Celebrity Composers

(Originally posted 2009)

It was perhaps predictable that, after posting a month or so ago about the forthcoming performance of Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival, my wife would buy a pair of tickets and insist we go. “I’ll be miserable”, I protested. “Either it’ll be brilliant, in which case I’ll be jealous, or it’ll be dreadful, in which case I’ll be furious”. But my objections were in vain, and off we went last night to the packed Palace Theatre.

Actually Prima Donna was neither brilliant nor dreadful, and I was neither jealous or angry. Wainwright is clearly a very talented guy, and about a quarter of the opera worked really well. OK, a lot of it sounds like Puccini, but perhaps better so than Birtwhistle, and there is after all a lot of Haydn in Mozart. A lot of other bits reminded me of no-one at all.

As for the remaining three quarters, the word which sprang to mind was amateurish. Wainwright cannot write a climax and does not know how to make the music move forward. He doesn’t always know how to write music which underscores and amplifies the (fairly melodramatic) story, often serving up the bland at what should be the most gripping moments (the suspended dominant chord when the heroine may or may not be about to chuck herself from the window ledge perhaps the most memorably dreary example). Some of his writing for voices is leaden and unsympathetic (just because tenors can sing high doesn’t mean you have to make them sing high all the time). It came as no surprise to read in the score that Wainwright had needed the assistance of an “orchestration assistant”. I read this as meaning, “Rufus doesn’t know how to score for orchestra, so we’ll get a guy in who does”.

The truly depressing thing about Prima Donna is not that it is no good at all, but that all these superbly professional people – the singers, designers, producers and orchestra all aquit themselves honourably – had been put at vast expense at the service of someone who is essentially an inexperienced amateur. Why? Because Wainwright is famous; the fact that he is famous for doing something else does not seem to have bothered the people who commissioned his piece. This is exactly the same mistake as that made routinely by the chairmen of football clubs, who appoint managers thinking that because they were good at football they must also be good at management. Bobby Charlton, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne and many others tried it and failed. The best managers in the English league on the other hand in the last few years – Fergie, Mourinho and Wenger – were all average or worse as players. The gifted player like Mark Hughes who makes a good manager is an exception.

So now as well as celebrity managers we have celebrity composers. Is Leona Lewis writing an opera? Not so far as I know. But her agent should get onto it as soon as possible, because I’m sure that the organisers of some arts festival somewhere would like to hear from her. I am available if she needs an orchestration assistant.

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