After reading an article in the FT´s magazine about typography fonts and how critical they are to communications between the ultra-cool (”I would never date a girl who used Times Roman” says a shocked young IT blood) I realise that from now on any blog worth its consonants simply must be written in Helvetica Neue. So, font dudes, I´ve become one of you….
Musing on other thorny issues – these somewhat more at the forefront of my mind – it’s interesting to return the reviews for our new Fidelio production and to revisit the whole difficult issue of how we evaluate culture. In terms of the main Norwegian newspapers, we had one very thoughtful, very fine review and another which absolutely slaughtered us. One newspaper sent a writer with no specialist knowledge who was very happy, but by and large cut and paste the programme notes, and to date, the international press has been wonderful.
Measuring art and performance, though, involves of course a great deal more than media comment. It comes down to emotion, taste, intellectual reaction, excitement, context – all the things which in terms of formal evaluation simply cannot be reduced to a tick in a ’yes or no’ box. This morning I read a piece from a Tel Aviv commentator who was trying to write a report on a new dance work by Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. Exasperated, he concluded ” I’ve seen two full runs of the show, one in the studio and one onstage, and they have left me starry eyed and breathless every time.” I doubt if the report commissioners, clutching their clip-boards and eager for statistics on the increase in downtown bednights and increased economic impact will count that amongst their achievement markers.
As everyone knows, who has struggled to explain to their funders that a full hall does not necessarily mean that a performance was a success, it is extremely hard to quantify quality. Small cities – even large ones without very persistent creative pioneers – know what they like in terms of music, music theatre and opera. They´ve been comfortable with certain staple classics for decades, and each time these favourites come round they are ’even better than last year’. It´s astonishing how right-minded, intelligent city officials, working daily with international business issues, still become sheepish, and shut down their considerable powers of assessment when confronted with anything different. Take our production of Tan Dun´s Marco Polo, which opened Bergen International Festival earlier this year. The other week I was told – and with some triumph – by a senior departmental executive ”Well, I was just thinking ’what on earth is this? – then I turned to the head of an art museum next to me, and he said ’well, search me!’”. The head of an art museum, who daily looks at a vast range of contemporary art and boasts about bringing innovate young artists to his city? Shame on you.
But it is a fact. We all happily confront new abstract or surprising art works, new films, new radical novels and even new theatre without flinching. We are unembarrassed about commenting or having a strong reaction in terms of the quality or subject matter. It would be unthinkable not to be excited by new design in technology. New music or opera, though, seems to turn us into squirming children hiding in our mothers’ skirts rather than using our natural powers of discernment. Is it the etiquette of the opera house or concert hall? – that we have to sit quietly in our seat, penned in by others who seem to know far more than we do? For sure, with the new picture, tablet or book, we are in our own space, and possibly clutching a comforting cup of coffee. So why does our curiosity vanish when faced with musical ’arty stuff’?
Perhaps it´s because we are dealing with feelings – never a comfortable subject for us Northerners. It´s impossible to discuss the impact in real terms of music and opera without exploring how it makes you feel. Yes, you can count the numbers, the amount of employment the performance generated, quote the reviews, measure the diversity of the audience, but ultimately the quality of the work can only be judged by the emotional and intellectual response. Did it touch you, inspire you, provoke you, teach you, change you?
Now back to journalists – that bad Fidelio review. I really must check what font he was using. It could explain everything.