Operatic Transports

The Spectator Christmas issue, 19-26 December 2009

Opera, so they say, has the power to transport the listener on wings of sound to places beyond the imagination - on a good night at any rate. But just to keep singers, and directors, on their toes, a number of composers have, over the years, been tickled by the notion of writing specific modes of transport into the opera's storyline.

Puccini was car-mad, so you'd think he might have put one of his favourites into an opera. His first purchase was a De Dion-Bouton 5 CV in 1901 and some years later he commissioned a special off-road number from Lancia, for hunting trips. But the students in La Bohème are too poor to own a car, so the transport featured in his work is confined to the barge in Il tabarro, setting for torrid adultery and violent revenge among the stevedores of Paris. And of course there's the US ship Abraham Lincoln, which Madam Butterfly hopes to see 'One fine day' and on which Pinkerton returns, having forgotten all about his Japanese dalliance, accompanied by the nice sensible American girl he has married instead. I thought for a long time that Hindemith's opera Cardillac was about a car (well, wouldn't you?) but it turns out to the the story of a murderous goldsmith.

Ships and boats bob up all over the place. There's the ill-fated Achille Lauro, hijacked by the PLO, in John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer; the Flying Dutchman's mysterious vessel, sailed by a ghostly crew of dead men under blood-red sails; there's Peter Grimes's fishing boat; and the floating world of HMS Indomitable, with its rigid demarcation lines between Captain Vere, his officers and Billy Budd and the other sailors below decks. Britten was clearly pretty keen on boats: in Death in Venice, consumed by ennui 'n angst, von Aschenbach sets sail for la Serenissima and spends a great deal of time while there in gondolas, being taken to the Lido by a grumpy gondolier when he'd asked to go to the Riva degli Schiavoni, and trailing hopelessly after the exquisite but unavailable Tadzio.

How about spaceships? Not as far-fetched as you might think. Michael Tippett, never one to confine himself to the everyday, arranges for one to visit the traumatised child psychologist Jo Ann in his opera New Year. Aniara is another spaceship, and the title of the 1959 opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl. It's manned by a singing computer, Mima.

Quite often a composer will refer to a means of transport musically, even if it never actually appears. Richard Strauss uses sleigh bells to punctuate his heroine Arabella's musings on whether she will find her Richtige, the one's who's right for her, and to herald the arrival of her suitor, Elemer (who isn't). Later, she is feted by Viennese cab drivers at their annual ball. In another Strauss opera, the intensely autobiographical Intermezzo, the composer Storch leaves for a conducting tour and his wife Christine seeks to amuse herself in his absence by going toboganning, during which activity she collides with an impoverished Baron on skis.

Horses are quite frequently at least implied as means of carrying operatic characters to and fro. Most composers don't go so far as to expect a horse to appear on stage although, showing off as usual, Wagner expects his Valkyries to ride into action on flying horses. There are certainly plenty of horse-drawn carriages - for Manon and des Grieux to elope in (Puccini and Massenet); coaches - for Cenerentola to be swept off to the ball in (Rossini); and carts - Alfio the carter, in Cavalleria rusticana, has a very tiresome number complete with whip-crack effects about galloping around the place, always on the go, never stopping for an instant. No wonder he takes so long to cotton on to the fact that his wife has found herself amusement elsewhere.

Directors suffering from a rush of blood to the head have been known to bring horses into their productions. It's hugely anxiety-inducing and really never a good idea. Why would anyone choose to watch an auto-da-fé on horseback, as Luc Bondy thought would be effective in Don Carlos at the Royal Opera House? Screaming? Recanting? Flying sparks? Crackling logs? The smell of burning flesh? Calculated to make any self-respecting steed bolt immediately.

Jonathan Dove has written an entire opera called Flight, set in an airport, in which a storm grounds all departures, stranding assorted passengers and air crew overnight. Nixon in China opens with an aeroplane landing in Beijing, where the Nixons and Henry Kissinger disembark to be greeted by Chou Enlai. It wasn't something Donizetti dreamed up but I'm sure he'd have been greatly amused by the production of his L'elisir d'amore at Opera North a few years ago in which Dulcamara, the ultimate purveyor of hot air, makes his first entrance in a hot air balloon.

You couldn't tell the story of Anna Karenina without a train so Iain Hamilton's opera version opens at the station in Moscow and finishes of course with poor despairing Anna throwing herself onto the railway tracks. Last year, passengers at Zurich Hauptbahnhof were startled to find themselves walking through a live performance of Verdi's La traviata. with scenes set in the station's main hall, a coffee shop and on platforms. When Jonathan Kent directed The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne he updated it from the 1850s to the 1950s so the Governess, full of nervous anticipation, approached her new job at the country estate of Bly by train, looking out of the window at a Sussex landscape that might have been familiar to anyone who'd just caught the 2.35 from Victoria.

As you might expect, the Witch in Hansel and Gretel gets about by broomstick but my favourite mode of operatic transport has to be the bicycle, which Umberto Giordano sneaks into the fabulously Grand Guignol plot of Fedora. There's a mystery assassin, a chief of police, an over-excited princess, a suspected Nihilist, suicide by poison concealed in a jewelled byzantine cross and an oleaginous diplomat, De Siriex, who turns up for a villa party in the Bernese Oberland and invites one of the guests, Countess Olga, to join him on a cycling tour. They happily pedal off together.