Tag: music

Film Review: Fyre

We’ve all heard about Fyre Festival by now, but just in case: once upon a time, two years ago, one Billy McFarland, in partnership with rapper Ja Rule, convinced a lot of mostly ordinary middle-class professionals to part with large amounts of money in exchange for the festival experience of a lifetime: a holiday on a Bahamian beach, gourmet food, luxury villas and charter flights provided, with major bands like Blink 182 headlining.

The whole thing was a massive disaster. McFarland had no experience of running a festival, and several hundred people turned up in Great Exuma to find disaster-relief tents, sad cheese sandwiches, no music and no immediate way of returning home. (The charter flights stopped coming when everyone realised the scale of the cock-up.) More seriously, the organisers decided to ply attendees with free alcohol to distract them from the realities of the situation, and there was nothing like enough water available for several hundred drunk people in Bahamian heat.

It’s compelling stuff, the kind of thing that’ll send you down an internet black hole if you let it, seeking out all the gory details. Hence Netflix’s documentary Fyre, which came out a couple of months ago. It splices together talking heads from various levels of the organising team with footage from the “event” itself to look at how Fyre Festival evolved from a fantasy into a flawed, then failed, project. There’s no interview with McFarland himself, or Ja Rule, which feels…appropriate, in a way. These men put a large number of people in real physical danger and relieved a much larger number of their money. Do we really need to hear their side of the story?

What Fyre does have, though, is a lot of executives frantically trying to make excuses for themselves. It seems that anyone with an ounce of decency and/or professionalism left the project early on, when it became clear that no-one up the chain was managing anything or listening to major concerns about things like, say, infrastructure on a remote island. So you have to wonder about the people who stayed – who are, in this documentary, engaged in some frantic backpedalling, busily blaming McFarland for the fiasco while apparently blithely unaware of the damage they themselves have done in enabling him to continue with the project as it spiralled out of control.

Which, nevertheless, makes this an amusingly meta piece. Who can tell what’s true and what’s just image protection? It’s a question Fyre Festival attendees might well have asked themselves, given the promises made in the extraordinarily effective social media promotion campaign for the event.

And Fyre, fun though it is, proves as unable to fulfil its potential as the eponymous festival. Like all schadenfreude, it scratches an itch but doesn’t satisfy; there’s always the urge for more gossip, more scandal, more of some platonic “truth” that is in actual fact inaccessible. It comes from the same unhealthy, aspirational, insubstantial culture of oversharing and overselling that made Fyre Festival in the first place.

Review: White Tears

At last! A Tournament of Books contender that I don’t hate!

Well now, that’s a little unfair. I like Ruth Ozeki’s work, and Station Eleven is lovely, and I really enjoyed thinking about Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. Bu-ut, generally, the people who follow and read along with the ToB are looking for different things in their reading than I am. As a case in point, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, which I think is doing unusual and important work, didn’t make it out of the first round of this year’s Tournament, despite a relatively high seeding, which means my memory has apparently fabricated a rich vein of discussion about it. (The ToB is possibly the only place on the internet where it’s not only safe but actually productive to read the comments.)

Anyway. The very fact that White Tears made it into the ToB in the first place means that, although it draws on genre elements, it falls squarely into the Literary camp: it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning. But a bare-bones plot summary might go something like this.

The novel follows two young white men, astronomically wealthy Carter and un-wealthy, unworldly Seth. Carter draws impressionable, eager-to-please Seth down with him into the depths of an appropriative obsession with Black music, a search for a spurious “authenticity” which they think the Black people they actually meet in college lack. Together, they form a production company specialising in creating this “authentic” sound for (mostly white) musicians, using the substantial library of original 1920s records Carter has put together. Things take a sinister turn, however, when Carter releases online a blues track put together by Seth out of a couple of enigmatic recordings he’s made while walking the city; Carter passes the song off as genuine, claiming that it’s by an artist named Charlie Shaw. An ex-collector reveals that Charlie Shaw was in fact a real Black artist – and decades of systematic racism, oppression and appropriation literally come back to haunt Carter and Seth.

Literally: a couple of commenters on the one ToB judgement White Tears did manage wanted to know what “really happens” towards the end of the book, when Seth apparently experiences flashes from the life of Charlie Shaw and possibly other Black victims of institutional racism. Kunzru also sets up a couple of murder mysteries that never get solved comprehensively, at least not in the way we’d expect from the detective-story traditions he draws on. I think that asking what literally happens misses Kunzru’s point here, or is, rather, the exact opposite of Kunzru’s point: these flashbacks, these lacunae, deliberately disturb the “logical”, “rational” surface of the text, the level on which we can rationalise out motives and psychologies and chains of cause and effect. They, precisely, haunt the text, as the spectre of racism haunts America. The novel isn’t interested in logical, rational explanations because it’s not interested in allowing us to construct racism and appropriation as logical, rational responses.

There is something here, too, that’s to do with artistic and narrative erasure. On the most obvious level, Carter and Seth are erasing Black artists, and the cultural tragedy their work is rooted in, by appropriating their “authenticity” for their own profit. (It’s worth noting here that Carter’s family has made their fortune off Black labour and Black lives.) So the novel eschews conventional narrative solutions as a way of performing this erasure: Charlie Shaw, the brilliant young artist, is denied the narrative arc that would (and, under the terms of the novel, should) bring him to fame, fortune and recognition by a system that exploits his labour and life: his career is derailed before it’s even begun by white capitalists who refuse to acknowledge his humanity.

I wonder if my not minding the novel’s refusal to provide logical explanations has to do with genre reading protocols? While it refers to our murder mystery expectations only to subvert them, it’s also clearly drawing on horror tropes to frame its discussion of racism and appropriation – and I suspect that not fully understanding a text on a rational level bothers readers of speculative literature (including horror) less than it does readers who primarily favour mimetic litfic. Or maybe that’s a gross simplification of people’s actual reading habits; I don’t know. In any case, I think this ghost story/murder mystery/Literary novel is a really effective way of laying bare the connections between the slave trade, institutional racism and oppression and cultural appropriation, and the utter savagery of those systems.

Review: Hamilton: The Revolution

Not a review of The Real Thing in the real Victoria Palace theatre, although I will get round to doing that some day when I’ve sorted out all my Emotions about it; no, these are just some notes about the gorgeous deckle-edged hardback that is the theatrical equivalent of a making of documentary.

It’s not just a pretty coffee-table book, though it certainly is that: as well as a full libretto annotated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s got a series of thirty-two essays on everything from costumes to choreography, a whistle-stop backstage tour of how Hamilton got made, as well as full-page, full-colour illustrations of the original (American) cast doing their thing (printed on heavy matt paper rather than the usual gloss, which doesn’t affect the photographs as much as you’d think it would).

Which all means that it’s well worth reading for a Hamilton fan, in the sense that it has actual real content that people have spent time and care producing, and it’s fascinating in the way that theatre always is. If anything, I would have liked more, but then that was probably inevitable.

It can be a bit over-the-top. It talks about Hamilton as if it’s the Second Coming. Which. I mean, Hamilton is, like, amazing, and cleverer than any musical has any right to be, and very successful, but I’m sceptical of claims that it changes the face of theatre or anything like that. Race-bending was a thing before Hamilton. Gilbert and Sullivan set clever wordplay to music a century or so before Lin-Manuel Miranda was born. Hamilton misrepresents history (George Washington was a slaver and a racist, as I keep telling anyone who’ll listen), under-characterises its women and has no queer representation. And those are only the flaws that annoy me most.

But I can hardly blame the book for overlooking them. It’s a companion book, after all, not a critical study (though, I would totally read one of those). And it is very lovely. I shall stroke it, and treasure it, and look at the pretty pictures.

Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Probably it will surprise nobody to know that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again occupies basically the same place in the world as the original Mamma Mia. It is an excuse for some moderately famous faces to have a wonderful time singing the cheesiest songs in the world and hanging out on a Greek island, and for audiences around the world to have a jolly time watching them.

I’m not convinced that Mamma Mia actually needed a sequel, but the profit-driven logics of late capitalism are inescapable, and so here we are.

The story opens ten years after the events of the first film. Donna has died recently, in a non-specific manner. Her daughter Sophie is about to open the hotel that was Donna’s dream, while having some romantic drama with her hunky husband Skye, who wants to take a permanent job in America, which is not part of Sophie’s life plans at all, at all. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, we learn how Sophie came to have three fathers – that is, how Young Donna slept with three different men around the same time and ended up pregnant.

Like its predecessor, Here We Go Again wants to be a kind film, a film that embraces the wide weird quirkiness of humanity and sings “I Have a Dream” softly into its ear like a lullaby. The first film is one that doesn’t judge its female heroine for being a single mother with a sexual past; it’s one that embraces the possibility of having multiple fathers; one where an old woman flings aside her burden to go join in a Bacchanalian parade of women all singing “Dancing Queen”. It even has a gay character. Like, it’s a soft-focus, peace-and-love kind of inclusivity, but even that was unusual in 2008: a blockbuster film that actually treated women like people with their own subjectivities and messy histories and agency.

It’s 2018 now. Things have moved on a bit. Here We Go Again does stuff that maybe looks a bit more radical, but the actual narrative structure doesn’t bear it out. Structurally, it’s a much more conservative story than the first film was.

A micro-example: in the opening number it’s revealed that Donna is bi. Yay, bi representation! Sadly, the opening number is “When I Kissed the Teacher”, and it appears that Young Donna had a relationship with a female tutor at Oxford. Which everyone is fine about, because free love, youthful experimentation, whatever, yay, colourful costumes and fabulous dance moves! Like. Not to be a party pooper, but can we maybe not trivialise inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships in the same breath as announcing that a beloved character is queer? K. Thanks.

Later on, there’s a big dance scene (choreographed to “Waterloo”, no less), which features a wheelchair user and a gay couple among many others. These are nice touches! But they are only touches. These are only backing dancers. It’s not like there are any disabled characters with speaking lines; and as for queer representation, well, we hear nothing else about Donna’s queerness, and the only nod to Harry’s sexuality is a brief flirtation with a fisherman.

The big structural problem with the film, though, is how much emphasis it places on the men in Donna and Sophie’s lives. To recap, the first film is very much about a mother and a daughter (again, think about how unusual it is to watch a mainstream film about mothers and daughters). Both Donna and Sophie are constantly surrounded by female friends who advise them, support them, sing and dance with them. Think of that rendition of “Dancing Queen” again: these are women embracing their femininity, and each other. The men of the film are very much interlopers; not unwelcome, but vaguely out of place.

Whereas in Here We Go Again, the focus is squarely on Donna and Sophie’s relationships with men. It’s interested not in the bond between Donna and Sophie, but in Donna’s three lovers, in Sophie and Skye’s marriage, in Sophie and her fathers. Donna’s old friends are there, but their roles are very much downplayed (in fact, Young Donna literally abandons her friends to go travelling and sleep with strange men); Sophie’s female friends are nowhere to be seen. When a new female character does turn up, it’s Cher, at the end of the film, playing a stereotypically uninterested grandmother who only relaxes when she runs across an old flame (whose name is, yes, Fernando).

I don’t want to pretend that Here We Go Again isn’t fun, because it kind of is. It makes for a cheerful evening out. It’s so relentlessly feelgood that you actively ignore its regressive politics. But I wouldn’t want to see it again; I think the shine would wear off pretty quickly.

(Slightly More Than) 50-Word Review: Don Giovanni

So I did the BP Big Screen thing in Trafalgar Square again in July, with a couple of friends. Don Giovanni is an 18th-century pick-up artist who sleeps with women and then abandons them, until he kills the father of one of his conquests and vengeance catches up with him. Gorgeous costumes, nice set design, lovely evening. But opera’s surely the least accessible of all art forms: no tune, to modern ears; and most people (including me) don’t have the knowledge and background any more to appreciate it. In other words: I don’t like it. And I’ve made my peace with that.

Review: 42nd Street

This review contains spoilers.

It turns out that 42nd Street is an older musical than I thought it was: it was first performed on Broadway in 1980 and seems to have been revived reasonably regularly since then. It’s currently on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, and Time Out was offering £15 tickets, and, well, the rest is history, as they say.

It’s a weird musical, this one. The plot is perfunctory: it’s 1933 and Julian Marsh, notorious Broadway director, is doin’ a show! And every girl in New York wants to dance in it – including Peggy Sawyer, who’s never done any theatre work before but who, conveniently, can sing and dance like anything. And including Dorothy Brock, a faded star and terrible dancer whose awful Texan sugar daddy is bankrolling the show.

But no-one cares about the plot, which is just an excuse for musical number after musical number. There are lots of threads left messily loose, in a way that feels careless rather than purposeful: Dorothy’s secret lover Pat, Peggy’s dalliance with actor Billy, whether Peggy was in fact out of line when Dorothy’s ankle got broken. And that…wouldn’t be a huge problem (though I think I’d still be slightly dissatisfied with it), if not for the fact that the show is so consistently, outrageously problematic.

Or, rather, its characters are problematic. The show-within-a-show, Julian Marsh’s magnum opus, Pretty Lady, is problematic. Pretty Lady doesn’t seem particularly to have a plot, but it definitely puts a lot of stock in women-as-decoration: it’s got those ridiculous ostrich-feather swimming costumes that are a cultural shorthand for a certain type of Broadway extravaganza, and one of its biggest numbers, “Dames”, has a chorus that straight-up goes “Keep young and beautiful/if you want to be loved”, together with a dance routine involving women preening in hand-held vanity mirrors.

Clearly there’s an element of parody here. This is ’30s Broadway TO THE MAX! It’s ’30s Broadway as it never really was; ’30s Broadway as it lives in our cultural memory. Pretty Lady doesn’t have a plot because it doesn’t need to; we (where “we” is a largely white, largely middle- and upper-class Western audience) can fill in the blanks from our own assumptions about what ’30s Broadway musicals are like, even if we’ve never seen one. And ’30s Broadway musicals are full of self-obsessed pretty women, of course.

But, if it’s parody, then it’s not parody that’s doing anything useful; it’s not parody that’s actually interrogating the ’30s Broadway musical, or our idea of it. It’s parody in the service of nostalgia, which seems to me a rather dangerous combination. There’s an interesting moment at the end of Act 1 when Pretty Lady becomes the same as 42nd Street; the frame narrative and the story-within-a-story merge. The Pretty Lady safety curtain comes down, Julian Marsh announces in character that we can get refunds at the box office, the house lights come on for the interval. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a piece of recursive self-obsession: we discover that 42nd Street is, in fact, about Pretty Lady; and Pretty Lady is about a certain kind of ’30s-style musical; and 42nd Street is a ’30s-style musical. All it cares about is itself.

This all comes to a nasty head at the end of Act 2, the end of the show. Julian Marsh has convinced Peggy to take over the leading role in Pretty Lady after the ankle-breaking incident. She’s had to learn the whole part in two intensive days, and she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Julian is unsympathetic. Actually, he’s a complete and utter bastard.

And, in between his hectoring and bullying, he kisses her.

The show gives us very little indication as to how we’re supposed to read this: she still has unresolved romantic tension with Billy, and the show ends very quickly afterwards. It’s a convention of musicals that kissing equals love, but Julian’s treatment of Peggy reads more Harvey Weinstein than Captain von Trapp, and I’m not at all sure that the show’s aware of this. There’s a shadow of a suggestion that, in fact, Julian loves the idea of Peggy as his leading lady; he loves her because she brings his show alive. So he too is self-obsessed. He becomes the symbol of an entertainment industry that’s turned in on itself, chewing up everything outside it (love; talent; friendship) to feed its own monstrous self-absorption.

42nd Street actually reminds me of the 2016 musical film La La Land. Both musicals are only interested in themselves, and both of them use the falsifying, reactionary light of nostalgia to register that self-interest. But La La Land at least made the world feel a little more glamorous and a little more romantic and a little more sad than it did before. 42nd Street was a lovely evening for £15: the dancing’s fun and some of the actors can actually sing properly. In particular, Steph Parry as Dorothy has a gorgeous jazz voice (and it seems she joined the cast as an understudy, which is incredibly impressive). But…it left a bad taste in my mouth.

50-Word Review: Space Opera

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

A new Valente novel, and the second Hitchhiker riff I’ve read this year: humanity’s singing for its life in the galactic version of Eurovision. A meditation on what counts as sentience and the transcendent power of pop music. Fun and fabulous, but a little…slight for Valente.

2017 Roundup

Happy New Year, dear reader!

Let’s hope 2018’s a bit kinder to us all than 2017 was, shall we?

My Favourite Things of 2017

Book: Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Re-reading my review reminds me how clever I found this novel on my first reading of it, but really it’s here because it’s such a comforting read. I love its gentle narrative arc, the way it takes its heroine on her first tentative, hopeful steps towards a future that’s, once again and exactly, full of potential.

TV: Class: Detained. I am sad that Class has been cancelled: it’s pretty much the only TV show aside from Doctor Who I’ve been watching this year, and pretty much all of its storytelling has been pitch-perfect. Detained probably stands out for me because it really makes its SFnal concept work to support its character development, and its young actors do a fantastic job in making it feel believable and claustrophobic.

Film: MoanaI was apparently terrible at seeing films in 2017, so I don’t have very much to choose from. Moana‘s the best of a bunch I have mixed feelings about: it does have a female POC protagonist with no discernible love interest, and I’m still listening to the songs ten months on.

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2017Next year I’m going to drop the Misc. category, on the basis that the answer will henceforth always be “Nine Worlds”. Because obviously.

2017 Reading Stats

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 85 books in 2017, absolutely smashing my target of 73.
  • The longest book I read was One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, which, at 839 pages, was, honestly, kind of tedious. (If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first volume of 27. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.) The shortest was Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, at just 80 pages. Overall I read 30,893 pages – considerably up from last year’s 26,492.
  • The oldest book I read in 2017 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a re-read, first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2017 was 44 – up from last year’s 16, probably at least partly because of all the old-school SF I’ve been reading.
  • Genre: As usual the biggest single genre I read in was fantasy – I read 39 fantasy novels (45%), 18 SF novels (21%) and eight lit-fic novels (9%), as well as five each from non-fiction and historical novels, three “classic” novels (which I’ve categorised as such to distinguish them from commercial lit-fic), two “humour” novels and a detective story (The Waste Land, which I suspect actually belongs in “humour”). My reading, in other words, has seen pretty much the same genre split it did last year.
  • I read 10 YA novels (12%) – that’s lower than last year, when YA made up about a quarter of my reading.
  • Just 11% of the books I read this year were re-reads! That’s almost half last year’s 21% – I’m pleased with this.
  • 46% of the books I read in 2017 were by women. That’s disappointing; I thought I’d done better than that.
  • And 18% of the books I read in 2017 were by POCs. I don’t have a target for this one – it’s difficult to know what the baseline should be, and I didn’t count last year – but I’m reasonably pleased with this.

Music Review: Hamilton

This review contains spoilers (for history).

I don’t write about music on this here blog. I’m not good at it, I don’t know enough to say anything useful about it, and I don’t usually end up having long and involved conversations in my brain about it. (That’s not the same as saying I don’t like music: tuneless singing is something I do pretty much every day of my life.)

I’m making an exception for Hamilton – or, rather, the cast recording of the soundtrack of Hamilton, which, given the fair-to-middling difficulty of getting tickets to see the live show (West End tickets are sold out till June), is how most people, including me, first encounter it. Probably I should have waited to write this until I actually did get to see it, but I have no idea when that will be, and I have many and many a thing to say about Hamilton.

Some context may be useful at this point. Hamilton tells the story – or a story – of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the United States, from his inauspicious beginnings as the illegitimate child of a Scottish nobleman growing up in the Caribbean, through his role in the American Revolution, to his years of political influence. And it does so through the medium of hip-hop and rap.

That’s one of the interesting things about it. Combining the swagger of rap with the emotional theatricality of Broadway show tunes is one of those things that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody else has done it before. (They might have done it before. I am not an expert.) Throughout the album there’s also this fascinating juxtaposition of old and new: a string melody laid against a heavy bass beat, as in “Yorktown”, or shoot-from-the-lip rap layered with an olde-worlde round (“Farmer Refuted”, not a fan favourite but one that always makes me intensely happy), or, thematically, a cabinet meeting in the style of a rap battle. (Abigail Nussbaum detects Aaron Sorkin’s influence here, which feels weirdly right.)

It’s precisely that old-and-new tension that’s at the core of what Hamilton‘s doing. The other thing you might have heard about the musical is its race-bent casting: pretty much all the main roles (apart from the brilliantly loopy King George III) are played by actors of colour. This, and the choice to tell the story of the Founding Fathers in a musical genre associated with black people, is an explicit gesture of reclamation – a rewriting of history to include those who tend to be written out of it. Hamilton‘s intensely aware that it’s doing this, too: all of its characters at least half-know that they’re fictional, that they are performing their own version of history. “Alexander Hamilton/America sings for you,” goes a line in the show’s opening number; this actually feels like Hamilton referencing itself, as it seems (from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge; my knowledge of US history is limited to a half-remembered GCSE module on the McCarthy era and six-and-a-half series of The West Wing) that the historical Hamilton hasn’t previously attracted much attention. So here is a show that considers itself very much its own thing – one that’s constantly reminding us that history’s really a matter of interpretation. Remember: this is a Broadway musical. A hit Broadway musical. It’s fun and witty and sophisticated and a great joy to listen to and think about.

So, to Hamilton‘s blind spots. Firstly, it believes absolutely and incontestably in the idea of America as the land of the free, “A place where even orphan immigrants/Can leave their fingerprints”; it believes uncomplicatedly that the American Revolution was about people rising up against tyranny (rather than, more prosaically, taxes). Secondly – and this is a common problem for musicals – its need for a tight narrative trajectory, and its consequent slightly myopic focus on Alexander Hamilton, gives some of the complex issues it wants to talk about short shrift.

Despite its avowed progressive politics, and its awareness of how history is whitewashed, Hamilton features no queer representation, or any historically non-white person. Perhaps most problematically, and as a number of commentators have pointed out, its unshakable belief in the myth of America completely erases the Native American populations who were persecuted after the Revolution – by George Washington among others, whom Hamilton sees as unambiguously heroic. (The show also conveniently forgets that Washington was a slaveowner, which slightly undermines Hamilton’s blistering excoriations of Thomas Jefferson for being a slaver while he defends Washington.) “Will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death?” asks Hamilton of the Revolution, apparently blissfully unaware that the cycle’s already begun.

There are a couple of female characters with actual agency, which is nice: Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife, and her sister Angelica both have complicated and evolving relationships with Hamilton himself. But then, in the show’s final number, Eliza sings this:

I stop wasting time on tears.

I live another fifty years.

It’s not enough.

This annoys me every time. Because, let’s be clear, Eliza is more than entitled to her tears. Her husband left her behind repeatedly, refused to go on holiday with her, cheated on her, got her son killed, and, finally, got himself killed. Somewhere in the middle of that she has a brilliant song where she burns Hamilton’s love letters to her: “I’m erasing myself from the narrative” which Hamilton’s constructing to serve as his legacy; and in doing so she’s asserting her personhood, her separateness from him. But, in this last song, she explicitly undoes that: “I put myself back in the narrative”. And she does so to shore up Hamilton’s legacy: “I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?” Essentially, Hamilton denies her right to her own emotional life, and instead gets her to serve her husband’s history.

I don’t really have a good conclusion to all of this – except to note that, real as Hamilton‘s problems are, there aren’t many musicals clever and engaged enough even to raise the questions it provokes. And, after all, it does at least recognise that it is itself only an interpretation of history – only one story among many possible stories – which is far more than, say, Hairspray does. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask one single musical to stand against all the horrors of present-day America.

Perhaps it’s enough just to point out its blind spots.

Theatre Review: La Traviata

Spoiler alert, although everyone knows there is no point going to the opera if you haven’t looked up the plot first.

Back in June a friend and I went to see La Traviata in Trafalgar Square.

Sadly it was not quite an open-air performance; it was, instead, a BP Big Screen event, streamed live from the Royal Opera House for the people of London to watch for free among the lion statues. And it was a lovely evening: we had an M&S picnic and the weather was miraculously gorgeous and the top of Nelson’s Column flared red in the sunset.

However. I am not here to rate the middle-class-ness of my evening at the opera. I’d quite like to talk about the opera itself (if it’s all the same to you).

Here is a quick plot summary of La Traviata. Obviously, here be spoilers.

Our Heroine is Violetta, a courtesan who spends her life drinking, attending extravagant parties and enjoying the patronage of rich men. She’s actually pretty awesome: she has an entire aria that’s basically like, “I just want to par-TAY!” And then – she falls in love with a country gentleman called Alfredo, because obviously no woman’s life is complete without romantic love.

End of Act One.

Act Two sees Violetta and Alfredo living together in a big house in the country; Violetta has spent almost all her money supporting their lifestyle. (She won’t ask Alfredo for money. Did I mention that this nineteenth-century woman is awesome?) Alfredo being away on a contrived trip somewhere, his father arrives to ask Violetta to leave him because…he has a sister? The plot seems a bit hazy on this point, and to be honest the motivation isn’t terribly important: what’s important is that Violetta agrees (eventually) to leave him, without telling him why.

Act Three, and Violetta is dying picturesquely of consumption, alone and full of regret. But all is not lost yet! After lots of sad singing, here comes Alfredo, aware now of Violetta’s sacrifice. He arrives just in time for her to die in his arms. Curtain.

Watching this performance being beamed to thousands of people not just in London but all over the country, I found myself wondering: why? Why has this opera survived, and why are we still performing it as one of the greats?

An obvious answer is Verdi’s score, which is rich and complex and has some quite famous passages. I don’t know enough about the history of music, though, to talk about what his score is actually doing, in and of itself; I’m interested, instead, in the semantic meanings the opera ties the music to. La Traviata is pretending to be a story about (heterosexual, romantic) love – the emotion that Western society is perhaps most attached to. Which makes sense: music is above all things an art that conveys and sustains emotion. Except that – and this is the danger of opera and its modern-day descendant, the West End musical – the strong emotion evoked by La Traviata’s rich score conceals the fact that this is not a love story at all, but a hutch to trammel women in.

(It’s surprising – and also not surprising at all – how many romances do this.)

Violetta, the titular fallen woman, is in Act One a threat to the patriarchal order because she’s not married, she’s not particularly interested in marriage, and, though she’s paid by her clients, she refuses to be owned by any single one of them. Her falling in love presents an impossibility: she has so thoroughly rejected the social order that she cannot now join it; and yet, she no longer wants to live outside it. (The opera specifically presents her partying lifestyle as emotionally bankrupt, a waste of a life – that is, the only fulfilling life, for a woman, is to be found in a relationship with a man.) Alfredo’s father makes this abundantly clear to her: she is threatening the social order, Alfredo’s family. Her choice to leave him is thus – perhaps counter-intuitively – a choice to preserve the social order. And, finally, she dies, because the patriarchal social order she’s just saved has, nevertheless, no place for her. She is the fallen woman. Her sacrifice for Alfredo – of her happiness, her love and her good character – is metonymic of her sacrifice for a world that won’t permit her existence – of her spirit and her life.

Why do we keep telling these stories? Is there really anyone over, say, 18 who can relate to a “romantic” relationship that’s so clearly self-destructive and dysfunctional, that so completely denies Alfredo’s ability to make his own decisions? Do we really think that a relationship that’s so full of lies that it literally destroys one of the lovers’ lives is ideal?

I don’t think most of us do, actually. But this is why I don’t have much patience with classical opera (having seen a grand total of two on stage): it curdles and distils unhealthy emotional tropes and presents them as a consummation devoutly to be wished; it hides its reactionary messages beneath the flourishes of brilliant music.

Jesus Christ Superstar in Trafalgar Square, now. That, I’d pay to see.