There’s someone out there, listening to me. I know it. You dont believe me, but its true.
Thus might a composer well address a concerned friend or parent.
On this occasion, however, the speaker was Michael Corley, a man whose surveillance conspiracy theory occupied several corners of Usenet in the early 1990s. Collecting a small community of correspondents, ranging from credulous and sympathetic to downright sarcastic, the paranoid Corley issued frequent postings about the personal insults allegedly levelled at him by newsreaders, radio presenters and random members of the public. Strangest of all, these ill-wishers seemed to Corley to be privy to the goings-on in his apartment. His television watched him back. His radio listened to him. But no one could find the bugs.
The true story of the unfortunate Corley has been made into an opera, or rather semi-opera, by the composer Tim Benjamin. Having retrieved acres of Corley correspondence from Googles Usenet archives, Benjamin and his librettist Sean Starke have crafted a dialogue in which Corleys rantings and the responses of his correspondents, identified on stage only by their clunky, early 90s-style email addresses (or in one case, as the sinister, disembodied, “email protected”) form a well-defined dramatic arc. Corley sits centre stage, hidden behind a desk crammed with recording paraphernalia and his computer. His face is projected, close-up, on a giant screen, while the other characters sit aside, blinking under harsh lights.
Operas have always been about key societal myths. From Orfeo and the myth of the transcendence of the human condition through art, to La Traviata and the idea that patriarchal society is both undermined and redeemed through its “fallen” women, operas have provided culture with one of its clearest and most powerful mirrors, if also one of its most highly gilded. In the present case, the myth of universal surveillance and the slow crushing of individual autonomy by the security services is one of the most persistent, prominent and most necessarily examined of our age.
At worst, of course, the surveillance myth — as expressed, for instance, in our countrys idiotic mistrust of identity cards — is simply a bathetic attempt to accord our actions and thoughts with a greater significance than they possess. On the flipside, however, societys collective paranoia can be read as a protest against a deeper, more real collapse of freedom through the atrophying of the collective imagination, the fracturing of community and the commodification of every last shade in our emotional spectrum. The idea of freedom has no meaning when the market for action has bottomed out.
Quite perfect, then, that a story about the profound, dehumanising suffering of a sad little man should be set to music. For there is no art better suited to portraying the fracturing of mankinds relation to its social environment than the astringent tones of post-tonal classical music. Its broken, cracked lyricism speaks more profoundly to contemporary humanity than any other artform. Or it would, if there were anyone listening.
Every year, opera houses spend millions of pounds redressing the great works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fine-tuning their musical mythologising to todays audiences. This is great work, work thats necessary to impose a little clarity on our hoarding, bag-lady culture.
But it would be good, too, if a little more of this money went on new works, using new music to address the myths we urgently need to confront today.
In the meantime, Corley’s story is one that needs to be told, and it is told using music that needs to be listened to. The last performance is tonight. If youre in London, if youre listening, go.