Journalism

Opera odyssey

June 10th, 2003

June 21st

There are two kinds of transcendent experience; sex with someone you love, and a night at the opera.

I often cry at a poem or a picture, but for me, only opera and sex are full body experiences, perhaps because they are also out of the body experiences. When Walter Pater talked about all art aspiring towards the condition of music, he was not saying that some art forms are better than others; rather he was talking about universality and immediacy.

When we make love, and when we listen to music, nothing need come between us and the moment. The experience is not dependent on language or interpretation. It is direct and immediate. We listen. We feel.

I am told that orgasm happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, where there is a small explosion on impact. The surrender and well being that surrounds us, is in part, a result of our over-active left brain taking a rest. The right brain is creativity and dreaminess. When we listen to music our right brain takes over. It feels like another world because it is one.

In the last seven days I have been to four operas; two at Glyndebourne and two at Covent Garden. I wasn’t reviewing any of them; I went because I needed the energy. I felt locked in, stuck with a book I’m writing, and I know that the best way out of that locked in feeling is to let the left brain go fallow and give the right brain a chance to do its work.

I won’t pretend I was in bliss every night, but the effect of so much music in so short a space set me thinking about the way we live our lives. Are we just too left brain for our own good?

I suspect the answer is yes.

A life of work, shopping and telly is not a life; it is a poor existence. What’s more, such a life imbalances us to the point of psychosis. To be psychotic means to be out of touch with reality. Reality, however you define it, has to be the whole picture, not only the surface. Our lives run entirely on the surface, and the breakdowns and neuroses that are so common, are symptoms of our private despair. Public despair is mounting, and it is no use blaming youth, drugs, drink, the tabloids, godlessness, etc. We have no inner life; and without an inner life, without creativity and imagination and a sense of values beyond money and fame, we cannot be happy and well.

I believe that the psyche is a self-regulating system and that it seeks wholeness. For this, we need to use both sides of our brain. All the arts are hugely helpful here, but music has a specific power; the left-brain can’t hi-jack it into narrative or interpretation, the way it tries to do with books and pictures. And music has something else too, not shared by books and pictures – music is not an object, it is always an experience.

In that sense, it is closest to theatre, and the glory of opera is that it can collide the best of theatre and music into one overwhelming moment.

Opera needs to be staged if it is to impact on us most fully, and we need new stagings if we want to keep our right brain happy.

Those who complain about theatre directors moving into opera with their modern interpretations, forget that for the music to reach us newly, the staging must allow some elements of surprise.

When we talk about a piece of work being ‘timeless’, we often mean it no longer works on us because it is so familiar. Re-setting opera, like re-setting Shakespeare, rescues the work from the comfortable zone where all familiar things end up. It offers us the chance of a new relationship. Sex with someone you love is discovery as well as familiarity. Couples stop having sex when they no longer discover each other. Love remains but excitement wanes. The same is true of art, except that we can find the place again. Part of the challenge of directing opera, is to help that happen.

Glyndebourne is committed to new productions every year, and this year, Peter Sellars and Anish Kapoor have worked together on Mozart’s Idomeneo. The result is a perfect right brain refresher. The set’s colour, mystery and wonder, make it impossible for the left-brain to busily write an obvious narrative – something the left-brain loves, – because it hates to be confused.

Well, confusion is a part of creativity; ordinary thinking first has to be destroyed before new understandings can be admitted. The journalistic/advertising role of the left-brain revels in cleverness, but takes fright at the deep and strange processes of its sister right brain. An imaginative collision of the Sellars/Kapoor kind leaves the left-brain baffled and, if we will just relax, allows the right brain the space it needs to dream the music.

Also at Glyndebourne this year is Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

Here, in the discovery of love and its consequences- is music of such power and sensitivity, that to stage it all can feel like an affront. Unlike The Ring or Lohengrin, it is not dramatic; it is an intense, internalised cycle of longing, and it fares badly with the usual Wagner clutter of Camelot-style props and costumes.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production at Glyndebourne leaves no gap for left-brain narrative to assert itself over the music. The ship, the Court, and Tristan’s castle, are all the same set differently lit. Inside this deep and disappearing oval, the claustrophobia and the romantic isolation of the lovers is perfectly realised. We are in a kind of sublime darkness; love’s impossibility as well as its triumph. If you have never seen an opera before, see this one. If you dislike ‘modern’ interpretations, this will change your mind.

And not only your mind. I cried throughout the final act, which is as it should be, and I felt afterwards utterly released and completely free. Free of the flotsam of everyday life, and released into feeling. Transcendent? Yes, and why it is worth going again and again to find such moments, even if you do not always find them.
What you will find – and I am sure of this – is that as you make more time in your life for art, you will feel better. It’s as simple as that. The explanation is obvious – half of your brain is on the right, and ignoring it is like having a lobotomy.

It may be to do with getting older, but for me, life seems less and less about ‘things’, or ‘objects’ and more and more about experience. I don’t mean the banal substitutes for experience of Reality TV, I mean the real thing; the heightened and complete moment where we can be whole.

In any case, if music is the food of love, a night at the opera will certainly improve your sex life.