Catholic art is in the doldrums and nihilism has filled the void

Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' installation at the Tate Britain (PA)

Last night I was extremely lucky to catch the final performance in the latest run of The Barber of Seville at the English National Opera. This has long been one of my favourite operas, and I had had tickets to see it on the night Pope Francis was elected, but alas, destiny intervened, and I never made it to the opera house that night.

Rossini is one of the most accessible composers, and the libretto of The Barber is of the highest quality, which means that the story and the characters are worthy of the music that is given to them. Jonathan Miller’s production brought out the full comic potential of this wonderful story, helped by a witty translation.

It was also great to see the opera performed in the sort of costumes that Rossini would have recognised, and not tediously updated to some other place or era, in an attempt to make a point about something extraneous to the opera’s concerns. And if all this were not enough, we were treated to the stellar performance of the charismatic baritone Morgan Pearse, in the title role. I do like opera, and this is particularly the sort of opera I like, and so I was royally entertained.

And yet, as I have remarked many a time, in the twenty-five or so years I have been going to the opera at the Coliseum and, to a lesser extent, at Covent Garden, opera in London seems to be attracting declining numbers. At the Barber of Seville I sat in the stalls – incredibly good seats in the second row, which had failed to sell at the usual price and had been knocked down for a mere twenty pounds. Gone, it seems, are the days, when operas sold out, or at least attracted a devoted following. Gone, long gone, are the days when opera was a popular form of entertainment.

I find this rather sad. Opera is in its origins a Catholic art form. First came the Mass, with its magnificent musical settings; then came the Oratorio, the religious drama celebrated in the Oratory or side chapel (St John’s in Valletta has a fine example of what an Oratory should look like.) Finally, the Oratorio lost its religious nature and became a secular drama, exiled to the theatre. But secular as opera is, the link is there to its origins in the sacred drama of the Mass, seen in the way that music expresses meaning in a way that words unaided simply cannot.

Opera, as we have heard many times, is a deeply artificial phenomenon, which is a mere statement of the obvious: it is a work of art, and it employs artifice. Artifice is a way of conveying meaning. It is not to be sniffed at. Great art communicates such meaning that you cease to notice the artifice, so great is the impact of the truth conveyed.

Liturgy too works in a way that is similar to opera. There is artificiality in liturgy. The vestments, the stylised words, these are not naturalistic. But to try and purge the liturgy of these elements would in the end, I am convinced, severely limit its impact and its ability to convey truth as well. There was, after all, nothing naturalistic or indeed ordinary about the Last Supper: it was an occasion on which the words used evoked a world of meaning that will never be easily exhausted. That is why we constantly need to pay attention to the ars liturgica and the ars celebrandi. It is also a good reason why to be a Catholic is not easily reconcilable with being a Philistine!

Rossini was born in 1792 and died in 1868: that era was hardly a golden age for the Catholic Church, it has to be said, which was contested by more or less everyone during that period. And yet the nineteenth century was also a very fertile century for Catholic music and Catholic art, the adjective intended in both the narrow sense, and the wider sense too. We now live in an age where both are in the doldrums, and where nihilism seemingly reigns supreme. There is nothing Catholic at all in the emblematic works of our time, such as Tracey Emin’s bed or Damian Hirst’s pickled shark.

One could ask where it all went wrong. Or one could look for signs of hope. My guess is that the first such signs will be seen – indeed are already visible – in new compositions, new works of art, and a renewed ars celebrandi and ars liturgica.