Culture Column 4: Tom Tryon

TOM TRYON writes a match report… on the opera.

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In the fourth of our weekly Culture Columns, Tom Tryon, our Sports Editor, goes over all operatic. 

“Visit at least half of the colleges. Go to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Punt to Grantchester.”

The Master was using his halfway hall speech to reel off a list of things we ought to have done by the time we left. They all seemed reasonable. Then he said ‘Opera’. Opera? Why would I want to go to the opera?

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of opera is Pavarotti belting out Nessun Dorma at Italia ’90. I wasn’t there, but we’ve all seen it played back every time Italy do well in the World Cup.


So it was with some scepticism then that I turned up at West Road for the Cambridge Opera Society’s performance of Die Fledermaus. With me were two friends who had, like me, never been to an opera. I asked them what their first impressions were when we sat down: Mark liked the bat-wings coming off the curtains. Killian just liked the curtains.

The (perhaps ignorant) preconceptions I had of opera were reinforced by the swathes of grey hair that were on show in the audience. The stewards wore white tie and lilac sashes, which had a similar effect, but a closer inspection reassured me that there were a fair amount of students in the room after all.

The lights went out and everyone started applauding. A bit premature, I thought, but I went with it. Then it began. A fantastic piece of music erupted from the dugout, and we sat in the dark listening to violins racing up and down the octaves.

When the performers came on stage we were greeted by a maid singing in a regional accent as consistent as Anne Hathaway’s. But it picked up, and a plot was developing. It was actually very funny; full of adultery, infidelity and pesky Italians. My problem with musicals is that I don’t see why you have to sing your lines when you could speak them. But when the singers combined, it worked in an enchanting way. The singing complemented the music, and the humour really shone through.

The pesky Italian was definitely a highlight, but the director did what no good manager would do: took off her best player at the interval. It’s like being 1-0 up after 30 minutes and taking Messi off. He didn’t appear again until the final third, apparently having been in some sort of sin-bin in the intervening time.

Despite the promising start, the second sector disappointed. We found ourselves in a cross-dressing Russian oligarch’s lavish swingers’ party; it seemed the perfect environment for hilarity. But then all the party guests erupted into a chorus. It became a bit like a musical, and the dodgy dancing didn’t help. Someone smashed a champagne glass though, which provided some entertainment. Mark thought it was supposed to be ‘ironic’. Killian fell asleep.

Messi was warming up on the sidelines though and made a re-appearance for the final showdown. A cockney jailor appeared in an odd, but comical, sequence where he took the piss out of opera. It was refreshing, and the rest of the opera was just as good as the first act.

Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I go again? Maybe.

My problem with it is that the story was set in a ridiculously upper-class scenario which is difficult to relate to. True, Downton Abbey did it, but there has to be a case for making the plot more relevant and engaging. Nevertheless, the music was brilliant, the singing was similarly impressive and there was lots of laughter. It’s not a stuffy, self-absorbent pastime, but I didn’t feel it was making much of an effort to break out of that stereotype.

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