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Royal Opera House at night, Photography: Peter Suranyi
Criticism now, led by Professor Mark Turner, Professor of Nineteenth & Twentieth-Century Literature, and Professor Andrew O’Hagan, a Creative Writing Fellow in the Department of English, sought to interrogate the nature of cultural criticism in the present day.
They found that, on the one hand, there is a thriving, if predictably unchallenging, ‘review culture’ which drives the arts pages of the mainstream press. On the other, there are increasing numbers of blogs and other forms in which opinions get expressed. What may be lacking, however, is a more considered forum for interrogating culture more extensively based on different kinds of engagement with institutions and their performances/exhibitions.
The landscape of mainstream cultural criticism has changed dramatically in recent years. With the rise of the internet and related new media forms (blogs, tweets, and other forms of self-publishing), it is a commonplace to assert that ‘everyone is a critic'. To some extent, innovative forms of cultural, critical engagement can meaningfully take their place alongside more traditional print and broadcast forms.
The project sought to place within institutions a writer in residence, who became familiar with all aspects of a production or exhibition, from development through to delivery. The idea was to embed a writer (importantly not a conventional reviewer or similar, and not a specialist in the art form), with the curiosity to want to learn more about the work of the institution and the desire to communicate their ideas through critical engagement and expression. The project relied on developing medium- to long-term relationships with institutions, building trust and dialogue in ways that are often not present in how criticism is understood.
Some of the project’s key questions were:
The film reviews the aims and scope of the Criticism now project, describes the collaboration between academics and cultural sector practitioners, and presents some findings and recommendations for future working.
Dr Ruth Padel was the second writer in residence for Criticism now, after Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, on a two-month project that took place at the Royal Opera House. During the residency, Ruth watched rehearsals and performances for the Faustian Pack series that took place in March and April 2014 in order to think about ways in which the theatre space and music of opera reflect each other.
Rehearsals for The Crackle with the Youth Opera Company, potography: Royal Opera House and Stephen Cummiskey, 2014
The Royal Opera House has two performing spaces, the traditional main stage and the smaller Linbury Studio Theatre, for more intimate contemporary work. In the spring of 2014 the ROH rehearsed three works based on themes explored in the Faust legend. They commissioned two modern operas for the Linbury, linked to a simultaneous large-scale production on the main stage: David McVicar’s production of Gounod’s Faust and two new operas were created by two different contemporary composers, Luke Bedford and Matthew Herbert titled Through His Teeth and The Crackle respectively. Marrying the ancient story with contemporary technologies, Luke's Through His Teeth began in a television interview after a high-profile fraud trial. Matthew's The Crackle opened in a school classroom and uses Chirp, an iPhone/Android app that turns pictures on your mobile device into sounds.
Rehearsals for The Crackle with the Youth Opera Company, photography: Royal Opera House and Stephen Cummiskey, 2014
Ruth watched rehearsals for these three Faust operas and wrote on her blog on the subject 'what is an opera?'. She then on tweeted about what she had experienced, hoping these online platforms would bring new readers and listeners to think about opera not as 'museum art' but 'living art'. Some of the questions Ruth explored on her residency include what opera is, why it is needed it in the twenty-first century and how the public can respond to it.
Over the two-month period, Ruth spoke to and interviewed various people whose work all goes into making an opera successful, including designers, directors, conductors, composers, singers, lighting engineers, stage managers and stage hands. She wrote pieces in the Royal Opera House programmes to give audiences an idea of what happens behind the scenes and she accompanied King's students from the Departments of Music and English to select dress rehearsals, subsequently holding a seminar to allow the students to discus how they felt about the opera rehearsals. The seminar was successful in bringing in different expertises to the discussing of opera. It showed that although opera has its own knowledge, language, and sophistication, it is possible for open minded people with no background knowledge of its traditions to critique it.
Sian Edwards conducting in rehearsal for Through His Teeth with The Royal Opera, Photography: Royal Opera House and Stephen Cummiskey, 2014
Dr Ruth Padel is a British poet, novelist, conservatist, critic and author. She is a Reader in Poetry in the Department of English at King's and has published nine poetry collections, a novel, and eight books of non-fiction including three on reading poetry. Her most recent book The Mara Crossing/ON MIGRATION is a mixed-genre meditation on migration in prose and poetry.
Her awards include first prize in the UK National Poetry Competition, a Cholmondeley Award from The Society of Authors, an Arts Council of England Writers’ Award and a British Council Darwin Now Research Award for her novel Where the Serpent Lives.
She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Member of the Bombay Natural History Society, Ambassador for New Networks for Nature, Patron of 21st-Century Tiger and Council Member of the Zoological Society of London. In 2009 she became the first woman to be elected professor of poetry at Oxford University and has been poet in residence at various institutions and events including: the Henry Wood Promenade Concert, at Somerset House in London where she ran an acclaimed series of writers’ talks at the Courtauld Gallery, at Christ’s College Cambridge, for the Environment Institute, University College London, and currently for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
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Exploring how to interrogate culture less reactively and more profoundly
Interrogating the nature of cultural criticism in the present day
Exploring various productions and interpretations of the opera Faust