This morning started with an experiment. I waited until I was alone and then plugged up my ears. First came Nick Cave and then came Kiri Te Kanawa singing the ‘Un Bel Di’ aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Then Cave, then Kiri, then Cave… and so on until I looked at the clock and thought I should get on with writing this. The reason behind the experiment lay in last night’s performance of Tristan and Yseult by Kneehigh Theatre, which intermixes live music with recordings of Wagner’s opera and, most notably, Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s ‘Sweetheart Come.’
During the televised screening of this year’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition – which, for those who do not know, is basically a prestigious X-Factor for opera and BBC 4 fans – several people tweeted sentiments to the tune of ‘Love opera, but always fear for the singer’s mental health’. The idea being that opera is great, but only if you like your heroines suicidal and your heroes unhinged. I guess they were also assuming that the operatic repertoire is unique in holding the highest scores on the dramatic and romantic scale. Wake up to Radio 3 every morning – as I do – and you can exist in a bubble where Wagner is still as pressing a discussion point as Mohamed Morsi, but venture a little further into the world and you cannot help but admit that opera is no longer at the cutting edge of culture. Does this also then mean that overblown sentiment and heart-fucking chords are extinct from modern music and theatre?
Of course not (says Baz Luhmann). A good old fashioned love story never grows old – which is why we are here in 2013 watching Tristan and Yseult, is it not? But sometimes it helps to have good examples to cement this to, or it may look like we just re-stage old plays out of a lack of imagination. Kneehigh Theatre, in a moment of genius, chose Nick Cave. Which, along with the miniature packet of Love Heart sweeties in the programme bag, was a cunningly simple way of winning applause from this critic. I have always dreamed of a publication existing where one could use a headline like ‘Is Nick Cave the new Wagner?’ That publication doesn’t exist, and even if it did, I would probably chose Tchaikovsky or Puccini in the headline as a way of avoiding discussions of National Socialism. Back to the point. The songs of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the stories told in them are, in many ways, similar to those in opera and this is partly because they have similar characters – Polly with her black hair, Yseult with her white hair – and partly because we deliberately seek out both when we want to spend evenings – or mornings – wallowing in the dramatic gloom of the notes.
Tristan and Yseult has, as a tale with disputed origins, been subject to continual reincarnations, including Wagner’s opera, and Kneehigh Theatre’s version is in itself yet another (excellent) re-telling. It is, though, with their choice of music that they really provide the best proof that we will never get bored of hearing of a broken heart and creating beautiful art from it.