Wednesday, February 08, 2012

What the Dickens?

Yesterday was Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. At last the UK has seen fit to celebrate one of its own great writers - normally it has to be sports, royalty or pop culture over here - and there's been some great material to read in various papers, plus talks and essays by Dickens's latest and possibly best biographer, Claire Tomalin - such as this, in which she wonders what he'd have made of 21st-century London.

But what about the music? Why isn't there more music inspired by the works of Dickens? Oliver!, of course, is one of the most popular of all British musicals, which shows it can work [PS - glad to say that my old school friend's youngest son is about to take on the title role in the West End!] - and this year's other big anniversary boy, Claude Debussy, wrote a completely enchanting prelude entitled 'Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq.' Here's Pollini playing it:

Now, there are a few Dickens-based operas kicking around, with varying degrees of obscurity. But why aren't there more?

I suspect many and varied reasons for this. First of all, to create a good opera you have to strip a story down to its bare bones and use as few words as possible - not least because it takes such a long time to sing them. Dickens is all about words. And all about complexity, with layer upon layer of character and cause and effect. It would be difficult to leave things out because sometimes even the smallest incident can prove a vital cog in the whole great wheel of Dickensian fortune - much as it can in life. Next, Dickens is frequently satirical - and opera is not often very big on satire, unless it is Gilbert & Sullivan or Offenbach, in which case it's dismissed as "light". Thirdly, and very crucially, Dickens is true to life in the sense that his finest characters are multifaceted and well-rounded: he does create some of the best literary villains of all time, but even then you can see why they are as they are, where they come from, what has shaped the attitudes that turns them into villains.

Still, none of this is a reason not to try. There is still time for the Great Dickens Opera

My fantasy Dickens opera would be A Tale of Two Cities by Poulenc. (No doubt Solticat's would be A Tale of Two Kitties by Milhaud...) What's yours?