Tag: music

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.


Film Review: La La Land

This review contains spoilers.

In a rare bit of serendipity for The English Student, La La Land very pointedly did not win the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday. Although I liked the film, I’m quite glad it didn’t.

Our Heroes are Seb, a jazz musician recently fired from his job as a live pianist in a restaurant for refusing to stick to the setlist, and Mia, an aspiring actor caught in a soul-destroying grind of ever more humiliating auditions while working in a coffee shop.

Both are cliches. So it’s appropriate that, in the most ubiquitous Hollywood cliché of all, they fall in love.

To the film’s credit, it is fully aware of its cliched-ness; in fact, its awareness is chiefly where its very great charm comes from. It’s a deliberate, knowing throwback to Old Hollywood: all nostalgic musical refrains (“City of Stars” gives a good feel for the atmosphere of the film), soft-focus views of Los Angeles, pastel colours, vaguely vintage-y costumes just modern enough to be plausible, all wrapped up in that very special brand of surrealism you only get in old-fashioned musicals, where the world literally stops for the characters.

The one thing that (maybe) elevates the film from merely “charming” to “interesting” is its double ending. Following a long series of difficulties as Seb and Mia pursue their separate artistic paths, the film presents its first ending: a romanticised montage of Seb and Mia’s relationship, set to Seb’s nostalgic piano theme, ending in marriage and children, perfect Hollywood happiness. (Because, do  you see? That’s what success means: not achieving your artistic goals, but getting the girl!) The second ending, though, the one we implicitly understand as the “real” one, sees Mia framed as, basically, a total bitch (her clothes, her posture, the way she clearly hasn’t told her husband about her previous relationship with Seb, all mark her out as a sell-out, a falsehood) for a) marrying someone who is Not Seb, b) being far more successful than Seb, and c) not being Pure of Art, taking whatever jobs come her way.

Anyway. That double ending’s an admission of the artificiality of the film’s own genre, the fictionality of the artistic tradition it’s participating in – a kind of ironising postmodern gaze. Except that it’s also charmingly earnest about that art, claiming the artistic value of its nostalgic aesthetic as more perfect, both more fragile and more enduring, than life.

The film’s not quite committed enough to this double gaze to see it right through: it can’t let Seb and Mia be friends, or even just happy for each other, instead plumping for Hollywood tragedy and manpain in its “realistic” second ending, clinging to art’s false binaries as if the value of love is negated by its ending. (Seb will Never Get Over Mia! Never!)

That’s one of the reasons La La Land didn’t deserve Best Picture. (Or, to be honest, any Oscar; Emma Stone’s performance as Mia is fine but not, I’d say, Best Actress material.) There are others: its appropriation of black culture, the misogynist overtones I’ve hinted at above, its reactionary nostalgia. For me, the key reason is that, for all its undeniable romance, it’s simply not doing anything new or interesting. It has nothing to say that is not about itself.

La La Land is beautifully shot and lovingly directed. It’s a real pleasure to watch, and it makes the world seem a little brighter for a couple of hours (which is no small feat in itself). But it adds nothing to the sum of human cultural achievement – and, to my mind, the Oscars should reward nothing less.

Music Review: Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret

Coincidentally, Paul Shapera’s latest offering to the world of music, Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret, came out around the time that The Bifrost Incident was made available to Kickstarters, which was a nice seasonal double whammy.

So here we are.

What will the person who brought us A Slender Man Musical have for us next?

Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret is set (surprise!) in the Wild West, or at least an analogue of it. The titular cabaret is essentially a low-tech version of a pulp TV show: “Our town’s like an address to an orgy/of tired tropes and pulp stories”. It begins as one of what we assume is a regular parade of pulp stories, as the villain Han-Mi hatches a dastardly plan to unleash a flock of flying zombie babies on the town; but the story quickly breaks down as the various characters (including the titular Miss Helen, who has lost her family to a mysterious carnival; sheriff Hank, who has A Past involving a werewolf lady who died; the aforesaid Han-Mi, who’s in love with Hank; and Henry the Alchemist, who – you know what, let’s talk about Henry the Alchemist a bit later) slowly realise that they are not, as they thought, actors in this cabaret, but rather characters within it, unable to remember anything outside the performance.

Obviously, this picks up on the mythos developed in the New Albion trilogy, and certainly Miss Helen feels more of a descendant of those operas than it is of A Slender Man Musical, and not just because it’s set in the same world.

Do I like it, though?

Musically, I think, Shapera’s really excellent at writing tunes: big, rousing, catchy numbers that do exactly what they need to do, which is capturing a mood, an intense emotion, that makes our grey and stressful lives appear just a little more colourful for a while. He’s not quite so good at plotting, I think, which is where Slender Man and The New Albion Guide to Analogue Consciousness really fall down: they’re difficult to follow unless you’ve listened to them approximately a million times. Miss Helen manages to avoid the plotting pitfall largely due to its cabaret format, as each character delivers their own backstory, each with its own particular mood: it’s a format that works actually particularly well for Shapera, especially given his very Gothic imagination.

The centre of Miss Helen is really Han-Mi, who’s sung by Psyche Chimera of Psyche Corporation: an excellent choice, she brings an amazing, menacing croon to her numbers which soprano Lauren Osborn hasn’t been able to reach in previous work, plus she’s got fantastic attitude. Han-Mi’s probably the most self-aware character here: it’s she who begins sowing the seeds of doubt about the nature of her compatriots’ involvement in the cabaret, as she struggles against the racist implications of the scripts she’s given (dark Eastern magic, hordes of threatening Chinese people, etc., etc.). The album as a whole is very much rooted in the struggle against such tropes, as in the case of the aforesaid Henry the Alchemist, a gay man who turns into a sex monster (effectively) when he’s aroused. (Incidentally, this is the one thing I really don’t like about Miss Helen, and it’s a problem I had with Slender Man too: not the presence of sex, but the way it’s presented, over-literally and seemingly in an effort to shock; it ruins the mood of the music and makes it feel faintly ridiculous.) Han-Mi points out the offensiveness of this plot point, which essentially equates male homosexuality with beasthood; but her deconstruction of the narrative she and Henry live proves futile – she can’t contact the writers to change it, and if she refuses to live it she might vanish, be erased entirely.

The mood of Miss Helen, then, might be said to be a kind of helplessness, a helplessness that feels very topical for 2016: the helplessness of the liberal left, watching all the old hateful tropes come back out of the box, seemingly unable to change them. The writer is a moron, and we can’t contact him.

It’ll be interesting to see what Shapera does with Act 2.

Theatre Review: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

I went to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, from theatre company Mischief Theatre, at the Criterion Theatre in London last Saturday (although actually it was yesterday as I write this; such is the time travel magic of scheduled posting). It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a Wodehousian farce about a motley gang of crooks of various kinds, led by just-out-of-jail Mitch Ruscitti, trying to break into a 1950s Minneapolis bank to steal a large and very shiny diamond.

Is it funny? Yes; but not unqualifiedly so. Bearing in mind that I am not someone who laughs at a lot of things, there are gags here that are tedious and unfunny, and wordplay about as amusing as the puns that fathers make when they’ve had one or two to drink. Having said that, there are also a couple of set-pieces (one of them involving a fold-up bed and a serial case of mistaken identity) that made me cry with laughter. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

At the heart of the comedy is something a little more serious, a well-judged vein of sincerity that grounds the cast’s more outrageous antics, especially towards the end of the play. Here we find desperation, and loneliness, and revenge, and a little romance, and some betrayal. All of this registers a vague kind of malaise – the human condition, perhaps – which is too undefined to do anything interesting, but renders the heart of the play slightly…absurdist, I suppose, nihilist in its rejection of stability and meaning.

But comedy’s the most conservative of modes, and despite its refusal to provide some of the consolations of its genre The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is steeped in nostalgia for the fifties, accompanied by self-consciously vintage barbershop melodies sung by the cast which sort of undermine its more deconstructionist gestures. The problem, I think, is that the nostalgic mood this soundtrack generates expresses a yearning for a simpler time – viz., the fifties – when the kind of lines that the play draws between stealing from the rich and murdering the innocent, between petty crooks and dangerous criminals, were somehow more visible and more real.

As is always the case with nostalgia, there never was such a time.

Still, there’s no denying the slickness of the play: it relies heavily on comic timing, on props working properly, on everyone being in the right place on stage at the right time, and it comes together beautifully, a comic dance. Visually and technically, it’s extremely well done (as you might expect from a West End production). Ideologically? Well, your mileage may (and probably will) vary.

Music Review: The Bifrost Incident

I don’t often write about music, because I’m not very good at it.

I’m making an exception for The Bifrost Incident, partly because I don’t actually have anything else to write about, and partly because it is, of course, very good.

The Bifrost Incident is the fourth album from Oxford-based steampunk band The Mechanisms, who perform as a band of immortal space pirates swaggering their way through the universe aboard their starship Aurora.

The Mechanisms tell stories, in a mixture of spoken word and folk-rock-inflected song. Their first album, Once Upon a Time (In Space), riffs on Anglo-American fairytale; Ulysses Dies at Dawn is based on Greek mythology, rendered in noirish jazz; High Noon Over Camelot is a mashup of Arthurian legend with a spaghetti Western sound and narrative aesthetic.

The Bifrost Incident is based on Norse mythology, which I am not familiar with at all. It collides with something more modern later on, but I won’t spoil that.

The framing schtick is a little different this time around: instead of narrating the story, the Mechanisms are acting it, verbatim. The story’s narrator (voiced by the Aurora‘s definitely-first-mate Jonny d’Ville) is Inspector Second Class Leofrisyr Edda (that’s a very rough guess at spelling, by the way, and is probably wrong) of the New Midgard Transport Police, assigned to investigate the mysterious reappearance of a train, the Ratatosk Express, which disappeared eighty years ago with the entire ruling class of Asgard aboard on its maiden voyage through man-made wormhole the Bifrost.

Musically, it’s moved a little away from folk-rock into seventies prog rock: a bit Jethro Tull/Genesis, a bit Led Zeppelin, at least in the musical set-pieces between the narration, which is still counterpointed by rippling piano/violin harmony.

It works best as a piece of storytelling, though, grounding what is by the end of the album genuinely chilling cosmic horror in personal tragedy – both that of the gradually unravelling Edda and that of the doomed lovers Loki and Sigyn (both female in this rendition). The music builds tension throughout the story and then breaks it, perfectly, in “End of the Line” (which made me cry) and “Terminus” (which made me want to put Christmas music on and dance about madly to try and shake off the horror of it. But in a good way).

It’s definitely their most pessimistic album; the first three may have had downbeat endings but there was always a thread of survival, a bit of hope that life would go on. Here, the only survivors are the Mechanisms themselves, the amoral tellers of the tale. The witness-bearers, perhaps. I think there’s something interesting going on with the ways in which Bifrost plays with its various framing devices (parts of the tale are taken from the Ratatosk‘s black box as Edda tries to work out what went on aboard the train) and its multiple levels of narration (Jonny narrating Edda narrating the black box).

All of which, as usual, is a tortuous way of saying: I liked it. You should listen to it. (At least, you should on January 29th, when it’s released to non-Kickstarters.)

Theatre Review: Les Miserables

So I finally went to see Les Miserables live on stage.

Chances are, if you’re an English-speaking Westerner, you know what happens in Les Mis, but just in case: it’s a musical, set in France, that follows an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, as he tries to escape the life of poverty and crime which is the lot of freed prisoners, running from the ultra-dedicated police inspector Javert through a broken parole, a mayoralty, and perhaps most famously a failed revolution (the June Rebellion of 1832, to be precise).

I keep being asked if the production was everything I thought and hoped it would be (being a long-time fan of Les Mis). The answer is complicated, I think: I found it impossible to get away from the preconceptions of already knowing both the story and the music (which are one and the same thing) intimately, anticipating every note and comparing it to what I’ve heard and seen before. I suppose I wasn’t quite expecting to feel like that.

At the same time, though, I think knowing the story so well opened my eyes to what this particular production (at the Queen’s Theatre in London) is highlighting about the base “text”, as it were. Unlike most musicals, which, although a lot of fun, do tend to be rather one-note, Les Mis has a decent amount of depth and nuance to play with; and I think in particular the Queen’s Theatre version brought home to me just how religious the musical is. This is a story in which the answer to the question “Is my immortal soul worth more than the worldly wellbeing of hundreds of workers?” is “Yes”. The doomed June Rebellion forms the heart of the story in many ways – musically and structurally – but ultimately the musical is more interested in Jean Valjean’s arc of religious redemption than in the fate of the students on the barricades. There’s an overwhelming sense of futility to the efforts of the revolutionaries, their defiance becoming no more than an irrelevancy in the face of the grinding forces of poverty; and though their song (“Do You Hear the People Sing?”) is transmuted by the end into a rousing chorus of affirmation, it’s a specifically religious affirmation: “For the wretched of the earth/There is a flame that never dies/Even the darkest night must end and the sun will rise.” Ultimately, salvation for the people “here below” comes only after death, in the form of divine intervention; and all our human efforts are futile.

There’s more I’d like to write and think about here, which is remarkable in itself, that something I’ve known for so long can possibly offer up more meaning. At the moment, though, I’ve got WriMoing to do.

Linkdump 21/11/16

I’m working hard on my novel for NaNoWriMo, as well as trying to complete my reading challenge for 2016 (I’ve got a good 10 books to go before the end of the year, which is…scary), so I’ve not had much time to watch or read new stuff.

So, today, just a linkdump of stuff that’s been distracting me on the Internet lately.

  • Queers in Love at the End of the World – a powerful piece of interactive fiction that I honestly and truly cannot get out of my head. It takes just ten seconds to play, but I’d recommend going around a few times at least. A story about love and affirmation and queerness that made me cry.
  • Angry Chef – “exposing lies, pretension and stupidity in the world of food”. Says it all, really. This is a great blog to read if, like me, you’re bored of endless tales of people around you going on pointless diets when what they really need to be doing is eating a healthy balanced diet.
  • Ferretbrain, one of my perennial sources of procrastination, has been running a very detailed and well-researched series on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the first of which is here. I am in awe of how people with jobs have the time to do this sort of thing.
  • Strange Horizons has had a facelift! It now no longer looks like it was built in the 1990s. I do like the new look, but I miss the simplicity of the old one – it was much easier to tell with the simpler interface which things I hadn’t read yet. But then I am a grumpy person who does not like change that much.


  • Three Rows of Teeth – Tom Slatter. Described as Genesis meets Doctor Who, which seems pretty near the mark; it sounds like the idealised Doctor Who I have in my mind, the show that’s good at tragedy and adventure and epic stories of loss and time (as opposed to the real Doctor Who, which is frequently sexist and full of stupid ideas and wobbly sets). I particularly like “The Time Traveller Suite” – I am a sucker for prog-rock symphonies of its kind – especially the second song, “Rise Another Leaf”.
  • Crypts and Codes – Psyche Corporation. Gothic cyberpunk that’s full of machines and feminist revenge. Musically, it’s on the electronica side of rock (I think?? Musical terminology is not my thing), although “Lost My Love” almost sounds Tudor. My favourite track at the moment is “Oh”, which is as good an Angry Song as I can think of.
  • Counterpoint – Jason Webley. I have to be careful how much Jason Webley I listen to, because it has a tendency to make me cry. Anyway, Counterpoint, which features “twelve songs in twelve keys”, all sung in Webley’s husky dark-folk style, is catchy and heartbreaking all at once.