Review: The Moderate Soprano by David Hare at Duke of York’s Theatre, London

David Hare’s play The Moderate Soprano tells the story of the origins of Glyndebourne, dispelling the many myths that surround the iconic location.

It’s a haphazard story too – pre-war aspirations of a moneyed man who brings three refugees from Nazi Germany back to pre-war Britain to produce Glyndebourne’s first season. What they achieve is rescuing Britain’s operatic tradition (such as it was) from a reputational low, bringing to bear their considerable experience of the European tradition of opera. You know, introducing novel ideas like stage directors, the separation of art from business, and auditions for principal roles. 

In that way, the play shines a light on the beginnings of arts administration. The painful tussles and awkward indignance are nothing in comparison to the painful truth David Hare reveals in his narrative: England just wasn’t really very good at opera in the 1930s. There was very little tradition to speak warmly of.

That it took three refugees to introduce standard practice is something even the arts seems to have conveniently forgotten to make a big song and dance about (boom tish, etc). That Hare wrote the play before the outcome of the referendum makes the play topic, painful and lip-bitingly awkward.

 

Photos: Johan Perrson

Timelines intertwine with cracking jibes at the moneyed elite, their need to be seen to be patrons, and our ignorance about the art form, its exponents and its demands.

Hare makes us feel sorry for Christie and his wife, full of good intent and unrealistic expectations. Those individuals who bring Glyndebourne to life are given the respect they and others like them are long overdue. Our cultural identity is down to those who found sanctuary here. And after that they went on to establish other institutions, like the Edinburgh Festival – was that point ever made clear during the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh International Festival last year? Not that I recall. 

The play is a great signpost for UK cultural history too, contextualising private patronage alongside post-war publically-funded arts provision. It reminds us of the many things we take for granted. That Hare's play is hosted at the Duke of York's Theatre across the road from one of those Arts Council funded institutions – English National Opera – its difficult not to see The Moderate Soprano as a lesson in arts management history.

Roger Allam shines effortlessly in the role of Glyndebourne founder John Christie. Nancy Caroll switches from the 1930s to her dying days 20 years later with ease, striding about the stage with wit, resolve, and empathy when the need arises. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Rudolf Bing cuts a dashing handsome figure, with a clipped Austrian accent to match. Jane Smith, Paul Jesson and Anthony Calf completes what is an extremely hard-working ensemble put under considerable demands. The last scene lingers a little. The concluding vignette feels a little tacked on the end. 

If you're interested in or work in arts administration you must go and see this. If you're interested in opera then you must go and see it. And if you're in any way bothered by the lies and deceit put out before, during and still after the referendum then you should go and see it as well. 

David Hare's The Moderate Soprano runs from 6 April – 20 June

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