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Opera-production course, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 21st February 1959

I have just seen a notice advertising a course of instruction in opera-production. It is one of many offered in this subject all over this country. Is it not a wonderful rash of optimism? Opera is as foreign to this country as ski-ing, and acting is as unnatural to our singers as wearing figleaves is to hedgehogs. Our opera companies have been in perpetual straits from lack of public support for decade after decade, so it seems a little misguided to start making roller-skates for opera’s shoes before the thing is even on its feet. One might as well build a house downwards from the roof. It is as fruitless as training someone to groom unicorns before there is a single unicorn in existence. It was from his operatic ventures in this country that Handel went bankrupt; and he was not the last.

If our national character has failed to acquire a taste for opera over two hundred solid years, one might suppose it unlikely that our attitude will change in the next hundred. Indeed there is every evidence that we are a less musical race than in the times when Britain was referred to (as it still is, quite justifiably) as the Land without Music.

The reason is not far to seek. Our heritage of Puritanism or Evangelical narrow-mindedness, with its ever-increasing stultification of all that a liberal education stands for, has ever more and more inhibited the nation from becoming even musical in a general sense. One could not say that Englishmen are more godly than their great-great-grandfathers, but one may easily see that their bigoted religious prejudices have made them more selfishly envious of their fellows, more arrogantly ignorant, more self-righteously prudish than ever before. This is not the spirit that enjoys music, let alone opera.

We teach music-appreciation in our schools, oh yes, but in a way no different from our tuition of Latin. The pupils have their interest sapped by study of the cold core of grammar, are told what ready-made opinions to hold, and never learn to delight in the Literature for themselves.

Music needs more than a detached analytical approach assisted by glib wisdoms from programme-notes and disc-sleeves; it needs the ability for mental surrender to the divine sensation of perceiving supreme beauty, a complete self-abandonment, which no Englishman could dream of giving who has been brought up to regard all the joys of beauty as sinful, and who only finds pleasure in saving his neighbour's soul or at any rate preventing the poor fellow from living a full and rewarding life through the exercise of God-given faculties.

The sad truth is that Puritanism (with its wolf-pack of varying degrees of Nonconformity) is a way of life that destroys that largeness of soul which is necessary to perceive the similarity of music with Divine speech and to hear through aesthetic sensation God’s Word. And Puritanism if not as a rite, certainly as an attitude, is unhappily on the increase.

So I permit myself to be surprised at this outcrop of instruction in opera-production. If the instructors were any good, and there were any opera going on, they would be too busy producing to instruct. So I fear it must be the usual sad story, of out-of-work artists earning a few shillings by teaching gullible fools to follow in their own unemployable footsteps. A sad story, as it shows that we are not only a narrow-minded nation, but gullible to boot!

Peter Tranchell