Once you enter the opera house or concert hall, what’s the first thing you do? Collect your ticket from the box office? Deposit your coat into the cloakroom? I wouldn’t mind betting that you then dutifully queue to purchase a programme for that evening’s performance. What do you get for your money? Attending many performances, I collect a vast number of programmes over the season. As a critic, most of mine are provided free, but that doesn’t prevent a sense of frustration at what the public is offered. It’s a subject which has niggled away for some time, but was brought to a head this summer.
Picture the scene: I was at The Globe, where the Carducci Quartet performed Shostakovich’s string quartets in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death. All 15 strings quartets spread across four concerts, a marathon undertaking (for performers and audience alike) starting at 11am, finishing a good ten and a half hours later. What were we offered by way of a programme? What did you get for your £3.50?
A 10-page programme, of which a single (mini) essay of 1½ pages proved entirely inadequate. David Fanning was barely given enough space to put the quartets into any sort of context; indeed, some of the works didn’t even merit a mention. It was a good job that several members of the audience had provided their own material – I spied CD booklets, reference books, people scrabbling on their mobile phones, all searching for some gobbet of information about the music. The quartet’s leader did offer spoken introductions to some of the works – something I welcome performers undertaking – but they should not replace written notes.
So what made up the rest of the Globe’s programme? Apart from an archive photograph of Shostakovich, we had two pages with concert times and works, one page listing the members of the quartet(!), a one-page biography of the quartet, a two-page spread with a colour photograph of the quartet, followed by a page advertising future Globe concerts, and a page listing The Globe’s admin staff. Very nearly a complete waste of money.
Hands up! How many of you have knowingly heard the music of Turkish-Armenian composer Dikran Tchouhadjian? I thought not. In the week following the Carducci Quartet concerts, I attended the UK première of Tchouhadjian’s opera Gariné at Grimeborn Festival. Pre-publicity had tantalisingly referred to the composer as “the Armenian Verdi” or “the Ottoman Offenbach”, but this was an opera about which the vast majority of the audience would have been entirely ignorant. The (free) programme slip enlightened us not a jot. Not only was there nothing about the composer of the circumstances in which the opera was composed/performed, there was nothing about the version in which director Gerald Papasian had created and – crucially – no synopsis. The booklet’s only redeeming feature was the inclusion of cast photos, which (from a reviewing point of view) at least enabled accurate identification of cast/roles. Not a great advert for Grimeborn, I’m afraid, where the organisation and promotion of the 2015 season was abysmal.
Ballet audiences are also poorly served. The programme for St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s two week residency at the Coliseum was nothing but a glossy photographic shrine to prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova, while the programme to Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide came at a whopping £10 – an expense I refused to pay. Unfortunately, Coliseum staff had been instructed only to provide cast sheets inserted inside the programme. I still don’t have the foggiest idea as to which dancers I saw! Sadler’s Wells’ programme for The Car Man was better: £5 for a book full of glossy photos of the production and artist biographies. It also contained an interesting interview with Matthew Bourne about the work and its genesis. There was no plot summary, but this was deliberate, Bourne not wanting to spoil the ‘thriller’ plot for audiences.
What do I look for in a programme? I want the works and performers listed and I want some notes about what I’m going to see or hear. If it’s a stage work, an essay or two putting the opera/ballet into context is desirable. The Royal Opera usually includes an article about the work’s performance history, which can be useful. Artist biographies are of limited interest when they consist of a list of which roles are in their repertoire or which companies they’ve worked with – give us something more interesting, please! The BBC Proms seem to strike the balance quite well. Notes about the music are generally well written, the further reading/listening guides are helpful, plus texts and translations are usually included.
What is an appropriate price? Festivals usually sell a single programme book for the season. They’re glossy affairs, beautifully illustrated and often containing worthwhile essays (although not always). This year’s Glyndebourne Festival Programme came in at £20. This is costly if you’re only attending one of the operas in the season, but can be a lovely memento of a special evening out. Opera Holland Park’s festival programme comes in at just £8.50, which is much more reasonable.
In some places, programmes are given away. In the past year, I’ve noticed free programmes in New York and Bogotá, plus – of course – the LSO at the Barbican. There don’t seem to be a greater percentage of adverts in LSO programmes, so I’m not sure how they’re funded, but they are informative and do the job nicely. I accept that advertising is part and parcel of a programme, although I was amused to see a Wigmore Hall song recital in July contain no less than four adverts for events which had already taken place.
So what was the best programme I encountered all summer? In August, I attended my first Premier League football match, to watch my beloved Bournemouth at Upton Park. West Ham’s programme cost just £3.50 and I was pleasantly surprised at just how packed it was with information, statistics and interviews. If we’re sticking to music, though, Welsh National Opera’s compact programme book for Peter Pan stood out as the best. Costing £5 and covering WNO’s summer season of three operas, it was printed on good quality paper and featured: a cast list; full synopsis; a conversation between composer, librettist and director; an essay about Barrie’s Peter Pan; a Guardian article “Wonderland and Neverland”; further explorations; plus cast biographies printed large enough so you could actually read them. It is a model of its kind and one that others would do well to replicate.