired by his youthfulness: “For this young experimentalist to think he could get away with it bespeaks quite remarkable arrogance”. Now I don’t want to be rude, but firstly van der Aa is 43 – and he’s still classed as a “young” composer? He’s hardly a naive little babe in arms is he, considering he’s been composing since the mid-nineties. However, my argument would be the same if he were an eighteen-year-old premièring his first piece. The claim that he should make life as easy as possible for the audience – that he should not take risks, that he should stick to the norms (whatever they are – it’s a creative industry after all…) – purely out of youth, is quite frankly ridiculous. A blend of works that stand the test of time and eclectic new creations is what makes the world of theatre – including opera – such a vivid, ever-evolving, thrilling, surprising and wonderful thing.
New work is often divisive; but I’d like to think that this is because, as human beings, we have such a variety of loves and hates, of tastes and impulses and attractions and emotions – the very thing that gives us such a variety of performing arts in the first place. I don’t mind that other critics didn’t feel the same as I did. In fact, it makes me all the more interested in the work, and it’s also one of the reasons that student reviewing sites Online Theatre Ltd. send two reviewers to every show – to produce debate. I just hope the reasoning behind negative reviews is sensible. In other genres of theatre there doesn’t appear to be anti-youth criticism or elitist ‘rules’, and hopefully opera is granted the same freedom of experimentation without blanket censure. For me, Sunken Garden was a window into possibilities: it may not be perfect, but this window should not be closed on principle.