As voice traverse the extremes of emotion, opera remains an extravagant art even when produced on a shoestring. Humphrey McQueen wonders whether technology will nourish new audiences for live performances or accelerate the tred to personalised pleasures.

Extravagance at a discount
Main-stage opera is in trouble all over the world. London's Covent Garden has become a Soap Opera House, with its chief executive playing Lady Macbeth long after her curtain had fallen. In New York, the Metropolitan is losing subscribers to old age and to AIDS, but augmenting to its benefactions. State funding in the East Europe collapsed with the centrally planned economies. Budget pressures in a re-united Germany threaten closures or at least amalgamations. Absorption of the Victorian State Opera into Opera Australia poses questions about the viability of the three State-based companies.

One Nation's plan to pay for its funny-money schemes by slashing $80m. in arts expenditure from the Queensland budget is an indication of how vulnerable culture is to economic irrationalists. The alternative favoured by the economic rationalists is to seed the sponsorship that dominates the arts in the US. Australia has less of a tradition of giving because the biggest money is off-shore. Moreover, the Australian Financial Review's Magazine for June reported that corporations are demanding a return on every dollar equal to what they would expect from advertising. One consequence is that ABC simulcasts from Opera Australia have been suspended because Channel 7 has replaced ESSO as the principal sponsor.

Crises, however, offer a chance for renewal. The expense that bars the touring of mainstage productions is an opportunity for regional companies such as  Conbrio which delighted Canberra audiences with Cimarosa's Secret Marriage, continuing a policy of offering non-standard works. By contrast, the peripatetic Co*Opera has been building its audiences from Tennant Creek to Charters Towers with Butterfly and Figaro.

The financial upheavals in East European have set a multitude of singers free to travel and anxious to earn, making the Nineties the decade to sign the basses needed for the Russian repetoire. As the Australian dollar declines, our troupes will be outbid even for unknowns. We already draw on New Zealand for tenors and basses, and perhaps will rely an impoverished South Pacific and East Asia.

Two US books that epitomise different approaches to audience-building arrived as gifts. One is Paul Gruber's The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera (Thames and Hudson, 1993) possession of which has left me wondering how I managed without a copy, like not owning a Slonimsky. This New York survey is a counter to the English prejudices of the Penguin Guides when selecting a CD. While the latter gives its rosette to the 1962 EMI Cosi, lauding Schwartzkopf's Fiordiligi as 'glorious ... incomparable', the reception in New York decries her 'fussing and whimpering and meowing, which surely nobody would mistake for interpretation'. As a short course to the characteristics of fine performance, the Metropolitan Guide is relevant more to home listening than as preparation for theatre going.

Opera for Dummies is at the opposite end of the spectrum. This effort to attract audiences into opera houses is so uneven that I alternate between wanting to hurl it into the trash and longing to sample companion volumes on other musical forms. At its worst, Opera for Dummies deserves to be retitled 'The Dumbing of Opera'. Yet much of the content lives up to its subtitle 'A Reference for the Rest of Us!'. Rather like Bee Nilson's 1952 Penguin Cookery Book, which began with a recipe for boiling water, this introduction to opera assumes nothing and opens with a one-line definition of aria before warning women about interval queues for the lavatories.

The authors' enthusiasm is attractive. Their outlining of plots however is straightforward to the point of dullness, which they fail to overcome with sub-headings such as 'What am I, Sliced Salome?' That ham-fistedness mistakes vulgarity for popularity, and insults the kind of jocks who might be interested to find out about opera. Instead, why not enliven the summaries with the wit of Berlioz and Shaw, of Ernest Newman and Virgil Thompson? Or would their ironies would be lost on a US readership?

The package includes a CD-ROM which conducts listeners through a dozen highlights. By watching the timing track, listeners are helped to link the meaning and delivery of the words to the orchestration, as in this account of the conclusion to Die Meistersinger:

3.29 For the next several seconds, the orchestra plays a new rhythm. Listen to Sach's voice on the word Meister (at 3.43): With a huge leap down from one note to another, he really makes his point.

Once alerted to such connections, newcomers should be on their way towards discerning how music works as drama.

That low-level interactivity set me thinking about the bias of my opera surveys which concentrate on live performances - a fraction of the audience for opera. Quality recordings are available for less than the cheapest seats. In addition, when we prepare for an evening in the theatre we can select from multiple recordings or videos. As a result. we take our seats with assumptions remote from those in audiences before the 1950s when the World Record Club started to mail long-playing discs. Rolling Stone moved from CDs to computer entertainments as its readers shifted their habits and purchases, drawing in a different pool of advertisers. How long will it be before the new media do the same to 24 Hours?

Reinforcing this reflection, the biggest event in my musical life in 1998 has been a legacy of 2,503 CD titles, more than 4000 platters. I spent January listening to all the Verdis in chronological order, in as much as that is feasible given his revisions. Stiffello was the delight and surprise as FM listeners will have heard from the New York Met's broadcast on 31 May. But the most perfect sound engineering of a dream cast fails the test of extravagance, unless that term is redefined as spending a fortune on a CD library.

Both the above-mentioned guide books repeat that Die Meistersinger is Wagner's only comedy, though that work has never provided me with more than the occasional chuckle, and even those moments are choked off by the concluding chorus of chauvinism about German art. Yet one has to read only a few pages of his writings to encounter sarcasm, some at his own expense. In print as on stage, Wagner got his laughs by a suspension of sympathy, not by engaging our empathy as Verdi does. Wagner gives directors plenty of opportunities for knockabout humour in Rhinegold at the expense of Alberich, Fricka or the giants; Loge is the complete prankster. A joke in one of the Master's music-dramas is no a laughing matter.

Elke Neidhardt's production of Tannhauser for Opera Australia  set us laughing with, not at, Wagner. Her satirical touches are at the expense of 'the Philistines proper, or middle class', as Matthew Arnold wrote in 1869. Wagner was still a revolutionary in politics as well as in art when he composed Tannhauser. Even the grovelling to aristocrats and the religiosity of his later life did not improve his opinion of the bourgeoisie who Neidhardt mocks with a line of stylised potted palms in front of the song contest and the minstrel's stuffing their bellies. Their hunting is ridiculed by a pack of dachshunds. The pilgrims' duty-free bags remind us that German Protestants revolted against the Papal sale of indulgences. Perhaps Tannhauser was spurned in Rome because he did not offer enough marks.

Making an opera relevant or contemporary is not a matter of costumes or scenery. A new production succeeds when it takes us deeper into the work, or at least reveals some neglected dimensions as Neidhardt and her colleagues have done. Sets by Michael Scott-Mitchell, costumes by Sue Field, lighting by Nick Schlieper and choreography from Michael Campbell combine in an appreciation of Wagner's historically informed imagination. My sole reservation was the overuse of an aptly gross Amor to point up the vanities of both lust and love, though that underlining might be excused given the want of support from the pit.

The music of Tannhauser so stirred Baudelaire that the blood flooded to his loins even from listening to a piano transcription. Its overture, he wrote in 1861, was 'truer and more sinister' than any drunken licentiousness:

Languorous delights, lust at fever heat, moments of anguish, and a constant returning towards pleasure, which holds out hope of quenching thirst but never does, raging palpitations of heart and senses, imperious demands of the flesh, the whole onomatopoeic dictionary of love is to be heard here.

I'd wager Paris to a peanut that the only male to achieve an erection from the OA's playing was Amor, and his was a dildo. In Sydney, under Philippe Auguin, at no time did the sound swell to embrace us, or pulse with desire.

In Melbourne with Simone Young, the effect was worse, devoid of colour, not at all orchestral. She extracted better playing with the chamber music and solo passages than the ensemble; in the pit, the brass was raucous but finer when off stage. A band which can do no better than this might well be replaced by George Bolet's live recording of the Liszt transcription.

Indeed, the OA's Melbourne orchestra sounded so demoralised that it could not make its way through the overture to Cosi, a failure which grated the more because on the previous afternoon I had been diverted from my packing by ABC-FM's broadcast of the students in the Spring Academy Orchestra. Those young players demonstrated that Australia has no paucity of instrumentalists, no matter how hard we must scratch for principal singers.

Wagner's theatricality looked forward to the cinema for its realisation. Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) proposed the creation of emotionally appropriate spaces from lighting and colour. That method of visualisation was rarely utilised before Weiland and Wolfgang Wagner took it up in the 1950s to purge Bayreuth of its blood-and-soil associations with beards as long as bearskins.

Technology has now provided Neidhardt's team with a laser to bathe the stage with a plane of slimy green through which the votaries of Venus writhed. This swamp-like effect conveyed both the hell of ceaseless arousal and a heaven of spent desires. This single colour reproduced the mood that Wagner had evoked in his verse. Before a second viewing in Melbourne, I had been overwhelmed at the Mardi Gras dance party by round-the-clock laser displays which filled the showground pavilions from floor to ceiling with a succession of rainbow bridges for which Wotan would have promised all his women as well as his gold. Those pyrotechnics indicate that opera stages ain't seen nothing yet. By contrast, the Venusberg ballet was sexier than the Mardi Gras parade which is in need of a stern editor, and its Festival even more, Paul Calpsis excepted.        

Horst Hoffmann's achievements in both cities were superior to any tenor I have heard in any role in the first half of 1998. Faithful to Wagner's command that only a performer who masters the drama can produce fine singing, Hoffmann declaims out of the depths of a desperation. The rawness to his voice is of a piece to his being on the edge emotionally. His ferocity is as pitiable as his frailty is lyrical without turning maudlin.

In Sydney, Bernadette Cullen as Venus had been able to hold the stage against Maria Porcillina as her rival, Elizabeth, has too fallible a voice and is too inexperienced an actress to make virginity a source of excitement, let alone into the most aphrodisiacal of perversions. In Melbourne, the voluptuousness and vituperation of Cullen's Venus paled once Lisa Gasteen took over as the chaste maid. (Gasteen as Isolde is a consummation devoutly to be wished.) Her Elizabeth embodied the yearning that Wagner placed at the heart of Tannhauser's doom:

            ... profaning her by my presence,

            I turned on her a lascivious gaze!

Wagner foresaw that in a production that did not acknowledge the power of this temptation, Tannhauser must appear no more than an 'arbitrary, wavering miserable creature'.

Hence, decisions about how to stage of Tannhauser must work backwards from its protagonist's redemption. That denouement challenges the passions that have raged throughout. To assume that those desires are vanquished utterly is to defuse the tensions that have given this melodrama its potency. How seriously then are we to take this death-bed conversion? Well, if chastity is the moral, then his lusts die with him. The music, however, entices us down a different path. How long will it be before von Eschenbach makes a pilgrimage to Venusberg? With his adored Elizabeth dead, what is to restrain his sullying the 'fountain of delights' from which flows the 'blissful joy' that he has bottled up in praising pure love?  

Neidhardt brought a feminist sensibility to the androgeneities conceived from Wagner's marriage of drama and music. As a creator, Wagner distinguished himself from Berlioz who, he said, 'needs a poet to fill him through and through, a poet who is driven by ecstasy to violate him, and who is to him what man is to woman'.

The subtlety and intelligence of Neidhardt's achievement was pointed up by the failure of Gale Edwards to provide a single insight from her new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. The aimlessness of the whole was apparent in the banality of the particulars as when Des Grieux displayed emotion by kicking over a chair. Why had no director ever before thought of that gesture? Act III ended with a turnkey going through the motions of extinguishing the lamps, to which the lighting director paid not the slightest notice. If such insouciance is no more than this work deserves, why mount it at all?

The extravagance of opera requires more than fine singing. Otherwise,  we could save effort and money by giving only concert versions or recitals. Nonetheless, the quality of the voices is the first among equals, and nowhere is this truer than in Cosi fan tutte. Philosopher Peter Kivy described its characters as 'instruments in a sinfonia concertante, instruments with proper names ... It is almost as if Mozart had said to Da Ponte: "Write me a play for oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello'. Hence, a management should not consider Cosi unless it has six first-rate singers. Opera Australia had half that number. Amelia Farrugia was all that we expect of a Despina; it is easy to take comic devices for granted. Suzanne Johnston as Dorrabella and Stephen Bennett were reliable. David Brennan's Don Alphonso was nowhere to be heard. As Ferrando, the nasal David Hobson acted better than he sang as a metrical fluidity steered him through snatches of patter  but could not rescue the phrasing of his arias. Seizing on this weakness, a Melbourne claque broke into his 'Un'aura amorosa', indicating that their pleasure was more visual than vocal.

Again, Maria Pollicina was set an impossible task in Fiordiligi, a role contrived to flatter and at the same time to mock the vocal particularities of the mistress of Mozart's libretist, da Ponte. Her Come scoglio opens with a musical joke as she leaps over an octave. Porcillina has no bottom and so her efforts to get just below the soprano range resulted in her top notes turning tremulous. This weakness disturbs the whole plot because Fiordiligi's range has to convey the complexity of her emotions which undermines any simple-minded interpretation of the work's title. Listening to the three women should convince us that sopranos are in no sense all the same.

That everyone has off nights, including critics, confronted me after Iphigenie en Tauride in Melbourne made me reassess my strictures against Michael Gow's direction and the Chunky Moves choreography. In the January 24 Hours I grizzled that crucial moments in the drama had been spoilt Iphigenie's recognition of her brother was diverted by her removing an apron and Pylade's lamentation disrupted by the dancers' overturning beds. Neither seemed so intrusive in Melbourne. I apologise if those judgements were mistaken. The possibility that the production has been amended is too much responsibility for any critic.

Pylade's long parting kiss on Oreste's mouth provoked one Melbourne commentator to fear that a sexual liaison was being insinuated. To my eye, the impulse was psychologically true as an expression of the sacrifices that Pylade was prepared to offer his prince. The refinements that Anthony Elek brought to his intensity left the audience to ponder whether Pylade had surprised himself with this embrace or was putting the seal on years of sexual intercourse.

Deciding how to interpret the relationship between Oreste and Pylade merits consideration as an instance of how knowledge of the past should affect theatrical productions. Which historical attitude is apposite: that of 3000 years ago when the events supposedly happened? that of 2300 years back when they were dramatised? two hundred years ago when they were turned into an opera? or present-day scholarship about any of the above?

One mark of the changes wrought by gay liberation is that men can kiss on stage or screen without provoking the gasps of horror elicited in 1971 by Peter Finch and Murray Head in Sunday, Bloody Sunday. Yet the social movement behind that relaxation has risked turning every touching between actors into a signal of the homoerotic. Although Plato's Symposium indicates that Athenian warriors could be lovers, Oreste is a character out of a fiction set nine centuries earlier, time enough for manners to have changed more than once. Kissing between males as a form of greeting is a variable custom. Erasmus observed, during his visits to England early in the sixteenth century, that 'wherever you move, there is nothing but kisses', a practice that generations of Podsnappery have since condemned as a continental vice. Should the experience of Erasmus be applied to productions of Verdi's Shakespearian adaptations, with Macbeth kissing as often as killing?

Some greater sensation would been needed to redeem the OA's twenty-year old Macbeth, which limped where it did not creak. Not even Michael Lewis in the title role could make much of this walking corpse, though Anson Austin's Macduff revealed him as a dependable second tenor. For a start, the Scots are too genteel. The next version should follow Mel Gibson's Braveheart or John Bell's Henry IV and remember that Lady Macbeth's hands saw more water in those few scenes than the rest of her body did in a lifetime.  After that experience, I subjected myself another late 1970s production from Copley only to hear Joan Carden debut as Tosca. While her performance sounded more passionate and grace-filled than it looked, the restaging seemed tighter and sharper than at any time this decade, thanks to Cathy Dadd.

In Queensland's revival of Ian Judge's sublime production of Faust, John Wegner worked hard to carry off Mephistofeles but his timbre was never quite firm or dark enough to erase my memory of Barseg Tumanyan from 1990 in Melbourne. From that original cast, Deborah Reidel is now impressive when she moves beyond ecstasy to anguish. Even when Patrick Power's lyric tenor is slips into Irish, he retains more ping than we hear from the pin-ups.

No staged extravaganza could compete with demands to demolish the apartments rising beside Circular Quay in order to restore the view of Sydney's so-called Opera House. That the block should ever have been allowed is a warning against allowing market forces to rule. That $200-300m. of taxes should go in compensating its owners is as gross as is their having the money to buy into this area while other Australians are going without food to meet their rent - not to mention the homeless. When governments have hundreds of millions to spend on the Opera House, let them fix its acoustics, or better yet, reclaim its concert hall for opera and build a concert hall somewhere else.

David Pogue and Scott Speck, Opera for Dumies, IDG Books, $44.95.

Humphrey McQueen contributes a twice-yearly reflection on his experiences with opera.